The end of the hibernation…

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?

3 responses to “The end of the hibernation…

  1. Betty Windmill

    Kim, working full-time would be enough for most people in a new situation – what you have achieved since going to Kamwenge is incredible – Congrats on finishing your
    Thesis. Much love to you and Michael, Love, NanaBet.

  2. Kim, simply don’t know where you find the energy for all you have achieved over the past year or more and are still achieving today and into the future. Delighted you’ve finished your Thesis – well done you and congrats. As for thoughts on Australian culture: may I extend it to the UK tool? I believe there is a certain element of the Aussie and UK culture who still think the woman’s place is in the home doing every chore, raising the children and then some whilst the man goes out to work, comes home and ‘blobs’. I further believe this element thinks domestic violence is the only way to keep the woman subdued and subjective in the home. Having said that,some 20+ years back, running emergency accommodation, I was stunned when the statistics at that time said “more men bashed than women” – I’d like to see the statistics for today. There are still women ‘escaping’ from Ireland rather than having children – the Pope / Catholic church refusing to allow or make a decision re the use of birth control. There is also the issue of Honour Killings with parents recently being sentenced for murdering their 17 year old daughter here in the UK. To my mind Kim, the only way the Australian and UK cultures vary from Kamwenge Uganda is that, as women, we do have the freedom to think for ourselves, to use birth control, to refuse to accept abuse and have shelters we can escape to for help and support if necessary. Polygamous marriages are prevented by law though some cultures living in ours continue this practice I think – need to research this point. As for children giving value / self worth: in many ways this is still true. Try to find a car park at the supermarket close to the entry door if you’re not a mother! Impossible. Try to make friends, become involved in your new community: how often have I been told “it’s easier if you’re a mum”, “you don’t have children so you can’t possibly understand”, “you don’t have children so you can wait while we attend to this mother and her child” and so it goes on. A different type of value to that which you refer however nonetheless a “value” given to women fortunate enough to have children. Then there is the issue of the cold callers who refuse to speak to a woman! Violation of confidentiality given as the reason in some cases; in others it is arrogance and belief that the female won’t understand. Having builders or tradesmen coming in to quote: these men will often pointedly ignore the female voice / opinion, eg. having underfloor heating laid in our new kitchen, I told the chap that the coils were too far apart and he totally ignored me. Subsquently we have cold patches in the kitchen floor and the heating runs under cupboards which is of tremendous use???. Car mechanics: the same. How I love having some knowledge of motors so can “interject” with sensible question if I don’t agree with the mechanic and to see the look of “shock” that I have knowledge. Women in executive positions till have a battle to be recognised as equal to the male holding the same role. Trying to redecorate the home: “you won’t get the polyfilla level enough before painting”, ” you won’t be able to paint evenly” “best leave it until I can do the job” and so on. Meanwhile, the room would have been redecorated days ago and is still waiting to be done.

    Well, Kim, you’ve really got me thinking and above are my thoughts mostly based on my own experience [which is obvious] and perceptions. One of my close friends and I share the same DIY experiences with our men and we’re not alone. We will go ahead and do the necessary work however it usually takes an enormous debate / argument / cross words before our male will agree / be happy for us to do so. [We are all in the 50 – 60 age bracket and are probably the 2nd generation to “fight against male domination”.] I’ve not researched / found any statistics for my comments above: purely based on experience.

    I’m looking forward to seeing other people’s comments / replies to your “challenge”.

    Best wishes for the outcome of your Thesis and congratulations on all your hard work completing the thesis, working for MH and everything you do. Much love and hugs.


  3. Great discussion Kim and Robyn! I agree that while we have many mechanisms in the West for female equality, there is still persistent prejudice in many areas. However, having spent lots of time with women in developing countries, rural villages and urban slums I would take our partial-equality ANY day over the situations these women live in. For example, I have no chance that I will get HIV/AIDS sometime soon because of a social norm that after the birth of the first child, a man’s monogamous duty is done and he is free to sleep around and visit sex workers, (as was the case for my host mother, her sister and our neighbour in Cambodia and probably half the street…)
    And I agree about children giving women status here too, tho it’s not as pronounced (unless I’m talking to my African friends!) As a woman who was not having children (by choice and nature) and is now having one (by divine miracle and humour, I guess) I am definitely seeing the difference – I have joined a club that I didn’t really know existed until now…(and am a real woman to my African friends, who are already talking about me having another one…sigh!)

    But my other thoughts about doxa are largely around individualism and consumerism. Actually this applies in the baby-world too. Firstly, what Aussie (and I use this term to differentiate between new migrants and primarily white Australian culture) even blinks at the notion of the nuclear family? How weird it was to other Aussies when Ricky and I lived with another family and with single friends. Who has their parents or grandparents live with them, and not just as a temporary measure while their house is being renovated or something? And who gets their relatives to help discipline their children, if they have them? And everyone has to have their own mortgage, so that all these houses are empty most of the time while everyone works to pay for them, and family time often suffers. It’s all so closed and singular and isolated, but it’s totally “normal”.

    And consumerism. Shopping is a lifestyle practice, not something to doout of necessity. Is what people do for fun, to relax, because they’re bored, because it’s just what you do. Poor people and hippies are allowed to shop at the Salvos but not regular people. We have this value of new, of the latest, of the best, of keeping up with fashion. In some circles it’s seen as irresponsible to not be part of this, especially when it comes to things for the baby… There are even government regulations preventing the sale of certain things 2nd hand. Now I accept that a baby car seat perhaps isn’t so safe after a car accident, fine, but after a year of normal use is it suddenly going to stop being safe merely because it changed owners? And do you really need a bassinet AND a cot? Or a baby capsule AND then a car seat once it turn 6 months old? And the list goes on and on and on. Not having all the bits and pieces, for house, yard, baby etc is seen as quite strange, quaint maybe, but definitely not normal by a lot of people (obviously I am also speaking from personal experience – 2nd hand cloth nappies all the way!).

    I may not have made those points all that well, but I really see those areas as being some of our cultural blind spots, blind spots that can also have devastating impacts on quality of life (for us here and the sweatshop workers) and social well being.


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