Elizabeth Mills[1] 

Sri Lanka’s capital city never sleeps. Arriving late at night, I travelled along roads punctuated by brightly-lit Buddha statues and shrines to Jesus, bearing witness to the country’s sociocultural heterogeneity and its ancient religious history. The roads we travelled also reflected Sri Lanka’s entrenched but slowly declining economic inequality, as we moved from the crowded, pockmarked streets in the city’s periphery to the empty tar- and tree-lined avenues that led us to a marble-floored hotel in Colombo’s centre. In addition to the coconut-juice traders, the whirring tuk-tuks (taxis), and the full-moon festival that saw Buddhist temples laced with frangipani flowers, the city of Colombo was also host to an international conference jointly organised by the ACU and the University of Kelaniya. Entitled ‘Critical women: women as agents of change through higher education’, the conference sought to reflect and develop on the 2011 Commonwealth Day theme: ‘Women as agents of change’.

The conference took place over three days in March 2012 and ended on International Women’s Day, the UN theme of which was ‘Empower rural women – end hunger and poverty’. Both the Commonwealth Day and International Women’s Day themes connect, crucially, on the importance of education in addressing gender inequality. The conference sought to highlight the responsibilities and rights that women have within higher education institutions to advance their careers and to engender positive change in society more broadly. UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon’s message on Women’s Day noted the importance of education for women in and beyond rural areas, stating: ‘The plight of the world’s rural women and girls mirrors that of women and girls throughout society – from the persistence of the glass ceiling to pervasive violence at home, at work and in conflict; from the prioritization of sons for education to the hundreds of thousands of women who die each year in the act of giving life for want of basic obstetric care’. Both themes reflect the imperative of education for addressing gender inequality; they also both reflect a broader development paradigm in which empowering women is viewed as a viable trigger for cascading positive social change across society as a whole.

This paradigm, also evident in the field of HIV, straddles the potential for positive change for women alongside the dangerous entrenchment of structural inequality. As discussed in my conference paper, the principle of empowering women is indisputable, but the underlying rationale of investing in women to invest in societies and nations is problematic. The principle can fuel the blind and bold construction of women as vulnerable subjects requiring rescuing, whereas the rationale risks constructing women as the bearers of responsibility for transforming society, without addressing the socioeconomic and political structures that enable inequality. Ban Ki-moon, for example, states that: ‘Discriminatory laws and practices affect not just women but entire communities and nations. Countries where women lack land ownership rights or access to credit have significantly more malnourished children… Investing in rural women is a smart investment in a nation’s development’. Women’s relative lack of access to resources, such as agricultural subsidies, affects food and nutrition security in households; this is logical and should be addressed. However, the implicit assumption is that women are primarily responsible for ensuring that children are not malnourished; this shifts the ‘development gaze’ on to programmes that invest in children through investing in women and away from programmes that address the structural dynamics that enable men to access education, to move through glass ceilings, to access agricultural subsidies, and to not be held responsible by international actors for the wellbeing of children, households, societies, and nations.

In my PhD, and in my conference paper, I propose that, as critical agents women not only have the right to reflect on these development paradigms, but that we also have the responsibility to generate refractions through the prism of our work that disrupt and challenge linear conceptions of women’s rights and responsibilities in higher education, and in society more broadly.

South Africa and Brazil – my PhD field sites – offer a unique prism for refracting linear conceptualisations that link gender inequality to HIV. In South Africa in particular, HIV incidence has become welded to gender-based violence. The words go hand in hand with statistics that shock and numb; that are so real they become unreal and people become numbers. In a cross-sectional study in three South African districts (spanning rural, urban and city areas) in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu Natal, researchers interviewed 1,738 men aged 18-49 years.[2] This study found that 27.6% of all men had raped a woman or girl; rape of a current or ex-partner was reported by 14.3% of the men; 11.7% had raped an acquaintance or stranger (but not a partner) and 9.7% had raped both strangers and partners. Of all the men who were interviewed, almost half (42.4%) had been physically violent to an intimate partner.[3] Longitudinal analysis of a cluster-randomised control trial undertaken in the Eastern Cape between 2002 and 2006 with 1,099 women aged 15-26 indicated, conclusively, that there was a causal relationship between relationship power inequity and intimate partner violence and an increased risk of HIV infection among young South African women.[4]

