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The intersectional nature of women's oppression means that all women's experiences are not identical. This implies that our responses need to be nuanced enough to speak to these different realities, writes Elisabet le Roux.
Women in South Africa face many challenges, including
discrimination in the workplace, the gender pay-gap, poverty, sexual harassment
and extremely high levels of violence against women and girls.
This is often headline news, where shocking statistics
and heart-breaking stories are shared in evidence of women's suffering.
Research is an important dimension of responding
appropriately to women's realities. Laws, policies and programming that can
bring positive change can only be designed if we have a thorough understanding
of the problem and its drivers. However, I would argue that our research and
our responses to the challenges women face, do not engage enough with those
"Nothing about us, without us," is a slogan
often used by survivor groups to emphasise how important it is that
survivor-focused programmes, policy and laws should be developed with
comprehensive and consistent input by survivors themselves. Yet the same slogan
applies to women in general.
Where programmes, policy and laws targeting women are
designed, women should not only be included in the process, but should be
leading it. It is in many ways astounding that this is still something that is
contested. But 25 white men in Alabama, USA who recently passed a near-total
ban on abortion, once again showed us that in so many spaces and places, it is
still only men making the decisions on the issues that intimately affect women.
I participated in a recent research project in Zambia which
has brought home the importance of not only including women, but intentionally
ensuring that the heterogeneity of "women" is recognised and
accounted for. Approached by the Episcopal Church's international
relief and development agency Episcopal Relief & Development, Speak One Voice and key leadership in the
Zambian Anglican Church, to assist in doing research within the Zambian
Anglican Mothers' Union (MU), the research project looked at how the MU
challenges or condones violence against women and children.
Speak One Voice was
started by senior African women leaders in the Anglican Church who recognised
how violence against women and children was impacting not only individuals, but
families and communities. The movement aims to actively engage both the
Anglican Church hierarchy, but also women at grassroots level, in ending
violence against women and children.
Fully cognisant of our status as outsiders, both to
Zambia and the MU, my team and I designed a highly participatory research
project. The key method that we used was an adapted form of Photovoice. Over a
period of five months, trained research assistants (all members of the MU) took
photos using camera phones. These photos captured and illustrated various
themes, such as power, gender roles and social norms. Each photo was also
accompanied by a voicenote, in which they explained why they took the picture
and what it meant to them.
This adapted form of Photovoice allowed us to include
rural women, illiterate women, and women who only speak local languages as
research assistants. Yet they did not only collect data, but played a key role
in analysing it through their voicenotes and a two-day session at the end of
the five months, where each research assistant interpreted her pictures and
identified the key themes and messages emerging from it.
This research process placed the women most directly
affected front and centre – and what resulted was astounding. The photos taken
were insightful and nuanced. Their analysis of their communities, churches and
the MU was comprehensive, critical and constructive. My team would not have
been able to deliver such high-quality work without them.
Looking back at the research project, I realise it offers
some lessons for us as South Africans, especially during August when we'll be
celebrating Women's Day and Women's Month.
What we can take from it, is that the intersectional
nature of women's oppression means that all women's experiences are not
identical. This implies that our responses need to be nuanced enough to speak
to these different realities. In setting a woman-centered South African agenda,
and enacting it, it is therefore crucially important to actively and creatively
ensure that the voices of different women are included. This will in many
settings require creative work, as the research in Zambia illustrated, to
ensure that women who are so often excluded – so often the rural, illiterate, and
poor – are accounted for and included.
This is a challenge to men and women in South Africa.
For men, the challenge is to not only include women, but to have them
lead. For women, the challenge is to be aware of the power imbalance present
between women – be it due to education, race, or position – and to rectify that
imbalance through intentional and creative inclusion strategies. Let Women's
Day and Women's Month be a reminder not only of the need to better the lives
and circumstances of women, but to have women front and centre in this process.
- Dr Elisabet le Roux is research director of the Unit for
Religion and Development Research in the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch
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