Elizabeth Revai Mudzimu, PhD student and a nun of the Little Children of Our Blessed Lady (L.C.B.L) Congregation, investigated the strategies that the Korekore women in the Mount Darwin district of Zimbabwe use to navigate the pressure exerted on their sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) by Catholic teachings on sexuality and by African, especially Korekore, spiritual beliefs and practices. On Thursday 11 February, she will defend her PhD thesis in order to obtain the doctoral degree in Religious Studies at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies.
Elizabeth explains why she chose this research subject: ‘Working with women for ten years in pastoral, development and empowerment programmes in Zimbabwe was an opportunity for me to learn about the different challenges and struggles that women encounter – some of which I was unable to find answers to, hence my interest in investigating these issues scientifically. Sexuality, despite being one of the most topical challenges among African women, is often not a subject for public discussion, which is of course not exclusive to African contexts. This sparked my desire to engage with women’s lives to make sense of their SRHR experiences, not from a pastoral perspective but from a scientist’s point of view.’
‘This research contributes to the study of religion and the discourse of SRHR, which is an understudied area, using the example of Catholic Korekore women in Zimbabwe,’ Elizabeth continues. ‘It shows how religion and culture can formulate discourses that, from an interpretivist point of view, believers take as givens and accordingly follow as dictates. The research also demonstrates the power that religious doctrines (written or unwritten), institutions and leaders possess in determining how people deal with issues in the public sphere, in this case SRHR. The discourse of SRHR has provided the background against which to study the function of religion in people’s lives. This thesis shows how religious institutions can frame public discourses, in a liberating and an oppressing way.’
Elizabeth gives some examples of taken-for-granted notions regarding African women’s sexuality that qualitative research has helped her to uncover: ‘I had always thought – like many other scholars – that African women do not have agency over their sexuality. Unsophisticated conclusions have been made about women who have many children as being oppressed, yet in some cases this is their choice as it provides a form of security. It was also fascinating to find out that docility, which for the most part is perceived as an expression of oppression and lack of agency, can be converted to some form of control. However, this research went further to critically analyse that form of agency, asking whether it is transformative and sustainable. The conclusion was that in most cases, it is not, thus paving the way for more empowerment programmes. Using the case of the Catholic Korekore women in Zimbabwe, I also concluded that a comprehensive understanding of the discourse of SRHR cannot be realized without questioning and considering the religious and cultural ideas that form the bedrock of the experiences and strategies that people employ to navigate the challenges of SRHR.’
Although Elizabeth ended up studying at the University of Groningen by coincidence – on completion of her Master’s degree, she decided she wanted to do more research and through Nuffic, she found a PhD position in Groningen – she now concludes: ‘I believe that studying here was my destiny and I am proud to have had the opportunity to study at such a prestigious, top-ranked and competitive university. Its academic excellence and innovation is amazing. Yes, after four years at this beautiful university, I now agree with some of my fellow “Groningers” that “er gaat niets boven Groningen!” (nothing tops Groningen!). After working very hard to complete my thesis way before the end of my contract, I will take a year off to relax before resuming work as a researcher, teacher and practitioner in women’s development projects. I love the academic life and will therefore remain in academia and increase my knowledge in SRHR, religion, culture, transformation and sustainable issues.’
On Thursday 11 February, Elizabeth Revai Mudzimu will defend her dissertation entitled
Religious and Cultural Encounters: Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights among the Korekore Women in Zimbabwe during a ceremony in the presence of her supervisor Prof. Kocku von Stuckrad, Professor of Religious Studies, and co-supervisor Dr Joram Tarusarira, Assistant Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding in the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen. Good luck Elizabeth, Tinokusuvira rombo rakanaka!
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