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Fear of difference

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Monday, December 14th, 2009 by Susan Pietrzyk

I would like to make a few comments that connect to two excellent recent Kubatana blogs­the first by Amanda Atwood concerning Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill and the second by Catherine Makoni concerning the troublesome PSI research/adverts.

Both blogs effectively highlight worrying ideological agendas and human rights violating desires for control over peaceful citizens.  Moreover, both blogs increase our awareness of the negative consequences when political leaders, research projects, and TV ad executives allow fear of difference to direct the way they think and how they develop policies, design research, and disseminate information.  It is with pain in my heart that in the last few days I have been inundated with people spewing ideas predicated on fear of difference.  Just the other day I read a fear of difference article by William Lungisani Chigidi entitled Shona Taboos: The Language of Manufacturing Fears for Sustainable Development.

It is of course important to discuss taboos or what are also called avoidance rules so as to better understand some of what shapes the complex cultural, economic, health, political, judicial, and social issues and circumstances in Zimbabwe, and world over.  What shocked me and made my stomach turn is that Chigidi overtly advocates that Zimbabwean society ought to instill more fear and formally adopt more avoidance rules to ensure that citizens “appropriately” conform to a morally upright socializing process.  Chigidi writes:

For example, the avoidance rules can be employed to tackle the HIV/AIDS pandemic.  For instance, why can’t it be said that ‘If you have sex while you are still young you will suffer from chicken pox’;  ‘If you become intimate with an animal your private parts will disappear one day’; ‘If you kiss a boy/girl you will lose all your hair’; ‘If you hug a boy/girl you will be raped by a vagabond’; ‘If you become intimate with a relative you will die in your sleep’; ‘If you become intimate with another man/woman (homosexuality/lesbianism) you will be struck by lightning.’  Avoidance rules such as these, and expressed in descent Shona language of course, will invoke in the minds of the young frightening images that will scare them from improper behavior.  That could save lives.

I’m not sure I want to write a blog per se.  More I think I want to rant.  This article is one of the most unsettling things I have ever read.  How in the world can someone so overtly advocate instilling fear, in children no less?  Why in the world does someone think it makes sense to tell children flat out lies?  What would be wrong with thoughtfully engaging children, adolescents, and adults in dialogue to better understand and appreciate human diversity, while also unpacking what drives inequities and injustices in the world?  At least Chigidi’s aim is to save lives.  But, it is not fear nor fear of difference that are going to save lives.  Discussion and productively celebrating difference is what saves lives.

And finally, one last quibble about the article.  Simply to say that writing homosexuality/lesbianism is unnecessarily repetitive.  Albeit a pejorative term, homosexuality describes a sexual relationship between individuals of the same sex.  A homosexual relationship could be between men or between women.  Why use both homosexuality and lesbianism to reference the same thing?  The answer, in part, lies in the analysis that Catherine’s blog presents concerning troublesome representations of women.  In the case of unnecessarily using lesbianism when already having used homosexuality, we are looking at the opposite end of troublesome representations of women and their sexuality’s.  If women are not problematically cast, as Catherine writes, as highly sexed, morally depraved individuals, the other common casting follows the patriarchal worldview depicting women as sexually passive and meant only to serve men’s needs.  With this ill-conceived line of thinking then, the term homosexuality is perceived as unable to incorporate a female same-sex sexual relationship given that, in a patriarchal worldview, women (straight, lesbian, or bisexual) don’t choose to have sex.

Distance and the democracy spin

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Thursday, August 20th, 2009 by Susan Pietrzyk

Alphabetically America and Zimbabwe are about as distant as you can get.  However, if you recast America as USA, then the two countries become alphabetically not so distant.  Interesting to think about the result of this alphabetical spin analogously to practices of democracy.  Eight years of George W. Bush certainly made the world think that the distance is America -Zimbabwe.  With America the bastion of democracy and Zimbabwe the axis of evil.  Of late there is ample evidence that when it comes to practicing democracy to oppose health care reform, the distance is USA-Zimbabwe.

