Gender and Sexuality @ ECAS 2019

Holly Ashford

Last week, I attended the European Conference of African Studies Biennial Conference at the University of Edinburgh. It was a spectacular conference: with over 1,400 delegates turning up to take their places in the end, the panels and cultural events were varied, fun and thought provoking in turn. The Conference also highlighted how important the study of gender and sexuality is in African studies. Almost all of the panels I attended interweaved questions of how these categories are, and have been, constructed in African society.


Professor Fatou Sow opened the conference, giving the IAI Biennial Lecture on: ‘The representation of women and claims to citizenship in Africa: beyond the political debate.’ She argued that, since women’s identities remain at the heart of their access to citizenship, we need to go beyond political debates to ensure women’s rights. We need to look at society, culture, religion, ideology and so on, to explain why women are excluded from forms of citizenship. She evoked women like Ifi Amadiume, Amina Mama and Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí, who have made strides in scholarship to show that western expectations of gendered norms cannot simply be applied to the African continent. Forms of power for women are derived from matriarchies. Judith Van Allen showed us that women in Africa have long had recourse to forms of political rebuke and more recently Laura Grillo’s An Intimate Rebuke shows us that women in Cote d’Ivoire have a long history of expressing ‘female genital power’, a form of ritual through which postmenopausal women derive and express power.

Such a lecture gave us all a lot to think about on day one of the conference. Day two began, for me, with a panel I co-convened with John Manton and David Bannister. It was called ‘Remembering Alma-Ata? Revisiting ‘health for all’ amid aspirations for universal health coverage in Africa’. We wanted to explore how primary health care (PHC) has been funded, implemented and extended both before and after the 1978 Alma-Ata Conference in which a declaration on PHC was adopted by the international community. Promising ‘health for all’ has been a common trope, both before and after this conference, by international organisations, state, imperialists and NGOs. As our panel showed though, its implementation has often fallen short, had unintended consequences, or been remembered in surprising ways.

My own paper examined the ‘gendered aspects’ of a move from family planning as an instrument for population control, to its becoming part of maternal and child health services in 1970s Ghana, in a bid to reach the ‘entire population.’ I showed that PHC often relies on women: as traditional birth attendants (TBAs), as mothers taking themselves and their children to the clinic, and as those providing nutrition, sanitation and fertility regulation in the home. There is therefore a gender imbalance that goes with PHC, especially when it comes to family planning. What is more, although women are relied upon, those implementing PHC – governments, IOs, NGOs, don’t always respect the aspects of “tradition” that they tap into in order to provide community based services. A lot of training for TBAs in the 70s and 80s was overwhelmingly focused on trying to change and improve TBAs’ “traditional” practices.

I wasn’t the only one at the conference interested in gendered aspects of health care in Africa. Stephen Ombere, Sonja Merten and Salina Ferber all discussed present day implementation of family planning. I found Sonja Merten’s paper very interesting, she emphasised the emotional work that goes into family planning. Women, she said, frequently have to mask their emotions or stick to a socially agreed script for emotional exchanges. Arguably, men do too. Stephen Ombere showed that men in Kenya are expected to take dominant roles, making decisions on behalf of the family. This is also a gendered role, which comes with its own expectations. Like I do my own work, they emphasised all how family planning is intimately connected to ideas about economic development. This gave rise to an interesting discussion as to the role of the state in implementing family planning programmes. I know from my own work, that this implementation usually has political implications. According to Stephen, at the current time in Kenya, when politicians offer family planning, it’s a vote winner. In other circumstances it was discussed, this wasn’t the case. Certainly the elected government in 1970s Ghana went to great pains to promote the family planning programme as voluntary, to the general public.

