Women’s Health Activism, Empowerment and Medicalization

Researcher: Elina Oinas

The project started in 2006 and was completed in 2008

‘Our bodies are the evidence of global inequality and injustice. They are not mere metaphors for the relationship between inequality and disease. But our bodies are also the sites of resistance. We do not die quietly. We challenge global inequality. Our resistance gives us dignity. In the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), the voices of our comrades, friends and children echo around the world to resist injustice. Our voices demand life even as our bodies resist death.’ (Zackie Achmat, John Foster Lecture 10.11.04)

‘We are not going to change people's perceptions, we are not going to change behavior because the value of life is not significant in South Africa, because people continue to die while we know full well what we can do to save people's lives. ’ (Sipho Mthathi at SA Commission on Gender Equity on 01.04.2003)

The HIV/AIDS epidemic has become a major threat to African societies, affecting a wide range of areas from gender relations and intimacy to economic and political development. While the social and biomedical implications of the epidemic are becoming increasingly well documented, and enormous investments made in HIV policies, the political agendas and initiatives of the affected communities themselves have been little discussed in research.

The study concentrated on HIV/AIDS activism in South Africa by studying the politics of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), a large movement that engages young women from various backgrounds. The TAC is a remarkable and visible movement in the HIV/AIDS field as it approaches the illness from a different angle compared to mainstream HIV prevention approaches. The TAC both politicizes HIV, and medicalizes it: the TAC advocates that anti-retroviral AIDS medication be made available on a mass scale through public health care.

The study, conducted in collaboration with Katarina Jungar at Åbo Akademi University, Finland, explored how knowledge, power, globalization and health are interlinked in the activist discourses. The issue of access to medical treatment seems to be crucial in grassroots mobilization around HIV, and should be studied more closely. Similarly, the community contexts of treatment programs need attention, as biomedicine is inherently a social and political enterprise. The study detected lessons to be learned from activist movements for health promotion and health policies.

The study wished to contribute to the research fields of gender and health in social sciences, especially Sociology; but also to Feminist Theory, African Studies and Science and Technology Studies.

Elina Oinas holds a PhD in Sociology from Åbo Akademi University, Finland. She has been visiting scholar at the Women and Gender Studies Departments at the University of the Western Cape (2002, 2003), South Africa, and University of California, Berkeley (2005-2006). She was the editor for the journal NORA – Nordic Journal of Women’s Studies (Routledge/Taylor & Francis), with Tutta Palin between 2007 and 2009. Her subject areas are gender, health, HIV/AIDS, activism, health promotion, embodiment, politics, knowledge, medicalization, South Africa.

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