OPINION: Women experience oppression in differently. Our response must be nuanced

The intersectional nature of women's oppression means that all women's experiences are not identical. This implies that our responses need to be nuanced enough to speak to these different realities, writes Elisabet le Roux.

Women in South Africa face many challenges, including discrimination in the workplace, the gender pay-gap, poverty, sexual harassment and extremely high levels of violence against women and girls.

This is often headline news, where shocking statistics and heart-breaking stories are shared in evidence of women's suffering.

Research is an important dimension of responding appropriately to women's realities. Laws, policies and programming that can bring positive change can only be designed if we have a thorough understanding of the problem and its drivers. However, I would argue that our research and our responses to the challenges women face, do not engage enough with those directly affected.

"Nothing about us, without us," is a slogan often used by survivor groups to emphasise how important it is that survivor-focused programmes, policy and laws should be developed with comprehensive and consistent input by survivors themselves. Yet the same slogan applies to women in general.

Where programmes, policy and laws targeting women are designed, women should not only be included in the process, but should be leading it. It is in many ways astounding that this is still something that is contested. But 25 white men in Alabama, USA who recently passed a near-total ban on abortion, once again showed us that in so many spaces and places, it is still only men making the decisions on the issues that intimately affect women.

I participated in a recent research project in Zambia which has brought home the importance of not only including women, but intentionally ensuring that the heterogeneity of "women" is recognised and accounted for. Approached by the Episcopal Church's international relief and development agency Episcopal Relief & Development, Speak One Voice and key leadership in the Zambian Anglican Church, to assist in doing research within the Zambian Anglican Mothers' Union (MU), the research project looked at how the MU challenges or condones violence against women and children.

Speak One Voice was started by senior African women leaders in the Anglican Church who recognised how violence against women and children was impacting not only individuals, but families and communities. The movement aims to actively engage both the Anglican Church hierarchy, but also women at grassroots level, in ending violence against women and children.

Fully cognisant of our status as outsiders, both to Zambia and the MU, my team and I designed a highly participatory research project. The key method that we used was an adapted form of Photovoice. Over a period of five months, trained research assistants (all members of the MU) took photos using camera phones. These photos captured and illustrated various themes, such as power, gender roles and social norms. Each photo was also accompanied by a voicenote, in which they explained why they took the picture and what it meant to them.

This adapted form of Photovoice allowed us to include rural women, illiterate women, and women who only speak local languages as research assistants. Yet they did not only collect data, but played a key role in analysing it through their voicenotes and a two-day session at the end of the five months, where each research assistant interpreted her pictures and identified the key themes and messages emerging from it.

This research process placed the women most directly affected front and centre – and what resulted was astounding. The photos taken were insightful and nuanced. Their analysis of their communities, churches and the MU was comprehensive, critical and constructive. My team would not have been able to deliver such high-quality work without them.

Looking back at the research project, I realise it offers some lessons for us as South Africans, especially during August when we'll be celebrating Women's Day and Women's Month.

What we can take from it, is that the intersectional nature of women's oppression means that all women's experiences are not identical. This implies that our responses need to be nuanced enough to speak to these different realities. In setting a woman-centered South African agenda, and enacting it, it is therefore crucially important to actively and creatively ensure that the voices of different women are included. This will in many settings require creative work, as the research in Zambia illustrated, to ensure that women who are so often excluded – so often the rural, illiterate, and poor – are accounted for and included.

This is a challenge to men and women in South Africa.  For men, the challenge is to not only include women, but to have them lead. For women, the challenge is to be aware of the power imbalance present between women – be it due to education, race, or position – and to rectify that imbalance through intentional and creative inclusion strategies. Let Women's Day and Women's Month be a reminder not only of the need to better the lives and circumstances of women, but to have women front and centre in this process.

- Dr Elisabet le Roux is research director of the Unit for Religion and Development Research in the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University.