Right now in USA health care reform is all that anyone is talking about.  Supposedly senior citizens oppose health care reform.  But when you dig deeper senior citizens have had the fear of god instilled in them, been told that Obama is not an American, is akin to Adolph Hitler, and that his health care reform strategy is to pull the plug on grandma, to let old people die.  How different is this from playing the race/sovereignty card and spouting that Tsvangirai is a puppet of the West, and if elected, poised to hand over all of the farm land to white people?

The senior citizens are being touted in USA as an organic grassroots movement.  But when you read the fine print these senior citizens have been rounded up by right wing conservative republican think tanks funded by pharmaceutical companies and the insurance industry.  How different is this than the fine print of what much of the Zimbabwean War Veterans movement has become?

Town hall meetings have been the sites of senior citizen civil disobedience in USA.  These meeting are intended for peaceful and productive debate about the actual issue of health care reform.   Instead the right wing conservative republican think tanks funded by pharmaceutical companies and the insurance industry have given senior citizens written instructions on how to cause raucouses, most notably instruction on how to rattle the speaker and how to prevent different viewpoints from entering the discussions.   How different is this from the role of the securocrats, military junta, CIO, etc. in Zimbabwe?

Last week a young man went to a town hall meeting to support the senior citizens, a town hall meeting where Obama was going to make an appearance.  This young man carried with him in plain sight a gun.  Also, he was standing next to people with signs that called for Obama’s death.  How different is this from arming youth militia and parading them around in shiny new 4X4 vehicles in the streets of Harare and across the country?

One way that Americans involve themselves in the political process is by writing letters to their senators or representatives, as individual citizens or through lobbying/advocacy organizations.  Increasingly surfacing in USA are letters to senators/representatives where pharmaceutical company and insurance industry -hired public relations firms have stolen the identities and letterhead of lobbying/advocacy organizations to submit falsified letters opposing health care reform.  How different is this from what the Herald does or the fact that the voter’s roll for the 2008 elections in Zimbabwe included deceased citizens?

Increasingly USA Democrats are doing the math and realizing that they can pass health care reform without any republicans voting for their bill.  Since I am a democrat and strongly support health care reform this is hard for me to say.  But still.  How different is this emerging USA Democrat strategy from the way the MDC and ZANU-PF fight tooth and nail continuously about every last seat in parliament and the cabinet in order to gain a majority in government?

I wonder.  How different are the practices of democracy in USA and Zimbabwe?  It’s all in how you spin things.  America is after all the Mecca of democracy, the world’s superhero for promoting democratic practices.   Even if USA politicians are engaged in outright transparent examples of lavish political patronage with pharmaceutical companies and the insurance industry at the expense of the 46 million Americans who do not have health insurance.

Violence, the simple and not so simple answers

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Friday, August 7th, 2009 by Susan Pietrzyk

In a previous blog of mine entitled Violence and masculine performers a reader raised the following questions:

I want to know if the project on Violence would help to reduce the prevalence of violence in the Zimbabwean communities or not. I just want to know your fair minded judgement based on what the fourteen participants contributed on that topic of violence. Is the film going to help all the people (men and women) or women only or vise versa? If it cannot help, what are the areas that were not clear that will leave the people still wanting more information concerning violence?

The simple answer is yes.  I believe all of the participants walked away from the week having absorbed new knowledge and inspired ideas around what violence entails, why violence is a coward’s solution, and how to better lead life in non-violent ways.  One reason I say yes is because the fourteen participants were willing to speak at length and in detail as well as willing to speak honestly and in relation to their personal experiences.  That’s no small feat.  All too often discussions about violence in Zimbabwe are predictable and merely go the route of referencing “other” people who commit acts of violence.  When individuals look inwardly to unravel their own beliefs and actions then the conversations get real and begin to pave the way for meaningful paths toward change.   Therefore, I stand by a point in the original blog.  Change must come from within.  Within individuals.  Within communities.  Within institutions.  Within societies.  One by one, and it’s a process which takes time.  Tho, all the little things help.

