My Thesis Research (DUN DUN DUNNNN)

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As an international development studies (IDS) co-op student, I am required to do two things in my fourth year abroad. First, I’m supposed to live and work in a developing country for¬†eight to twelve months. And second, I’m tasked with choosing a research topic for my undergraduate thesis and collecting data for this research while on placement. During our first three years university, the IDS-ers tend to become very excited about the work part of placement and very scared about the thesis side of things (hence the dramatics in this post’s title!). But we need to do both to graduate so thesis research always manages to get done.

For those who regularly read my blog, you know I’ve had a turbulent past eight months on placement. My first three months were spent in Bibiani, Ghana,¬†a country I grew to love but¬†left early due to concerns about the Ebola outbreak in neighbouring countries (to date, thankfully, there have been no confirmed cases of Ebola in Ghana). Then, after just about three weeks back home in Canada after Ghana, I jetted off to Botswana to finish my placement here, where I’ve been for almost five months.

What has this got to do with research? Well, in Ghana I planned to do research on one topic. I even wrote a pretty good draft of a research proposal for my supervisor. But as soon as I left, I was forced to throw that away and start fresh in Botswana. This was nerve-wracking because I have a lot less time to complete my research in Botswana, with a placement of only five or so months in comparison to the eight months I was going to have in Ghana.

When I arrived in Botswana, I was a little disoriented. I had experienced a lot of change in a month (from West Africa to North America to Southern Africa) so it took me a while to settle in and finally start thinking about potential research topics here. After about two months in Gaborone, Botswana, I finally chose my topic. With all the media about street harassment around the world, I was interested in looking at this phenomenon here, too.

Street harassment is sexual harassment that happens in public places between strangers. Traditionally men are the harassers and women are the targets of street harassment, as it is widely considered a symptom of gender inequality. Even though street harassment is a global issue, there is little research done on it in general and even less done on it in the developing world, especially in Africa. Moreover, the youth voice is often left out of what research there is.

My research is focusing on speaking with youth – secondary school students here in Gaborone. I am looking for their stories, experiences, and conceptions of street harassment as a way of gaining insight into the gender inequality that exists here as well. I hope that my research will show that street harassment is an issue that we should be exploring as development researchers and practitioners. I also hope to add voices from the developing world to a topic that tends to be very North America focused.

I’ve already started setting up meetings with schools in the area to begin my data collection. It’s been a long time coming, since I started writing my research proposal for this topic almost three months ago. Preparing for research is almost as taxing as actually doing the research because there are numerous bureaucratic processes that need to be fulfilled with my university and also with federal and regional government here in Botswana.

I’m excited to get started with the data collection but¬†also quite nervous, which I think is to be expected. I’ve only done much smaller research projects in the past – nothing on this scale before and nothing outside of a university context. But that’s why we go to school, right? To be challenged because that’s when we learn the most. I’ve already learned so much preparing for this research so I know I’ll learn even more over the next few weeks during the¬†data collection process. Hopefully everything goes smoothly.¬†Wish me luck!

Comedy doesn’t have to be offensive, you know

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Last night, I had the pleasure of watching South African comedian Trevor Noah¬†perform in Gaborone. My friend Elena and I were giddy with excitement in the week leading up to the event, as we are both huge fans. When the day of the show finally came, we met up in the afternoon, chatting and watching one of his old DVDs before heading out for dinner and then over to the show. Noah himself was hilarious and I’m very grateful I was able to watch him perform live before he starts working with Jon Stewart and becomes¬†even more famous in the international comedy scene.

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While Noah’s act was great, the acts that preceded him – including the host and the opening comedian Eugene Khoza – left much to be desired. Neither were very funny at all but what was more of an issue was the problematic¬†bullshit spewing from their mouths. Their comedy was infused with the kind of sexism we have come to expect from uncreative comedians. Last night, we were subjected to so many jokes focusing on women and, more specifically, focusing on women’s bodies. For example, there were extensive comments policing what overweight women ‘should be’ wearing. (Newsflash: Anyone can wear whatever they want anytime, friends.)

The most offensive joke of the night by far though was a piece on the young women kidnapped by the Boko Haram in Nigeria, an act of violence that spurred the social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls. The joke was focused on the girls’ looks, Khoza¬†saying that they should “#KeepOurGirls” because they are ugly. Khoza¬†even suggested that men of the world were better off because these ugly girls had been kidnapped and were now out of the dating pool. He said he wasn’t surprised that there were no boyfriends or husbands campaigning to get the girls back.

Not only is this joke inappropriate because it trivializes a horrible tragedy that has caused a lot of pain but this joke is also unacceptable because it furthers disgusting sexist stereotypes about women. These stereotypes oppress women, keeping them at a lower status in society in comparison to men. These jokes suggest that women are only worthwhile in their roles in relation to men as wives, mothers, and sisters. And these jokes tell women their worth is measured only on their looks. They tell women that they are only around to be objectified for the pleasure of men. Moreover, this joke condones gender-based violence, acts that are rampant around the world and not to be made a laughing matter.

