Tag Archives: gender

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?

Maybe one day…

I believe that men and women were created equal.


I believe that I can’t be bought or owned.


I believe in reproductive rights for all, regardless of race, age, religion…and gender.


I even believe that myself, as a woman, deserves to be treated the same as a man in my position.


Am I a radical? I think not. Well, maybe if I lived in 1940s Australia.

Or if I lived in Kamwenge, today.

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Our staff, including Michael and myself, were eating matooke and beans for lunch the other day in our newly constructed shelter. They were discussing someone’s wedding. Deep in thought, one of our staff asked innocently… ‘Dr, do you have dowry in your country? How much did you pay for Kim?’

Michael explained that we don’t have such a thing. That he visited my parents to ask for their blessing, then asked me to marry him, to which I happily agreed.

Another staff member, a woman joined the conversation. ‘What about polygamy?’

I replied that polygamy is illegal. You can be put in jail. Even when a man cheats in Australia, he can lose his house and land if the couple divorces. I explained further about women’s rights, choosing my words carefully, aware of the presence of a woman in the shelter whose husband I had learned had taken a second (younger) wife against her wishes.

There was a great pause in the midst of lunch. A moment to digest this information.

Then a young shy woman, a staff member that has grown up in the village, speaks very little English, and that I have a strong infinity for spoke up.

“That means that in your country, women are equal to men.”

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I was chatting to the clinical staff about a course that one of our staff would be sent to undertake, for contraceptive and Family Planning training. Another staff was sharing her experience with family planning programmes in the village. My ears pricked up – I am currently writing my Master’s thesis on fertility choices in Kamwenge, focusing on reproductive rights and normative cultural values/expectations that constrain choice. I asked about how women in Kamwenge received the idea of contraceptive advice/counselling. Were they opposed to it? The answer devastated me.

‘Some do not want. But there are many that do. The problem we are having is that husbands do not allow their women to use contraception…

.. A few months ago, there were a big number of women in my home village that got the implanon, in secret, so they could stop producing [having children]. But the husbands got very angry. Some were thrown out of their homes, their villages. Others were beaten.’

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I hadn’t even given much of a second thought to the set of values around equality that I hold, when I lived in Australia. It was part of my assumed knowledge, growing up. In my teenage years, if anyone was to treat me differently – unfairly – because I was a woman, I would have acted with indignation and disgust, and the matter would have been settled, fair and square.

I’m not trying to say that Australia is the land of milk and honey, where women have achieved complete equality with men. But we are actually doing ok. We are on to the business of more minor stuff in the big scheme of equality these days.

Uganda is doing ok in some areas. They have one of the highest percentages of female politicians in the world, with a compulsory female MP position for every electoral zone. There are lots of female managers of businesses. Plenty of middle class women who go to University.

But if you even get close to village life, you can smell the stench of inequality rising from the thatched rooves of your average family’s household.

Beyond anything else we achieve in Kamwenge over the next 10 years, beyond any goal to assist people to escape grinding poverty, beyond even saving lives at the clinic…

…what I wish more than anything deep down in the justice-craving areas of my soul, is to start a movement of village women who believe that perhaps, just maybe, they could be equal with men.

That maybe they should have control over their reproductive choices; who they have sex with, how many children they have, or where they give birth.

That maybe they have the right to equal access in health and education.

That maybe they could be in a marriage without having to be one of several wives.

That maybe they don’t deserve to be abused and trodden on, beaten and bashed

That maybe they don’t want to be defined only as mother and wife; their value attributed to the number of children they produce.

That maybe they shouldn’t have to be the bread winner for their children, dig in the garden, cook, clean, and raise their children alone.

That maybe they have the right to have control over resources, including land.

That maybe they could fight for all of this.

Maybe one day.