The hibernation period has officially ended.
Yesterday, I submitted my thesis, the final part of my Masters in International and Community Development. I am free. No more study for at least a few years, until the temptation of attempting a PhD becomes too much and I succumb.
For those of you who have noticed my absence from the blogging sphere of late, the above mentioned study was the core reason. Turns out moving to Africa, setting up an NGO, working full time and undertaking a thesis was probably a little (read: a lot) too much and successfully destroyed any semblance of ‘balance’ my life had. Thus the blogging silence.
But now I’m back. I’m finished. And I feel much the wiser from my research experience, if I do say so myself! I have wanted to learn how to research for a while, specifically because it is important if we are doing innovative work (and we find something that works!) that we can write about it well and share with others.
My thesis is titled The illusion of choice – women’s autonomy in Family planning decisions in Kamwenge. Essentially, I looked at culture and gender norms that influence and severely constrain women’s choice in Family Planning, which call into question current orthodox measurements of Family Planning which are underpinned by a belief that women DO have choice.
My research (not surprisingly) found women at a village level have very little choice. In fact, most of the time choice and decision making does not even factor into the equation. Cultural understandings of reproduction and gender expectations dictate reproductive decisions so pervasively that reproductive decisions are not really ‘made’ – they are seen as natural, as the taken for granted way of doing things. Dowry (bride price), polygamous marriage practices, prestige that comes with having children, normative decision making by men in marriage, involvement of the husbands kin (especially the Mother in law!) in marriage, religion, and the consequences of pro-FP choices amongst other factors lead to a situation where women are often unable to make empowering decisions in their lives around reproduction, even when given the ‘choice’. That’s the simplified version, anyway.
Trying to challenge something that is seen by a culture as ‘natural’ is almost impossible. Can you imagine trying to tell people in Australia that polygamy is an acceptable form of marriage? Or trying to explain that women should never work outside the home? Or that a woman’s worth is completely tied to the number of children she has? Or that domestic violence is not only acceptable, but necessary? It would be difficult, essentially because in modern-day Australia we believe a marriage is between only 2 people, that women can do most things a man can do, that women are worth much more than the sum total of their children (thank goodness), and that DV is wrong and damaging to those involved.
Challenging the underlying structures and practices that establish these norms is incredibly difficult. What I am learning as we continue in our community development work is that structural and behaviour change is really really hard. It takes generations. It cannot be forced. Any change is met with suspicion. It is often defended and propagated even by those that suffer most from the injustices these structures create.
That is the work MH is trying to attempt at a grassroots level. It is difficult and frustrating and not very glamorous and moves very slowly.
A famous social theorist called Bourdieu named these taken-for-granted truths in a culture as the doxa – the beliefs which govern the social world and become so naturalised that they are beyond discourse and discussion. This thesis, my research of the doxa, and my work in Uganda has got me thinking about my own (Australian) culture. Being away from my countrymen for a bit has made me aware of some of these doxic beliefs that exist back in Oz – especially when I am confronted with obvious and viable alternatives to them each and every day in Uganda.
Now, I could rattle off (my perceptions) of a bunch of them but I thought instead I’d be interested to know what you think they might be – any ideas?