UIUC professor talks feminism, child morbidity in Zimbabwe

Isabella Jiao, Reporter

University of Illinois sociology Prof. Assata Zerai drew from her latest book on Zimbabwean humanitarian crises to address solutions to children’s health problems at an event at Northwestern on Wednesday.

During the talk, Zerai, who also serves as director of the Center for African Studies and associate dean of the Graduate College at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign examined how both environmental factors and hypermasculinity manifested through military control debilitate early childhood health in the country. She drew upon the empowerment of women in improving the unfortunate circumstances children in Zimbabwe experience.

Hosted by the NU African Studies Program, the talk attracted an audience of NU students and faculty. During the presentation, Zerai highlighted how climate variability creates unsafe and unpredictable water resources, which, exacerbated by unsanitary conditions, contributes to high child morbidity in Zimbabwe.

The findings mainly come from her second book “Hypermasculinity, State Violence, and Family Well-Being in Zimbabwe.” Speaking on why a feminist perspective especially appeals to her, she explained that as both a woman and a humanist — one who values human life as a philosophy — she believes women and children, whose needs are a last priority in Zimbabwe, should be given more attention.

“You have to challenge social norms to make social changes,” she said.

Martha Wilfahrt, a post-doctoral fellow in political science commented after the presentation.

“It’s a very important topic,” Martha Wilfahrt, a post-doctoral fellow in political science, said after the presentation. “And because I’m working on something similar, it’s interesting to hear about her insights on the issue.”

Despite her knowledge of this topic in Zimbabwe, Zerai had never been to the country before, she said. Her research was mainly secondary by analyzing data sets. Because information wasn’t as available as it is today, when she first worked on the dissertation at the University of Chicago, Africana feminism was hardly heard of. She couldn’t even find sufficient information about the political background in Zimbabwe, such as Gukurahundi, the suppression of Zimbabwe civilians.

“I didn’t even know what that was.” she said.

Many questions about hypermasculinity in Zimbabwe were also raised during the Q&A session as the audience pressed about the relationship between the military regime and child morbidity in the country. Zerai noted that, because of ethnic cleansing and persistent violence in the country, civilian resources were inevitably diverted to other uses.

“To the state, military is only a means for political gains,” Zerai said. “And it’s for politicians’ personal gains. The people couldn’t benefit at all.”

Pricilla Marimo, a Zimbabwean research manager at the Center for the Study of Development Economics, said she agreed with Zerai. Growing up in Zimbabwe, she said corruption and violence was deep-rooted in the country. This resulted in misplacement of resources essential for the people, such as basic sanitary facilities and water distribution infrastructures.

“There were no clean and stable water sources even in the cities,” Marimo said.

However, she disagreed with how Zerai categorized different ethnicities in Zimbabwe.

“Still, I think her findings on the general health care problems in Zimbabwe are largely true,” Marimo said.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @JiaoYawen