As part of our International Women’s Day 2020 campaign, Suda Perera (RGS 1997-2004) walks us through her exciting career as a Conflict Analyst working in war zones. And her greatest challenge? Having to switch to a role that better suited her childcare commitments.
What did you do after leaving RGS?
I went to Durham University to study Politics, and after graduating worked for UNICEF before doing a Masters in Post-War Recovery Studies at the University of York. I then worked for the Government of Rwanda’s Demobilization and Reintegration Commission reintegrating Rwandan child soldiers who had fought in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) back into civilian life in Rwanda. During this time, I became really interested in what seemed to be a lack of understanding about refugees and regional wars, especially with regard to the complex dynamics of conflict in the African Great Lakes. I decided I should probably do the research on it, and got funding to do a PhD in International Conflict Analysis at the University of Kent. For me the best part of studying conflict is the chance to speak to populations directly affected by conflict, so I was really interested in a career that gave me the opportunity to do lots of fieldwork, rather than embark on a more traditional academic career. After completing my PhD in 2012 I started working for the Developmental Leadership Program (DLP) at the University of Birmingham as a conflict analyst, specialising in conducting research with armed groups and populations under their control. In 2017, I became a mother and decided it was time to switch to a career that would better suit my childcare commitments. I spent a year as a Senior Teaching Fellow in Conflict and Migration at SOAS, University of London and now I’m a Lecturer in International Development at the University of Sussex.
Teaching in a university is quite different from being in the midst of a war zone, so how did you manage the adjustment?
In some ways it’s not all that different! The thing people don’t tell you about war zones is that most people living through wars have very ordinary lives and aspirations, which is often overshadowed by the focus on the more dramatic aspects of conflict. People often ask me if I’m scared when I go on fieldwork, and the truth is that it’s not that scary if you are sensible and take precautions. If I hear through my contacts that there’s going to be military action of some kind, I don’t do interviews that day. I’m not a journalist trying to get the most sensational headline-grabbing story, I’m trying to understand deep-rooted issues that contribute to everyday insecurity and structural violence. I think when I started, I had this idea that it would be very glamourous and dangerous; the reality is it’s neither. I don’t get to fly in on a helicopter and save the day, I just visit people in their houses or camps and ask them questions. Most of the problems I encountered in the field were very mundane, like getting stuck in the mud because the rain washed away a road, or not being able to send in reports because the internet wouldn’t work. Although they’re called armed groups, they don’t spend that much time in active combat, and I’ve not been present when anything particularly violent has happened. By contrast I now teach around 500 students from all around the world. They each have their own worries, anxieties and stresses. Some of them come from very disadvantaged backgrounds and are juggling multiple commitments on top of their studies, some of them come from very privileged backgrounds and struggle to adjust to the independence of University life. Dealing with their differing needs and pastoral care while teaching can be quite a challenge!
Before working at the University of Sussex, what was the most unusual or interesting job you’ve had?
I think the highlight of my career was working at DLP, which was a very policy-focused research job. The work was really fascinating and took me around the world studying conflicts and speaking to policymakers. I got the chance to speak to such an amazingly broad range of people – from Syrian refugees in Lebanon to the President of the World Bank in Washington DC. The job gave me the opportunity to do really long periods of fieldwork in the DRC, Jordan and Lebanon as well as coordinate big research projects across Africa and the Middle East. DLP also gave me the opportunity to become a policy-advisor and I have been called as an expert witness to the UK Parliament, the UN, the World Bank and the OECD, and advised a wide range of NGOs and donor governments as a result of the expertise I developed while I was working there. It also gave me a really good insight into how knowledge is produced and disseminated, and my current research looks at how one of the biggest battlefields of any kind of conflict is the fight for control over the narrative. In many ways a lot of the lessons learnt from my work at DLP are just as relevant to the UK as they are to the DRC.
Based on your experience, what more could be done to achieve equality in your working environment?
