For years, the reproductive health and well-being of women were considered a taboo subject among many communities. This resulted in poor maternal health care services, especially among the most marginalised women in society.
Dr Efua Tembisa Prah, who works in the department of Sociology and Anthropology at Stellenbosch University, is trying to change the narrative and practices by exploring the gender dynamics, identity and culture as these relate to South Africa's maternal health record.
As part of South Africa Women's Month celebrations, Prah shares insight into her research on reproductive health and the importance of shedding light on the silent histories of marginalised women in South Africa.
Can you tell us more about your research?
I am currently exploring both historic and contemporary ethnographic research on reproductive health in South Africa. The aim of the research is to contribute to an anthropological platform that seeks to better understand gender dynamics, culture, society, belonging and personhood as it relates to South Africa's maternal health record. As a means to locate and embed stories shared within a wider library of embodied knowledge, the research traces and weaves through descriptions of reproductive health and well-being in South Africa's history. It has a special focus on slave experiences of pregnancy, birthing and motherhood and how these pasts have shaped our current maternal health outcomes.
Why or how did you become interested in this specific area of research?
I have always been interested in exploring the body as both a subjective and performative construction. Additionally, something fascinates me about pregnancy, birthing and women's health in general. I have always loved history and have been fascinated about how the historical record in many instances silences and obscures particular narratives and lives. So, from early on in my academic training I was drawn to histories that accounted for the emergence of a more medicalised treatment of female anatomy, sexuality, pregnancy and birthing in general and what this medicalisation meant for women, particularly black, Indian and coloured women in South Africa.
Why do you think this is such an important area of research for South African women?
I think as South Africans, we have a responsibility to learn as much as we can about our pasts and the ways in which our present moment reflects these often-silenced histories. Women and especially their reproductive well-being have historically been relegated to the margins. We see the results of this in our very unequal and fragmented maternal health care governmental practices. The policies seemingly are impeccable yet the rollout of these policies is in disarray for a number of very complex reasons, much of which reflects our racially divided past.
What would you consider the greatest impact of your research on women in the country?
I can only hope that the work that I do, whether through film or ethnographic study means something to the women that I work with directly. The stories these women share are powerful records that provide an important archive for others to continue building and infusing with critical analysis.
Do you have any message for the next generation of women researchers?
I think we are at our mightiest when we work together. Sharing ideas and inspiring and supporting one another is one way we become tellers of our own stories.