Interview with Marion Stevens - Associate at the African Gender Institute

The AGI interviewed Marion Stevens who is currently an Associate at the African Gender Institute. Marion has been working with gender studies third year students doing a mapping exercise to gain peoples understanding in what their experience and knowledge is of female condoms and how they think this new model should be introduced. Earlier this year Marion completed a report entitled "Transgender access to sexual health services in South Africa".  The AGI would like to work in partnership with Gender Dynamix in writing up some of these findings.

Tell us about the work you will be doing whilst you are an Associate at the AGI?

There is a new female condom that will be introduced into South Africa in 2013 called the women's condom. The women's condom has been well researched and remodelled and looks like a tampon but is more discreet and apparently extraordinarily pleasurable. We have been doing a mapping exercise to gain peoples understanding in what their experience and knowledge is of female condoms and how they think this new model should be introduced. I am fortunate to work with some AGI third year students. We conducted some focus groups together and they then turned the research into their long essay project. This work is funded by PATH. [PATH is an international nonprofit organization that transforms global health through innovation. They take an entrepreneurial approach to developing and delivering high-impact, low-cost solutions http://path.org/]. Our overwhelming finding is that we need to move away from tired HIV prevention messaging and women's empowerment messaging and look towards women's desire and pleasure. We need to focus on sex positive aspects of condoms which apparently speak for themselves.

I also have earlier on this year completed a research project for Gender Dynamix [Gender Dynamix is the first African based organisation solely focusing on the transgender community. http://www.genderdynamix.org.za] where we interviewed over 80 transgendered persons in South Africa. The research explored their experiencing in accessing health care and also in relation to sexual and reproductive health. That report has been completed but AGI would like to work in partnership with Gender Dynamix in writing up some of these findings. This report entitled "Transgender access to sexual health services in South Africa" can be downloaded here - http://www.genderdynamix.org.za/documents/transgender-access-to-sexual-health-services-in-south-africa/

I also write a monthly column for a nurse’s trade union journal on women's health and featured areas for example sex work decriminalisation and access to abortion. I am hoping that these will be used by the AGI for content in teaching around women's health and gendered access to health.
[To read more of Marion's writing, click here.] [For more about Marion's organisation click here.]

What brought you to do the work you do?

I have a background as a nurse and a midwife and trained in apartheid South Africa where the inequalities between men and women, black and white hit me in the face. My training did not address these questions at all so as a young adult for years during my trainings and my one year of work post-studies, I felt very drawn to addressing the questions that I still have. I registered as a student at UCT and did my honours in Anthropology which was an enormous relief as it allowed me to live with these questions. This has all added up to being drawn to policy activism and research in addressing the many questions that I still have.

Why are you a feminist?

Because I wear pink!

In my family of origin my Father often spoke to me about my need to earn my own bread and to be independent. In a very unclear way he spoke of the inequalities between men and women. Later on when I was exposed to people’s illnesses and diseases in hospitals, I saw how these inequalities were so pervasive between men and women and between race groups. My response to that was with activism. I was drawn to women's health in particular when I saw black women dying of cervical cancer, black women severely ill and dying from septic abortions. women exposed to domestic violence and sexual abuse. I learnt so much about how these (dis)eases and illnesses are so fundamentally entwined with patriarchy and misogyny. I was slowly born into this space where I see myself as wanting the world to be a better place for women.

What makes you happy?

The ocean, I enjoy being outside. Fires and stars and moon and the smell of wet fynbos when walking up the mountain. I am blessed to have a family, a partner and two boys. I enjoy the privilege of doing work that makes me happy and feels sometimes to be making small changes in addressing women's health.

What makes you sad?

Sometimes I feel quite sad about the challenges in South Africa and the lost dream of 1994. It is a visceral kind of sadness when I read about lesbians being raped or murdered and women being denied access to choices in relation to their sexual and reproductive health. So when people say teenagers being pregnant are being irresponsible with no understanding of the context of young women's lives. When politicians say teenagers having repeat abortions is wrong, they say that it is teenagers health rather than society failing that young women's' ability to exercise their sexual and reproductive health in a safe way.

Sometimes when I have discussions with my boys I feel sad that in 2012 I still have to deconstruct some of the social injustices in our society. For example sexual knowledge often comes from negative sexual spaces rather than positive. At a young age they are exposed to people’s bravado and lies. One hopes that with your child you are going to give them as much sex and reproductive rights information but they live in a society where still young persons  are exposed to enormous misconceptions and brutality in terms of their sexual and reproductive health and rights. There is a whole continuum of conversations to have around social injustices and these also painful but we have to have them.

What two things would you do if you were President of South Africa?

I would start the basic income grant and a strategy for teaching positive sexual and reproductive health in schools that would include ensuring that the teachers who deliver the training are equipped to do so. Secondly, I would ensure that adolescent sexual and reproductive health commodities whether it is condoms or whatever, to are made available and that the related services are available at schools.