At the same time, the questions which have been posed do not neatly have simple answers.  As I noted, the honesty among the participants was key in building discussions which were true to life and constructive.  But honesty is not always synonymous with hearing what you hope to hear.   Much of the honesty among the male and female participants incorporated belief that there are situations where violence against women is warranted.  Intermingled or likely one reason for that belief is what I saw as unsettling blind faith and one-dimensional this is just the way it is adherence to the notions that women are the weaker sex, that labola is tradition and a form of payment for a wife, that good wives must allow husbands to exercise their conjugal rights, and so on.  I mean come on.  Is that really just the way it is?  Or, is it not the case that all human beings harmoniously deserve respect, love, companionship, admiration, laughter, compassion, and equality from their fellow human beings?

The reader asked for my fair minded judgment.  To be honest, I’m not entirely sure I can be fair.  While I have the utmost respect for how honest the participants were, there were moments during the week where my jaw dropped.  I was in shock.  How can people think violence is ok?  And to try to rationalize justifications for violence, it made my body hurt.   In fact, during the week of filming I had nightmares.  And continue to have nightmares.  They are nightmares where people needlessly resort to violence.  So yeah, it’s tough for me to fair.  Intellectually a lot of what was expressed during the week I did not agree with.  Emotionally the week was taxing for me.  I would like to say I don’t have a violent bone in my body; however, in reality, no person can live up to that assertion.  But what I can do, and I hope the film participants also do, is recognize that every human being has the ability to make choices around whether or not to be violent.

Back to my simple answer.  Yes.  The week of filming was successful.   I remain hopeful.  I believe there are many courageous Zimbabweans, people who are willing to take a hard look at themselves and in turn, to let that self-reflective journey inspire them toward travelling down roads of non-violence and helping others do the same.  And as I said, little things do help.  Like this film project and others which International Video Fair Trust (IVFT) is implementing.  Disseminating films where the filmed participants speak up is surely a recipe for success and an effective way to encourage others to address the difficult issues in life.   And you know, there is a nice synergy with Kubatana’s Inzwa Weekly Audio Magazine.  Just as much as the people who work for the Adult Rape Clinic and the people who access those services are everyday heroes so too is it importantly heroic to make the information available.  To stand up and say, for those of you who might benefit from the services at the Adult Rape Clinic, please make use of them and we support you in the most heartfelt ways.

Ethics, subjects, and proof

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Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009 by Susan Pietrzyk

I recently read a Plus News report entitled:  Male circumcision does not protect women.  There has been enough literature, media attention, and so on to see that male circumcision has been a hot topic over the years.  My interest is not to disagree with the argument that male circumcision can, to a degree, reduce the risk of contracting HIV for that man.  In fact, I support the idea of disseminating information and making male circumcision more accessible in Southern Africa.  That is as long as the reduce aspect is thoroughly emphasized as male circumcision does not eliminate risk, the potential side effects are conveyed, and it is not an imposed procedure.

The questions I do wish to raise concern the lengths that are being taken to scientifically prove the relationships between black African male circumcision and HIV risk for black African men and women.  And relatedly, the potential for unintended consequences when the path followed is such a rigorous and relentless insistence on absolute, detailed quantitative scientific proof.  My overall concern is this. The Plus News headline I mentioned could just as easily read: Clinical trial comes to an end, 25 women contracted HIV.  When I think about that alternative headline, my mind goes a couple directions. For all the big money that was spent on the trial, perhaps the money would have been better spent trying to ensure the 25 women (and others) did not contract HIV.  And further, if the majority of men in the US were uncircumcised would the funders of scientific trials have the same comfort-level to round up some HIV-positive men, along with their HIV-negative female partners, and engage them in a trial knowing that some percentage of those HIV-negative American females will end up HIV-positive.  I suspect not.

There are several things I’m getting at here, which relate to my uneasy feelings about trials concerning male circumcision in general and also the particular trial in Rakai District (Southern Uganda) highlighted in Plus News.  Firstly, as part of the effort to scientifically prove that male circumcision reduces HIV risk, a trial immediately offers some men access to the procedure while others must wait until the study is completed.  Secondly, in order to get the scientific proof, along the way, some of the subjects have to become HIV-positive.  Thirdly, the scientific proof for the Rakai District trial is, to a degree, based on 159 Ugandan women honestly reporting that they had sex only with their partner over the trial period. Those three points raise a complicated set of ethical and methodological questions.  Before I go any further, let me outline some of the parameters concerning the Rakai District trial as highlighted in the Plus News article (which draws on two articles in the 17 July 2009 issue of Lancet).

