In this blog, Dr Simukai Chigudu analyses the emergence of women who are mobilising around their experience of HIV/AIDs, not just to campaign for ARVs, but also to question the wider structures of power and privilege that structure their everyday lives. He looks at the power of such mobilisation, and also its potential limits. Simukai is a Zimbabwean public health doctor who has worked and conducted research in South Africa, Tanzania and The Gambia. He is currently a Weidenfeld Scholar at the University of Oxford where he is studying for an MSc in African Studies.
Following bitter struggles for liberation promising to deliver socio-economic justice and political freedom across the African continent, it is striking that life for many ordinary Africans remains a precarious struggle for inclusion and rights despite nominal independence. The factors giving rise to this reality operate on multiple levels from the local to the global; they are interrelated in complex ways; and they remain the subject of considerable debate. How have many post-colonial leaders managed to remain in power despite neglecting significant parts of their populace? How does globalisation reinforce and maintain geo-political inequalities? How do international markets threaten the poor and marginalised? And, at the same time, today’s globally connected world has enabled social movements, activism and political protest to coalesce around shared identities and common agendas that transcend territorial boundaries thus opening new channels to confront unjust power structures at all levels of societal organisation. In many ways, women’s rights organisations exemplify these dynamics by drawing on a broad international community with similar experiences of discrimination in order to empower local communities to demand their rights to citizenship and inclusion in public decision-making. While these new forms of coalition are often the principal vehicle through which the poor and marginalised can engage with state institutions, they must also reflect on the limitations of political mobilisation defined by a biological or social (‘biosocial’) identity.
JASS (Just Associates) is an international feminist organisation founded in 2003 as a community of practice by activists, popular educators, and scholars from 13 different countries. JASS has been working in Malawi as part of the dynamic Our Bodies, Our Lives campaign: a grassroots women’s movement that connects a range of local civil society organisations, such as the Malawi Network of Religious Leaders living with HIV/AIDS (MANERELA+), and community activists to campaign for wider access to better Anti-Retroviral medicines (ARVs). This work has many lessons to teach about activating the energy women have and opening safe spaces for them to interrogate issues of power, organise collectively, and demand a say at the decision-making table. It is in this spirit of such global solidarity that activist movements garner momentum and can present ethical, pluralistic and viable alternatives to existing modes of political and economic oppression in Africa and beyond.
JASS aims to create political consciousness using innovative teaching methods developed from ‘transformative feminism’. In Malawi, the organisation has created spaces – literal and figurative – for HIV positive women to meet, share their stories, and build their understandings of sex, resources, and power. Over the last three years, JASS has engaged with its strategic partners to disseminate its feminist popular education tools. A key idea in JASS’ teaching is that the woman’s body can be transformed – from the site in which oppression has inscribed itself through disease, shame, and humiliation – into ‘a vehicle for learning to question the different faces of power that society normally takes for granted’. By encouraging women to share their stories of loss, exploitation, or illness, JASS is able to create a feminist political consciousness based on a common bio-social identity and a shared sense of unjust struggle. This consciousness challenges women to see their bio-social identity, as the terrain in which power is contested and to make practical demands of local government and the state.
In my field of interest, public health, the privileging of the body and its politics is an increasingly popular idea particular with a growing scientific understanding of how large-scale social forces result in the literal embodiment of disease. Seeing illness in the broader context of its social determinants and questioning the political mechanisms that either enable or protect individuals opens up critical debates over public ethics and moral economies. These questions begin to expose and interrogate the multiplicity of forces that leave certain social groups mired in poverty, unable to access healthcare, and unrepresented by a state that is charged with attending to their citizenship rights. In many African contexts, it is women who bear the brunt of this ‘structural violence’.
It is against this backdrop, that JASS’ support for Malawian women is particularly urgent and impressive, and also instructive about how we think about citizenship in post-colonial Africa. The emergence of a grassroots feminist movement represents a break from political and economic mechanisms of oppression. At the same time, this social struggle should not be viewed solely as the renegade offspring of a market-oriented world or a simple demand for material resources. In its emergence and evolution, the Malawi women’s health movement yields tremendous creative power to unveil the enduring legacies of violence and exclusion within the colonial and post-colonial institutions. Moreover, it helps to shift the broader political narrative in southern Africa from a parochial preoccupation with how the region’s political elites assert sovereignty against Western states, to one that foregrounds plurality, inclusion, civic rights and representation as part of the purpose of colonial liberation.
In the international sphere, Malawian women and their network of partners collectively challenge the notion that Africans are to be acted upon by top-down development agencies and calls into question the power, authority and legitimacy of rich nations to frame the position of women in AIDS discourses – passive victims in the ‘feminization of HIV’ for example – which limit feminist aspiration to ‘bare life’ that can only be attained through the generous issuance of pills and technology. The demand for ARVs is not just about surviving a deadly disease, it is about holding governments accountable; it is about pushing for just governance; it is about challenging the immoral praxis of multinational pharmaceutical corporations; it is about demanding recognition of agency from global actors; and it is about respecting women’s rights to bodily integrity.
As an academic, I believe that there is a fundamental need for more in-depth analyses of feminist social struggles both historically and contemporarily. How do the excluded and oppressed come to visibility with their own voice and words? Additionally, we must think deeply about the nature of a political consciousness that is aligned so strongly with biosocial identity. It is surely telling that it takes existential threats to the body to bring marginalised women into public space. And in rallying behind a feminist biosocial identity, do activists perpetuate the gender ideologies and divisions that led to women’s oppression in the first place? We must study the emergence of social movements not just as an inevitable reaction to an existing social order but also to engage their capacity to create new public spaces and ideas. This way we can begin to explore how states and international actors can accommodate and address the needs of those marginalised by society while recognising their dignity and autonomy.