Salina Ferber asked whether family planning should count its results as simply connected to rates of uptake, or whether we should be concerned with empowering women to make choices. But as Jordi Tomàs demonstrated in his paper on attitudes towards FGM in Senegal, notions of empowerment are not so simple. Some of the women that Jordi spoke with maintained that power was derived from being cut. The twenty-year-old law banning FGM in Senegal is not being applied because of a culture of secrets and non-interference. Jordi argued that in order to understand why the law was not being applied, and work towards ending the practice, we must understand how people in Senegal have associated positive ideas of health, freedom and power with cutting young girls. Indeed, to go back to the question of how women gain access to citizenship, to some, cutting is necessary for entry into the group. Jordi’s paper was part of a panel on sexual and reproductive rights that also included papers on how rape is framed in conflict situations, and how gender is represented in the public sphere in West Africa.

On the final day of the conference, I attended a panel on psychiatry, precarity and politics in Africa, convened by Eileen Moyer and David Bukusi from the University of Amsterdam. The panel explored how precarious political – and also social and economic – conditions, caused strain on the mental health of Africans. David painted a bleak picture of Kenya’s politics, and the fear that elections bring. This is the context, he said, in which mental health issues have to be understood. Interestingly, both Eileen, and Christopher Colvin, who gave a paper on ‘traumatic storytelling’, focused particularly on men’s mental health.  Christopher said that when they tell the stories of their traumatic experiences, be it with HIV, apartheid violence or anything else, men have to fit either into the category of the ‘good victim’ or the ‘redeemed man.’ Particularly with HIV, he said, we tend to say that men have are the problem, but they can be fixed. Alternative narratives have to be enabled in order to tackle the disease. We need, he argued, more representations of positive masculinity. Eileen studies men in urban Tanzania that are struggling against the threat of mental illness and finding coping strategies in social situations and substance abuse. She claims that labels like depression, addiction, suicide and anxiety gloss over social diagnoses. That global health solutions that focus on gaps in medical services do not acknowledge that many men seek solutions outside of medical spaces, in gendered spaces provided by work and leisure. This led to an interesting discussion on how we can historicise mental illness. Has mental illness always been there but now we are labelling it differently? What impact have colonial understandings of African mental health had on past and present situations?

Perhaps I could end with one example of where gender is not the most pressing concern. One of the most popular panels at the conference was provocatively entitled: ‘Western Citizens, African Subjects?’ The question of course, refers to the inequity perpetrated by African studies in the west, to the fact that knowledge is more frequently produced about Africa, rather than in Africa or by Africans. This is due to structural racism within scholarly disciplines and institutions. Ella Jeffreys demonstrated that practices in the discipline of history itself encourage a distancing from its subjects. This is particularly true for those of us studying Africa in the UK, where the knowledge of even one African language isn’t always deemed necessary. Our third person style of writing distances us from any responsibility to the people and subjects we address. Jean Allman showed us that a privileging of white scholarship was ingrained in the ‘DNA’ of the African Studies Association (ASA) in the US. A longer version of her paper, presented at ASA last year, is available here. Simokai Cigudu questioned whether it is indeed ethical for white people to study Africa at all. We need, he said, to address our ‘blindspot’ when it comes to whiteness. Clearly, there is a need to address the racialized backdrop of our disciplines – both African studies, and history as a whole. Allman showed us that African women have been almost entirely absent in leadership or prize-winning roles throughout the history of ASA, and she had the statistics to back that up. But she also warned against escape mechanisms: ‘but what about gender?’ cannot be evoked as a way to ignore the bigger concern here.

I could go on writing about where strands of gender and sexuality history were not only present but fundamental to the research of Africanists at this conference. It shows the growing relevance of the field across historical time and space. It is fundamental to answering ‘big’ questions on citizenship, rights, Africa’s place in a globalized world, but also to countless every day and intimate moments: giving birth, accessing medicine and contraception, cooking and eating, drinking and taking drugs, getting dressed, praying…I could go on. Of course these two spheres are intimately connected: the everyday is political, how women and men are represented determines social hierarchies, and so on. I look forward to exploring these themes more at African Studies conferences in the near future in Accra and Nairobi…and in two years’ time for ECAS in Cologne!


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