The two-year trial included 922 HIV-positive male subjects.  At the start, 474 were circumcised, and the other 448 were not. Additionally, the trial included 159 HIV-negative female subjects, the partners of a subset of the 922 male subjects.  There were 92 couples representing an HIV-positive circumcised male with an HIV-negative female partner.  And 67 couples representing an HIV-positive uncircumcised male with an HIV-negative female partner.  The couples were basically told to go about their lives, and involvement in the trial importantly provided a range of STI/HIV-awareness services participants might not have otherwise accessed (albeit likely intensely biomedical oriented awareness services).  Follow ups were made at six-month intervals to ascertain if any of the 159 female subjects had acquired HIV from their male partners.   Of the 92 couples involving a circumcised male, 18% (or 17 women) tested HIV-positive.  Of the 67 couples involving an uncircumcised male 12%
(or 8 women) tested HIV-positive.  Thus the conclusion, male circumcision does not reduce HIV risk for women.  I know this is not exactly the case, but still.  In a certain way one result of obtaining that scientifically proven conclusion is that 25 Ugandan women became infected.  The researchers do not state as much directly, but do hint at this possibility.  A number of the circumcised male subjects did not follow the advice to abstain from sex for six weeks following being circumcised (to let the wound properly heal).  When that advice was not followed this was the window in which a greater number of women contracted HIV from their male partners.  Thus an argument can be made that had the men not been circumcised their female partners would not have become HIV-positive.

I know many won’t like what I am writing.  The trial itself did not infect 25 women.  The trial itself was administered by a team of experts and was approved by numerous Ugandan and American ethical review boards.  Additionally, many would tell me the advancement of scientific knowledge has always involved unintended consequences.  And those consequences have to be put in the perspective of the greater good.  But when it comes to clinical trials around male circumcision among black Africans, there are some particular and unique dynamics that don’t sit well with me.  Particularly, when these types of trials are put in the bigger picture, I can’t help but wonder about the notion of engaging black Africans to be subjects for the advancement of scientific research when it is predominantly the Western world wanting to pursue said research.  And ask.  Are there multiple
(conflicting) ideologies at work in making the foreskin of a black African penis a form of difference that warrants scientific study?

To return to my earlier wording, the lengths that are being taken to scientifically prove.  Awhile back, within a listserv discussion, I commented that I am frustrated by the trends PEPFAR, the Global Fund, Bill and Melinda Gates, etc. have ushered in, they are not entirely new, but it seems they are with such greater force than ever before. This incessant demand to prove things, particularly quantitatively. To my mind, and I’ll be blunt.  Enough with the proof around male circumcision.  It’s not a quantitative contest.  I would argue that enough clinical trials around male circumcision have been conducted. It is now time to continue on with integrating the results into long-standing HIV/AIDS information dissemination and service provision efforts.  Specifically along three lines:  1) Male circumcision reduces, but does not eliminate, HIV risk for men; 2) Male circumcision, like nearly all medical procedures, contains risks and requires post-operative care; and 3) Male circumcision is a possible option for informed/consenting adults.

Violence and masculine performances

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Monday, July 20th, 2009 by Susan Pietrzyk

According to Zimbabwe’s 2005 Demographic Health Survey (DHS), 47% of women aged 15 to 49 reported an experience with either physical or sexual violence in their lifetime.

