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Pioneering research to fight gender-based violence

A postdoctoral fellow recounts her journey tying economic policy to social change.
Gender and Equity

“Gender-based violence is too niche. There’s very little existing data on the issue—it would be too hard to pursue as a research topic.”

That’s how her journey began. 

Karmini speaking at a podium
Karmini | Credit: Anwyn Hurxthal

From an early age, Karmini heard firsthand from her female family members and fellow students stories of “horrific” experiences of sexual harassment across India and in her hometown of New Delhi. Then in 2012, faced with the news of the Nirbhaya rape case of a student in Delhi, Karmini’s frustration peaked. “It was a game changer for me,” Karmini says. “Everyone around me lived in fear after the incident. It changed our DNA.” 

After she started her PhD in economics at the University of Warwick in 2015, Karmini began looking into the academic research around gender-based violence and harassment, only to find that there was very little—particularly on economic solutions to the problem. Should she shift her research focus to this topic that deeply inspired her? The lack of focus, funding and academic mentors on the subject posed serious obstacles. 

She grew increasingly disillusioned, academically and personally, feeling that she wasn’t compelled and motivated to move forward with her studies. “I was frustrated and angry that [gender-based violence] has been happening for so long and that no one was addressing it in mainstream economics,” she said. Watching her disillusionment grow, her family and friends encouraged her to start exploring it further, and to “give it a go.” After much introspection, she pivoted her academic focus, using the tools of economics to investigate issues around sexual harassment, gender segregation, and discrimination.

So Karmini started talking with NGOs that were working on gender-based violence with programs on the ground. She attended their workshops and observed their sexual harassment awareness trainings. She attended training sessions, collected qualitative data, talked to women on streets near campuses, and formulated research plans.

Then #MeToo happened. 

The 2017 #MeToo movement in the US catapulted public awareness and sensitivity to issues of sexual harassment and sexual assault, both in the United States and around the world. By the time #MeToo arrived in India in 2018, Karmini saw that she was ahead of the curve with her research plans already in place. “Because I had been preparing for it and thinking about it for so long,” she explains,  “right at the beginning of #MeToo, I was prepared with my research ideas. I feel like everything prepared me for that moment.” The world turned its attention to gender-based violence and research funding began to flow. She began collaborating with nonprofit Safecity, and with guidance from academic advisors and support from The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, she began undertaking a randomized controlled trial that surveyed 5,000 male and female students across three colleges in Delhi in order to understand the impact of awareness trainings on actual sexual harassment incidents reported by women in these institutions.

“It’s very important to me not to overly intellectualize this topic. I really want to start talking about solutions,” she explains. In 2022, Karmini became a postdoctoral fellow at the King Center on Global Development, opening new doors to pursue a long-held dream of convening researchers to focus on the topic of gender-based violence. She saw the need to leverage research from around the world to explore solutions in low- and middle-income countries, where the problem can be acute, and to create connections between emerging researchers and those already established in the field. Karmini explains that her King Center fellowship, “gave me the freedom, resources, traction, and access to people who would listen seriously.”

A group of conference attendees chatting
Conference attendees from around the world shared research experience and ideas. | Credit: Ryan Zhang

The resulting 2023 Violence and Harassment Against Women Conference, hosted by the King Center from November 30 to December 1 at Stanford University, and supported by Arnold Ventures and the USC Marshall School of Business, was a unique convening. Alongside Karmini, organizers Emily Nix, Assistant Professor of Finance and Business Economics at USC Marshall, and Alessandra Voena, Professor of Economics at Stanford University, brought together 13 leading researchers from 12 universities around the world, to present papers on the topic. “This conference brought together some of the best minds working on the issues of harassment and violence against women,” explains Nix. “Having everyone in a single venue, along with funders, NGO leaders, and others will hopefully allow this field to grow in a way that has an important impact on future policy in this area.”

The conference included sessions on: the economic costs of violence against women; causes of intimate partner violence; harassment at work; violence in the household; as well as policy solutions such as female help desks, targeted attitude interventions and sexual harassment awareness trainings. Karmini presented her paper “Tackling Sexual Harassment: Short and Long Run Experimental Evidence from India.” 

Conference co-organizer Voena describes Karmini as “a phenomenal driving force.”  Nix adds, “Karmini's research is really innovative in terms of how to address harassment. What I especially admire about her contribution and perspective is that she is also focused on finding solutions to these problems, and building a community of scholars with that goal in mind.”

All the attendees of the 2023 Violence and Harassment Against Women Conference
Over 50 attendees from around the world participated in the 2-day conference. | Credit: Ryan Zhang

As Karmini concludes her King Center fellowship and joins Imperial College London as an assistant professor of economics in January 2024, a question remains: “As a young researcher in a field that is very skewed toward publishing papers—how do you orient your energy toward policy and action-making change? For me, it’s not just about research, it's also about changing people's lives. My goal is to continue learning about this from other researchers, here at Stanford and elsewhere, who have succeeded at integrating research with social change.”

Editor’s note: The subject of this story prefers that the author refer to her by first name only due to personal considerations.