I was so angry after this joke that I basically stopped listening to Khoza… Unfortunately, I tuned in long enough to hear some of his other jokes, including one that perpetuated the stigma against HIV/ AIDS and another that belittled street youth. If Trevor Noah hadn’t been coming out on stage after this comedian, I would have left the venue in protest against this man’s unacceptable brand of humour.

This experience has me thinking about the role humour has in perpetuating stereotypes. Too often are comedians hiding behind the ”it’s a joke; lighten up” defense. I’d like to think it’s possible to create an entire comedy act free from sexism, racism, and other problematic stereotyping. In fact, I think it’s possible to create acts that positively impact the world by disrupting these stereotypes.

Humour has the potential to bring people into conversations about privilege, power, and problematic narratives. I think we should be using comedy to overturn stereotypes in funny and unexpected ways instead of lazily relying on -isms for a cheap laugh. So let’s support the comedians who use their platform to talk about important issues instead of lending an ear to the boring comedians whose jokes contribute to world suck.

Get off my (vegan) back

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When I first went¬†vegan, almost six years ago, I promised myself that I wouldn’t be one of ‘those’¬†vegans. The pushy vegan. The in-your-face-about-it vegan. The how-dare-you-eat-that-steak-in-front-of-me vegan. I didn’t (and still don’t)¬†want to become a judgemental person because of my personal choice to not eat animal products. Unfortunately,¬†this doesn’t stop others from openly – and often confrontationally – judging me for my lifestyle. To be frank, I’m getting tired¬†of it.

The number one reaction I receive to my veganism is, “OH I COULD NEVER DO THAT”.¬†… No one asked you to.¬†My choice to eat vegan has nothing to do with you. It is not a judgement against you or your eating habits. I have never pushed anyone to be vegan. Ever. So your pre-emptive defence against whatever judgment you think I’m going to make against you, after it comes up that I’m vegan, is both misplaced and annoying.¬†Your need to reassure yourself that you couldn’t possibly follow a vegan diet stems from a self-doubt and self-consciousness about your own habits and health. That is your problem; please stop¬†projecting¬†it¬†onto me and my veggie burger.

The second most common reaction I get is, “SO, LIKE, WHAT DO YOU EAT?”. The answer to this question is, of course, “food”, just like everyone else. If you are truly interested in learning about a vegan diet, I’m more than willing to discuss that with you. In fact, I really enjoy sharing my personal experiences with others when they ask. But nine times out of ten, learning¬†is not the intention of this question. I find, instead, that this question is designed to put me on the defensive, forcing me to lay out my daily diet¬†for you to investigate and mock. Many when asking this question suddenly become doctors and nutritionists, faking worry for me and assuring me that my diet couldn’t possibly sustain me over the longterm. If you ever feel compelled to do the same, please remember that my diet and my body are none of your business.

Speaking of my body, let’s all just agree to stop saying things like, “You’re vegan? Really? You don’t LOOK¬†like a vegan”. Thanks for letting me know that I don’t look like the waif-y vegan stereotype you have in your head. Saying things like this is¬†thinly veiled way of commenting on my body, something you have absolutely no¬†jurisdiction to do. We live in a world where so many of us struggle everyday to appreciate and love the bodies we have that we¬†should all avoid passing harmful judgements like this. Just like all people, vegans can be all shapes and sizes and races and genders. Stop trying to fit me or anyone else into the¬†boxes that live in your head.

Finally, I need to call out the gender issues embedded in¬†much of criticism I hear when I’m being questioned¬†about my veganism. Because meat is very closely associated with masculinity, plant-based diets¬†are¬†culturally¬†characterized as feminine. Veganism and those who practice it¬†are therefore immediately considered inferior¬†because we live in a culture that is patriarchal. This means that every time someone assures me that I won’t be ‘strong’ because I am vegan or bullies¬†a man for eating ‘girly rabbit food’, they are conforming to and¬†reinforcing¬†our patriarchal system, which means they are contributing to the oppression of women, non-binary, and queer folks.¬†Not good.

[Relevant sidenote: Please don’t mansplain veganism. Last night, I was surrounded by a group of men – all of whom I’d just met¬†–¬†that¬†decided that my veganism would certainly kill my future baby. Seriously.¬†I was too shocked by the sexism of the situation to do a proper take-down so indulge me¬†now: How dare¬†you automatically place me in the role of mother and caregiver because I’m female and how dare you think you know best about my health and my body.]

This post is not aimed at a particular person or situation. Instead it represents a culmination of experiences over the past six years that have each made me feel¬†hurt, judged, angry, and self-conscious. My veganism is deeply personal. It comes from a complicated history with food and health and it has grown into a lifestyle that fits who I am. Through veganism, I have gained a¬†greater understanding of global food systems, environmentalism, animal welfare, feminism, and health and fitness, too. If you want to talk about any of that¬†with me, that’s fantastic. But if you just want to point¬†out my veganism for rude, bullying, or self-serving purposes, please think before you speak and just back off.

