Our ‘Dual Focus PhD’ series tracks the working lives of our part-time PhD fellows. Many work at the highest of levels, both nationally and internationally — and in normal times they come to Maastricht in person for our unique PhD Dual Career Training Programme in Governance and Policy Analysis (GPAC²). This time Dr Mindel van der Laar (MvdL) caught up with Eliana Rubiano Matulevich and her supervising team composed of Prof Melissa Siegel (MS), Dr Ortrun Merkle (OM) and Dr Lisa Anderson (LA). Eliana will shortly defend her thesis on “Essays on conflict-induced displacement and gender in Colombia”.
MvdL: Eliana managed to complete her research and defend within two years and three months, the fastest in the programme and the quickest graduate in the institute. This is particularly remarkable considering she works full-time! Tell us about the writing and supervising process, Melissa.
MS: Supervising Eliana has been a dream. She was motivated, well organised and ready to move ahead from day one. I have been so impressed with her diligence, intelligence, excellent work ethic, her ability to manage her time given all of her other commitments as well as the passion she has brought to her PhD. She is indeed extraordinary concerning the pace at which she was able to complete her PhD.
ER: My technical background helped me a lot with the research process. Most of my work focuses on conducting quantitative research to inform the design of development programmes at the World Bank, so I had a sense of where to start with the data analysis. However, the classes at Maastricht made a massive difference for me to think about research in a more structured way. During the first workshop, I presented a broad idea of what I wanted to do. Still, the feedback that I got from professors and researchers quickly helped me find a niche and develop a sound proposal. Equally as important was to find an excellent supervisory team. They continuously encouraged me; they were supportive of my efforts and gave me detailed feedback and answer my questions. I felt genuinely appreciated from day one and had the chance to grow a lot.
Finally, I was fortunate to have the support of my supervisors and teammates at the World Bank. During the second year of my PhD, I was invited to include my fourth paper in the research programme funded by UK Aid on the gender dimensions of forced displacement, which allowed me to work extra hours on the data analysis and finalise the write-up. I also got feedback from various experts in the conflict and gender fields, which combined with the workshops at Maastricht and guidance from my supervisors, which all helped me improve the overall dissertation quality.
LA: Eliana made the life of her supervisors very easy. She was always one-step ahead with planning, delivering drafts and addressing comments. The speed did not compromise the quality of the work and we could always count on receiving very advanced, innovative and high-quality input. In short, Eliana has been a dream PhD candidate from a supervisor’s perspective.
OM: Eliana did not only do her PhD alongside her work, but she also managed to be incredibly productive while having little children and dealing with all the restrictions of the pandemic. Eliana was quite efficient with her time. We typically had meetings very early in the morning as she was utilising the time before her family woke up. Having an all-female supervisory team, Eliana also had to manage with two of her supervisors going on maternity leave whilst still writing her PhD. None of this slowed her down. By keeping to her timeline and having clear and regular communication with us, she managed to complete the process in record time.
MvdL: The PhD thesis, titled “Essays on conflict-induced displacement and gender in Colombia”, touches upon a sensitive and vital topic. Tell us about your research
ER: Many reports highlight that women and men’s experience of and response to conflict-induced displacement are highly differentiated. However, few studies in the economics literature consider gender-specific effects, partly due to the lack of available data. Evidence in this area is needed to understand the associations between the socio-economic characteristics of displaced persons, poverty, and vulnerability and to inform policy responses that create durable solutions.
I contribute to the literature by applying a gender lens to the empirical analysis of the impacts of conflict-induced displacement. I build on evidence from various academic disciplines to estimate the effects of displacement on household structures, poverty, and gender norms. I study the case of Colombia, my country of origin and home to the second-largest internally displaced population in the world.
The findings can be summarised in four points:
- First, conflict-induced displacement in Colombia accelerated reductions in household size and increased the prevalence of single female caregivers and one-person households. Some of these changes are driven by marital separations resulting from tensions associated with traditional gender roles within the household.
- Indeed, the second key finding is that displaced women work more hours than their male partners do. They are more likely to be the primary breadwinners in their households and more prone to participating in political activism.
- Third, displaced households are poorer than non-displaced households. However, over time, the likelihood of poverty decreases more rapidly among households that were forced to flee due to conflict. I hypothesise that these dynamics may result from a ‘catch-up’ effect, changing household structures, or improved access to social assistance. Unfortunately, despite these improvements, many displaced households remain chronically poor or vulnerable to poverty, particularly single caregivers and households consisting of multiple generations with children.
- Fourth, even though displacement is one of the worst victimisations, it can also offer opportunities to challenge gender norms around the appropriate role of women and men in society. In Colombia, gender norms that tolerate violence against women become less traditional in the context of displacement, while those that limit women’s economic opportunities become more rigid.
LA: One of many exciting contributions of the thesis is the innovative use of the Colombian panel data. Applying her quantitative skills using a dataset from her own country demonstrates the advantages that this programme brings. We are not always aware of the wealth of data in other institutions and organisations outside academia. So, bringing together policy practitioners and academia results in new and exciting research perspectives and new ways of using existing data. Eliana was able to partly integrate her research in the work that she does at the World Bank is also a great example of how the programme can build synergies between academia and other institutions.
OM: GPAC in general and working with Eliana is also an excellent opportunity for us as supervisors to learn something new. Eliana brought with her both fascinating data that we might not have seen otherwise and a wealth of policy experience. This did enrich her PhD and gave her supervisor team new things to think about and different perspectives. Combining academic rigour with policy-relevant research is a challenge that was mastered very well in this thesis and managed to get the entire team thinking about new avenues of research.
MS: Due to the fast pace of completion of this PhD, a good portion of it was written during the COVID-19 pandemic, and we were not able to see each other in person as much as we would have liked. That is why we are thrilled that we can hold the defence in person to congratulate Elaina in person while still allowing the audience to attend online.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
UNU / H. Pijpers