There’s so much more that could be done, and some of them involve changes in wider society but I think the biggest thing for me in the University sector is representation and pay equality. Within higher education female academics earn on average 15% less than their male colleagues for the same work. That needs to be addressed, and there are some brilliant people working to address that imbalance. I also think Universities need to think about who’s teaching their students. One of my students said to me in a class “If you can’t see it you can’t be it” and, reflecting on my own education at three different universities, there was a notable lack of female lecturers. At Durham I wasn’t taught by a single woman in my 3 years there. This was quite a shock for me after leaving RGS where I was taught by some really fantastic and inspiring women. Similarly, apart from one or two guest lectures during my Masters, all my lecturers were men. In my professional career, and as I’ve moved into International Development (rather than Politics and International Relations departments) I’ve seen more diversity within the faculty. I’ve been lucky enough to work under some really great women – Birmingham, SOAS and my current department at Sussex are all headed by fantastic female academics, and seeing them in top positions has been very inspiring. But most other departments are still sadly very behind the times with this – Life Sciences and Business Schools in particular suffer from a lack of diversity among faculty despite the fact that the students taking these subjects are very diverse.
What inspires or motivates you?
I’ve always been motivated by a desire to try and challenge injustice and inequality, which is something my Mum instilled in me from a really young age. She’s always been my greatest inspiration as she managed to juggle amazing careers as a doctor, scientist and artist with being the most supportive mother I know. Now that I’m a mother myself, I’m really motivated to try and set a similar example to my daughter. I’m also really inspired by my husband, who has supported me throughout my career. I think one of key things needed to address gender inequality is challenging the role that men play in society. My husband is an amazing father, and takes on a lot of childcare responsibilities which makes it possible for me to pursue my career. I know a lot of women who aren’t supported in this way, and that makes it much harder for them.
What is the greatest challenge you have had to overcome thus far?
Although becoming a mother is without doubt the greatest thing I’ve ever done, it was hard to re-evaluate my career and decide to stop being a conflict analyst. I had worked so hard for it for nearly 10 years, and coming to terms with the fact that I wasn’t going to be out in the field any more was difficult. I was due to do three months of fieldwork in the Congo while I was pregnant, and ended up deciding it was too much of a risk. I’ve always been happy to take a certain amount of calculated risks for myself, but now I’m responsible for someone else’s life, it felt too selfish to go. I definitely miss being in the field, but I work with some amazing Congolese researchers and communications technology means I’m still keeping up to date with developments even if I’m not there myself.
What would you say is your greatest achievement to date?
Definitely having my daughter! She’s really amazing. I named her Tomiri after an ancient Iranian Queen who, according to legend, led her armies to defeat Cyrus the Great. Sometimes when I’m negotiating her bedtime with her, I think I know how Cyrus felt! But she’s incredibly kind-natured, as well as confident and strong-willed and I’m very proud of her.
What would you most like to tell yourself at age 13?
Be confident in what you like doing, and don’t worry too much what others think. When I was 13, I was really into global justice. I got involved with the Make Poverty History campaign and I organised lots of collections and appeals at school. I had really amazing friends who would chip in to help me, but I think a lot of people thought it was quite weird, and I probably worried about that more than I should have because I also wanted to be popular, and I suppose it didn’t seem very ‘cool’. But I stuck with it, and now I have a cool job that I find very fulfilling, so I’m glad I didn’t let concerns over how I might be perceived when I was 13 stop me doing something I loved.
What is your most memorable moment from RGS?
There are so many great moments! But if I had to choose, it was probably my first day at RGS when I arrived not really knowing anyone, and my beautiful friend Lois sat next to me, and we became friends for life. She went on to become the most amazing mother and teacher herself, but she’s sadly no longer with us. I feel very privileged to have known her, and that never would have happened if I hadn’t come to RGS.
Follow this link to see all our Inspiring Minds activity in support of International Women’s Day 2020.