I’m not going to ‘lighten up’

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Brazil’s football team had a stunning collapse on Tuesday, it’s true. But at the end of the day, it was a football match so it cannot accurately be compared to horrific acts of violence like genocide. And yet, social media was filled with these comparisons during and after the game. I read so many tweets and saw so many Facebook posts about the match that alluded to the Holocaust, Nazis, and ethnic cleansing.¬†Most disturbing to me were the endless references to rape, all saying that the Brazilian team had been ‘raped’ by the German team. I tweeted my disgust with this trend, as did many others. In response to these tweets, Al Jazeera posted a short article about the issue.

Now, I usually try to stay away from the comments section online because, as we all know, it can become a hellpit of ridiculous and pointless yelling fuelled by overzealous trolls. But I caught a glimpse of the top comment on the Al Jazeera article and what I saw made my blood boil: it read, “oh shut the f*** up you babies” [censorship added]. I scrolled down and saw more comments that, in a nutshell, said that people just need to learn to take a joke.¬†This is an argument I’ve heard more times than I can count. I’ve been mocked when calling someone out for inappropriate comments and I’m used to hearing sarcastic remarks¬†like, “I’ll bet you’re really fun at parties”. But I brush this off because I’m not going to ‘lighten up’ about this. We need to accept responsibility for the language we are using and understand that it can have very negative consequences because language can, and often does, hurt.

In this case, ‘joking’ about rape perpetuates a rape culture that contributes to violence against women. It says to rape survivors, “what happened to you is not important; in fact, it’s even funny”. It denies the seriousness of the crime committed against them. Even more disturbingly, joking that the Brazilians were ‘raped’ in the semi-finals means that the Germans are ‘rapists’, which is essentially saying that rapists are winners, which I think we can all agree is not a conclusion we want people to make.

All this to say: you might have thought your joke was funny but you were wrong. It’s not funny and it’s not harmless. It contributes to a system that actively creates a culture where violence is trivialized. RAPE IS NOT LIKE LOSING A FOOTBALL MATCH. (I can’t believe I even had to write that sentence at all.)¬†So, yes, language does have consequences. As a result, I will not stop trying to interrupt harmful narratives when I encounter them because, otherwise, we won’t learn to be more intentional and positive with our language. Moreover, not revealing the inappropriateness of comments like rape jokes is only condoning the behaviour. Continue reading

Gender & the World Cup

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Being in Ghana during the World Cup means that I am engulfed in soccer fever constantly. It’s only a few days into things and it’s already a mesmerizing and exciting experience. Despite¬†Ghana’s loss in their first match to the United States last night, everyone’s in a celebratory mood because of the fun and games. But today I’m not going to write¬†about how amazing it is to be a World Cup spectator in a country where the soccer team makes the list of “national heroes” because I’ve got something more important to talk about, something serious that has come up again and again since the World Cup finals began last Thursday:¬†I need to talk about gender.

Maybe it’s because I’m working as a gender advisor right now, or maybe it’s because my feminist voice is getting stronger and more confident, but the shocking gender gap in every aspect of the World Cup has really, really bothered me. It’s no secret that sport is a business dominated by men. Sport culture often perpetuates dangerous ideas of masculinity that disregard the diversity present within the population of male-identified people. Often, sport has resulted in the maintenance and reinforcement of homophobia and misogyny. How many times has it been said that a player throws / runs / catches “like a girl”, a phrase that associates anything female or feminine with the lesser.

My experience with the World Cup finals so far has only showed me the strength of sport as a ‘boys club’. To illustrate this, I’ll give you a number of examples. To watch the World Cup matches, I walk over to a local restaurant since I don’t have a television in my apartment. Besides, they project the games onto a large wall outside, which is pretty awesome. Those who run the place and the regulars¬†who are always there have come to expect me to be there for at least one match per day. It’s a fun and friendly atmosphere and I’ve made several soccer buddies as I cheer for the various teams I’m supporting (Ghana, The Netherlands, and England for the record). Continue reading

Today’s Agenda: A Celebration of the Girl Child

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At work today, I attended an assembly at a local school here in Bibiani with my supervisor, the Girls Education Officer for the Ghana Education Service. This assembly was a pageant-style competition but instead of focusing on physical beauty like the pageants we see on television, this competition crowned a winner based on her self-confidence and intelligence.

Some of the large crowd at the event. By the end of it, there were at least three hundred people there!

Some of the large crowd at the event. By the end of it, there were at least three hundred people there!

After the opening prayer, a young woman gave an impressive speech on the value of girl child education. She ended her speech with¬†James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey‘s famous¬†quote:¬†“If you educate a man, you simply educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate a family.” Her strong, clear voice ring through the large crowd of local community members, all nodding along and clapping¬†for her and her powerful words.¬† Continue reading