Statistically speaking, it is difficult to make an over-time comparison because the 1999 DHS did not collect data on incidences of violence against women.  I suspect, and literature supports the argument that including incidences of violence in the 2005 DHS is the result of recognition that violence against women in Zimbabwe has been increasing.  Beyond statistics I see the pressing and complex question as follows.  If you ask a Zimbabwean man:  What do you think your wife would do if you hit her?  Or a Zimbabwean woman: What would you do if your husband hit you?   I suspect, more often than not, the answer to either of those questions would not be an immediate, without hesitating…. I would never hit my wife. Or my husband would never hit me.  Instead, a male or female respondent would pause.  And think.  Their pausing and thinking is because that act of violence in the home is a very real possibility.  That real possibility is troublesome, but to me equally as troublesome is resting in a space where it’s ok to pause before answering the questions I posed.  In Zimbabwe, copious are cultural practices, traditions, perspectives around normative spousal roles, forms of peer pressure, extended family dynamics, failures to communicate, economic hardships, and so on which explain away why domestic violence exists.  Yet, these types of explanations only scratch the surface in trying to understand the baseline crux of the matter:  What prompts one human being to inflict physical and emotional harm on another human being?

With an interest in exploring the issue of violence, International Video Fair Trust (IVF)  brought a group of seven men and seven women together for a week of discussions during the first week of July.  These in-depth discussions were filmed and I served as director for the week’s programme and the film project.  The methodology follows that used for the 2008 filming of IVF’s Sex in the City of Harare.   The basic idea is this:  Create a safe space for people to speak and debate openly and honestly.  Encourage the participants to move beyond the predictable conversation.  Capture the discussions, the emotion, and trepidation on film.  Make a documentary film which presents the story that unfolded during the week.  Screen it locally as a way to guide individual communities to engage themselves in similar conversations.  In the end, both the week long discussions which are filmed and in turn, the documentary film itself, serve as an awareness-building, educational, and advocacy tool.  In this case, advocacy which ultimately is about helping people understand that there are options other than violence when it comes to resolving disagreements.

One reason this participatory discussion methodology works well is that nearly all pressing issues have, at their core, simple solutions.  Just that getting to that simple solution is a layered process which requires honest, probing, and direct conversations about what is preventing positive change from taking place. Therefore, with respect to the topic of violence is the line of thought that it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that the simple equation violence = harm is not sufficient to bring about an immediate shift to non-violence.  Instead, making the shift involves letting an introspective process play out.  This is to say that it is easy to assert that violence is wrong, but much harder to actually make the necessary changes at both personal and societal levels to enable violence-free lives.  The latter step to actually change requires an intellectual thought process to recast ways of thinking and ways of being.  Further it is not merely a matter of women demanding men change. Or men demanding women change.  Change has to come from within.  And it doesn’t happen overnight.  What the week of filming brought forth was a group of people who I observed as intricately conflicted individuals, very much at different points with respect the introspective process that tries to understand and reduce violence.  The discussions provided space to recognize the complexities at work and to reflect on why you yourself and people in general are resistant to change.

Now that the filming is complete, I’ve been trying to conceptualize a story for a film.  And have been thinking a lot about performances of masculinity and their potential relationship to acts of violence.   In this instance, by performance of masculinity I mean the ways people (men and women) put on an act as a way to assert authority and control over another person.  The thing about these kinds of performances is that to an outside observer they often make evident contradictions.  But to the person engaged in that performance of masculinity likely the contradiction is not seen.  The inability to see the contradiction is because what’s at work is a performance to get what you want, what you think you are entitled to.  And what you want, your entitlements, and the ways in which you obtain them do not necessarily bring forth contradictions in your mind.  For example, it’s not unheard of for a man to speak gushingly about loving his wife.  When that husband enters discussion concerning, for example, labola, conjugal rights, and/or household duties, there are ways that conversation becomes about the authority and control the husband feels he has over his wife.  Engaging in a discussion of wanting that power is a performance of masculinity, while pursuing that desire might result in the husband using physical and/or emotional violence to get his way.  The outside observer is likely going to look at that situation and ask:  If you love your wife why would you hit her?  And go on to say:  That’s a contradiction.  But not to the husband, as he feels he is rightfully doing what is necessary to get what he wants.

