Choosing to challenge for International Women's Day on 8 March
By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Thursday, 11 March 2021
The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day on 8 March is ‘choose to challenge’. Here four Sussex women academics describe how and why they have actively questioned laws, perceptions and behaviours to bring about change.
“I’m challenging how we understand violence”
Dr Suda Perera, Lecturer in International Development, challenges perceptions of violence and danger in conflict-affected states.
I’m interested in challenging the kind of framing that certain places are inherently dangerous.
My research was inspired by my own family’s experience of leaving Sri Lanka during the civil wars in the 1980s. Although they were fairly affluent and worked as doctors, my parents had to start again when they came to the UK. So I have always had this interest in the complicated relationship between conflict, migration, and decision-making in war-time.
Much of my work has focused on conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although United Nations peace-keeping forces have been there for the past 20 years, following two very bloody wars, the reality is that there are now more armed groups in the country than during the war.
So there is violence and there are insecurities faced by the people on a daily basis, but we lose sight of humanity when we label these areas as inherently violent without questioning what purpose this violence serves. Often these groups are providing some kind of employment and more security for the local people than many humanitarian organisations whose staff members don’t usually stay long and leave without changing much.
I am trying to understand where this violence comes from and unpack some of the structural drivers of cyclical violence. I do feel that being a woman of colour has granted me a particular type of access to some armed group members who may be distrustful of white male researchers – I think they see me as less aggressive and more willing to listen to their grievances
At the same time, there is a perception that Congo is one of the most dangerous places in the world for women. People ask me what sort of protection I have. Well, it’s true that for some women in specific circumstances, it is dangerous.
But it hasn’t been that dangerous for me. I always work with amazing local fixers, who have helped me develop contacts and advise me of security, and the armed groups I talk to have always been respectful. To be honest, I’ve found the militarized masculinities among some of the UN peacekeepers I’ve interviewed often more threatening than those of the armed group members I’ve interviewed.
I have come to learn that local populations don’t see peacekeepers and charities as necessarily there to help them, and they’ve learnt to fend for themselves.
I’m also trying to challenge Western-derived frameworks through which we understand conflict by listening to people’s stories and analysing how they theorise about the world and their place within it.
It’s important for us not to disconnect ourselves or to believe that these societies are violent because of an established set of assumptions. We think that civil wars could never happen here because we are not an inherently ‘dangerous’ or ‘violent’ society, but that’s to misunderstand what leads to conflict in the first place.
“I challenged gaps in a law that protects against coercive control”
Cassandra Wiener, doctoral researcher in Law, was part of a successful campaign to change the law to protect victims of post-separation coercive control.
As the Domestic Abuse Bill was going through Parliament, I knew it was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to think about what really needed changing. It coincided with the last stages of my doctoral research, which is a review of the criminal law on coercive control. England and Wales lead the way by being the first jurisdiction in the world to criminalise coercive control in this way, but my research highlighted a number of problems with the way the law had been drafted that meant it wasn’t as effective as it could be.
During my research I spent time with survivors and their closest advisers, and immersed myself in the way these experiences of abuse were articulated. The criminal law is a really formative, powerful force in our lives, and what became immediately apparent to me was the gap that still existed between the way that survivors told me they experience abuse and the criminal law that was available to prosecute it.
One of the most significant ‘gaps’ related to post separation abuse. Coercive control is the most insidious and dangerous type of domestic abuse. A victim lives in a state of entrapment, desperately fighting minute by minute for her own and her children’s safety. Unfortunately, it does not end with the abusive relationship.
When the legislation was first passed it wasn’t understood how coercive control continues after a relationship ends. Although there are laws against stalking, which then Attorney General Robert Buckland argued would cover post-separation abuse, the controlling behaviours that happen post separation are much broader than that. Stalking laws don’t cover the devastating economic abuse for example, or the abuse of child contact orders which makes co-parenting with an abuser a kind of post separation disaster zone for abused women.
Under the expert tutelage of Dr Nicola Sharp-Jeffs, who is the founder and CEO of Surviving Economic Abuse, and the Public Affairs and Media teams at Sussex, I learnt how to play a role in a campaign to change the law. It was a long and often frustrating process, but Nicola’s belief in the possibility of success, and the Public Affairs and Media team’s patience and persistence paid off. We worked with some amazing Peers, we got involved with the House of Commons debates as well as the House of Lords, and we hosted a successful round table with the Domestic Abuse Commissioner. The Media team helped maintain the pressure and in the end, while only three of over 100 proposed amendments were taken, ours, announced at the end of February 2021, was one of them.