In my conference paper, and through my ethnography, I sought to explicate the link between HIV and gender, to make the numbers enumerated above more human and, further, to challenge the hegemonic and ubiquitous development discourse that positions women as ‘vulnerable’ without recognising the nuanced, albeit fraught, strategies that women employ to navigate ‘precarity’. I use the term precarity to designate: ‘That politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become differentially exposed to injury, violence, and death. Such populations are at heightened risk of disease, poverty, starvation, displacement, and of exposure to violence without protection. Precarity also characterizes that politically induced condition of maximized vulnerability and exposure for populations exposed to arbitrary state violence and to other forms of aggression that are not enacted by states and against which states do not offer adequate protection’.[5] The intersection of HIV incidence with gender inequality was strongly reflected in my overall research findings. However, I also identified a set of more nuanced narratives that refracted through the prism of this intersection: HIV-positive women simultaneously embodied, resisted, and performed precarity in complex configurations that challenged linear assumptions of women as either ‘deserving subjects’ or as ‘autonomous agents’.[6]

Therefore, instead of either affirming or negating the link between gender inequality and HIV, my PhD explores strategies employed by HIV-positive women to navigate not only complex inter-personal relationships characterised by inequality and gender-based violence, but also national, regional and global policy processes in order to ensure access to essential AIDS biomedicine. Based on ethnographic research, including participatory film and photography and conducted over 12 months in Brazil and South Africa, it interrogates: the relationship between women’s embodied experiences of vulnerability linked to socio-economic inequality and HIV-infection; their engagement with the state as citizens through social movements; and the role of national, regional and global governance coalitions in shaping HIV-positive women’s lives. Further, it challenges homogenous conceptualisations of policy processes as predominantly top-down and of HIV-positive women as silent subjects and as inherently vulnerable. It illustrates numerous strategies women employ to challenge and claim power by drawing on legislative and human rights frameworks as HIV activists and citizens in Brazil and South Africa.

In engaging with women as critical agents, it is possible to generate a complex topography of the terrain that women navigate in their lives and in their careers, both within and beyond higher education institutions. ‘Critical women: women as agents of change through higher education’ offered scope for the participants to engage with the practical, institutional and ideological configurations that impede gender equality in higher education.

To this end, the conference was organised around three main themes: leadership; economic development; and research. Speakers, including the vice-chancellors of Cardiff, Pretoria, Oxford Brookes and Fatima Jinnah Women Universities, expanded on each of these themes by drawing on their research and experience in the field of gender equality. The geographic distribution and disciplinary diversity of speakers from around the world illustrated the central importance of addressing gender and underlined the overall value of the conference for challenging frequently invisible, but deeply entrenched, structures that limit opportunities for women within and, importantly, beyond higher education institutions. However, as the conference participants iterated – and as I argue above – this responsibility does not, and should not, lie solely on the shoulders of women. It is critical for both women and men to take responsibility for challenging complex and embedded structural inequalities spanning class, gender, sexuality and race in a bid to make the right to equality a reality for all – whether it be in the agricultural sector through access to seed subsidies, in the HIV sector through access to antiretroviral treatment, or the higher education sector through access to fair and equal career advancement.

Elizabeth Mills is a Commonwealth Scholar from South Africa, completing her PhD at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, UK.


[1] In March this year, the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) jointly organised its first gender conference: ‘Critical women: women as agents of change through higher education’. Elizabeth Mills, a speaker at the event, reflects on its theme and on her own research with women living with HIV. This article will be published in the ACU Bulletin. For more information about the ACU, please visit: http://www.acu.ac.uk/

[2] Jewkes, R.K., and others, ‘Understanding Men’s Health and Use of Violence: Interface of Rape and HIV in South Africa’, MRC Policy Brief (South African Medical Research Council, 2009)

[3] Jewkes, R.K., and others, ‘Understanding Men’s Health and Use of Violence’

[4] Jewkes, R.K., and others, ‘Intimate partner violence, relationship power inequity, and incidence of HIV infection in young women in South Africa: a cohort study’, Lancet, 376.9734 (2010), 41-48

[5] See Butler, J., Precarious life : the powers of mourning and violence (London: Verso Books, 2004); and Jewkes, R.K., and others, ‘Intimate partner violence, relationship power inequity, and incidence of HIV infection in young women in South Africa’

[6] See Jones, R.B., ‘Development of Feminist Postcolonial Theory’, in Postcolonial Representations of Women (Heidelberg: Springer Netherlands, 2011), pp.23-38; Jones, R.B., ‘Creating Postcolonial Visual Pedagogy’, in Postcolonial Representations of Women (Heidelberg: Springer Netherlands, 2011), pp.195-219; and Cornwall, A., E. Harrison, and A. Whitehead, ‘Gender Myths and Feminist Fables: The Struggle for Interpretive Power in Gender and Development’, Development and Change, 38.1 (2007), 1-20

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