Another example might be a woman who intelligently and passionately asserts that it is wrong for a man to be violent toward a woman.  This assertion might become so strong in the woman’s mind that she will make maneuvers and strategize how to ensure her husband does not become violent.  Whether it involves being a perfectly obedient and subservient wife or gaining economic independence within the marriage and keeping those earnings for herself, there are ways she is engaged in a performance of masculinity, working to position herself as the person with authority and control of the relationship.  The outside observer is likely going to look at that situation and ask: If you love your husband why do you manipulate him and withhold from him?  And go on to say:  That’s a contradiction.   But not to the wife, as she feels she is rightfully doing what is necessary to get what she wants.

The paragraph above is a tricky one.  Probably not the status quo line of analysis around the topic of violence.  After hearing fourteen Zimbabweans talk about violence for five and half days, it has become crystal clear to me that the status quo analysis is not enough.  All status quo gets to is the far too easy space of relying on broad sweeping statements such as men are socialized to be violent, women must be empowered, culture accepts violence.  But those concepts—socialization, empowered, culture—often are either loaded or vacuous, they don’t go very far in actually telling us much about the nitty gritty detail of the dilemma.  What’s much harder, yet in my view far more important, is to open up.  Be honest.  And dare I say, get in touch with your feelings.  Recognize your own masculine performances that concern desire for power and in turn the ways ensuing actions towards others might be contradictory.   Fourteen Zimbabweans admirably spent a week travelling down this path of honesty.  The door is open for the next fourteen.

Alternatively, if broad sweeping statements must be invoked, my suggestion would be the one that is the broadest of the lot.  This being.  Much of Zimbabwe’s history (and world history for that matter) has involved one big chess match of masculine performers and their quests for power.  To be successful in the quest might require violence, so the wisdom contradictorily goes.  Flows then that individual homes and extended families in the present often end up smaller-scale versions of this chess match.

Praying habits back to hell

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Thursday, July 2nd, 2009 by Susan Pietrzyk

I remember that September 2008 was a tough month in Harare.  Tough for purchasing food that is.  This was before the selected legalization of US$ sales and before full-on dollarization.  The problem back then was either:  1) shops only had empty shelves or 2) the products were priced in ZWD based on having obtained those ZWD via transfer, meaning if one had obtained ZWD by exchanging cash for cash even a single banana would have cost something like US$10.  That month I was only eating what I had horded away in my cupboards.  I looked in shops every day, but could not afford anything since I was not a swiper.

Things changed in October 2008 when the powers that be dictated that shops could sell exported food in US$.  Thinking this dual currency system might be short lived, I bought loads of food.  Also perhaps I stocked up because, as the expression goes, I was like a kid in a candy store.  Just the sight of food on the shelves made me want one of everything.  I even bought food that I don’t really like, only because it was available.

I’ve returned to Harare after being away for six months.  Now the shelves are full.  Or at least full like they never were in 2008 or even in 2007.  Now everything is in US$.  High priced US$ to be exact.  It’s funny, in that not actually funny way.  Once in the fully shelved shops of Harare 2009, I still want to buy one of everything.  I suppose this is not surprising given that the last six months in the US have been the same thing.  I move down and around the 82-aisled overstocked US grocery stores and want to buy multiples of things.  In case they run out.

But back to what’s not actually funny.  When and how to get rid of Zimbabwean habits.  And not just in relation to purchasing food.  The habit of expecting and accepting corruption among political leaders.  Having to think and carefully strategize how to assert basic human rights.  Assuming the coming week will involve a lack of electricity and/or water.  Thinking vast swathes of fallow land is normal.

While in Harare I will attend a screening of the film Pray the Devil Back to Hell.  The film follows a group of brave and visionary women who fought for peace in Liberia.  As fighting increased in Monrovia, and peace talks faltered, the women of Liberia – Christian and Muslims united – formed a thin but unshakable white line between the opposing forces.  They successfully demanded the fighting end, armed only with white T-shirts and the courage of their convictions.  Liberian women called for peace — they prayed for the devil of war to get back to Hell.  At one point, the women barricaded the site of the stalled peace talks in Ghana.   Boldly announced they would remain until a deal was signed.  Faced with eviction, they invoked the most powerful weapon in their arsenal – threatening to remove their clothes.  It worked.  Peace came to Liberia and continues under the leadership of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

When I watch the film I will pray that devilish Zimbabwean habits get back to Hell.