It was truly a collaborative effort. My role was important but it was peripheral in that it was the survivors who spoke out – a lot of really amazing and inspiring women who worked together to make this happen. It is an unpleasant (and overlooked) truth that coercive control does not end with a relationship. Thanks to the bravery of these women, our protection won’t, either.
“I challenge corruption when I have clear evidence”
I’ve long been curious about hypocrisy in public organisations. You find people who are in roles because they say they want to serve the public interest, and yet sometimes they are doing the exact opposite of that. They are putting their private interests first, and probably doing harm to the public interest and groups of individuals.
As a researcher I have occasionally had some really stiff push-back when trying to get governments to be open and transparent about their procurement practices. In Hungary, where there is a government that has turned out to be quite corrupt, quite authoritarian and not concerned with the rule of law, I have been criticised quite aggressively in public by government officials when presenting evidence about their practices.
I only make a challenge when I have clear evidence, but also support. Coalition building is important in anti-corruption because you need a lot of stakeholders to be invested in change. There will be people who are benefiting from a corrupt scheme who will lose out, and you need to have a coalition of people who support your challenge.
While there are only a few women-led governments, they do appear to be less corrupt. This could be because women have been excluded from some of the informal networks in power that lead to corruption, or because women are less likely to be risk-takers – and corruption generally involves high-risk behaviour.
Sometimes a woman in a leadership position may not have got there in the same way as a corrupt man might have. They might be less likely to have engaged in favours on the way up to get a position, and are then less obligated to repay favours in corrupt ways. None of this is black and white, but I can see that as being a potential advantage.
But it also seems true that when women are in leadership positions in male-dominated hierarchies and begin to behave outside the norm, they can bring about positive change.
I’m doing a piece of work about medicine procurement reforms in Ukraine. Their health minister during the reforms was a woman, and she really changed the expectations of what a woman in a position of power looks like. Rather than wearing Chanel and high heels and going to work in a limo, she carried a rucksack, wore trousers and flat shoes and walked to work. Stepping outside one set of norms may have made it easier for her to make other changes and be credible as a reformer.
In any context there will be people who are all in the same difficult situation, some of whom are behaving corruptly and some of whom are doing their utmost to carry on doing the right thing, sometimes at great personal cost to themselves. It can be a tricky balance between being able to see things from different points of view to empathise versus keeping your moral compass.
“I challenged myths about the immune system and Covid-19”
Dr Jenna Macciochi, Lecturer in Immunology, has challenged misconceptions about the connections between the immune system and Covid-19.
I’ve always believed in the importance of being a science communicator. When the pandemic was spreading in the UK, I’d just had a book published about our immune system, and I found myself being called upon to dispel some of myths about how to protect ourselves from the virus.
The immune system is complicated, but I could see that lots of product manufacturers were using marketing techniques oversimplified or overstating the science, and that people were being sucked into buying things that really didn’t have a scientific basis.
In the early stages, it was mentioned that Vitamin C would protect you from Covid-19, so people were buying supplements and taking much higher doses than the recommended amount. It’s actually not healthy to do that – high doses can give you an upset stomach. Although some very, very sick patients were being given Vitamin C intravenously, these were experimental treatments being given under clinical supervision. Most people only needed to eat an orange.
Then there was President Trump’s comment about whether injecting bleach might work. Even though he didn't understand any science underlying how infections spread, people were anxiously looking for protection or cures that had no scientific basis.
As a female scientist, I have sometimes struggled to be heard. I grew up on a little farm in Scotland. My parents hadn’t gone to university and I had no female role models in terms of science. But I found a course at Glasgow University in the school of medicine on immunology and when I read the synopsis it just seemed to speak to me and It made me think that’s what I wanted to do.
Following my PhD at Imperial College London, which had lots of female-led laboratories, I went to work in Switzerland, which is a great place but seems quite far behind the UK in terms employment equality. All my colleagues were male and I didn’t feel I was being taken seriously. I was told that, in Switzerland, very few women went back to work after having children.
After having my twins, who are now six, I lost a lot of confidence in returning to science and qualified to become a personal trainer. But then the job came up at Sussex, and I took it because I am really passionate about my subject. Immunology is stil a new, but increasingly important area of study in healthcare.
At the moment my workload is heavy on teaching and organising scholarships, but when I return to research I’m interested in looking at how the gut affects the immune system. Around 70% of our immune system is in our gut. Dietary metabolites alter our susceptibility to inflammatory diseases – such as eczema. These chronic diseases are a huge burden on our healthcare system; they’re like a different kind of pandemic.