Reflecting on “#MeToo Meets Global Health: A call to action”

by Rachel Hall-Clifford (Agnes Scott College) and Arachu Castro (Tulane University)

Within global health, we rarely discuss gender-based violence that occurs during fieldwork—even among those of us who study gender-based violence.  It becomes a different phenomenon when we have experienced it firsthand. In April 2018, during the Workshop on Ethically Managing Risk in Global Health Fieldwork held in Atlanta USA, participants discussed the many ethical challenges of fieldwork.  As some participants shared accounts of gender-based violence they have endured in the field, it became clear that this issue is a central theme in global health fieldwork.  The normative silence surrounding gender-based violence fell away, and a broader discussion about the significant burden of this issue and what can be done emerged.

Within anthropology, in contrast to many of the other disciplines engaged in global health, we view self-reflexivity as important to the open and accurate reporting of data from fieldwork. During the 2018 workshop, global health scholars and practitioners from other disciplinary backgrounds were surprised (and in some cases disturbed) by fieldwork methods expected of anthropologists—that we will go out into the field, alone and often initially without local support networks, with the expectation that we will return with data. As two medical anthropologists, we found ourselves defending the deep (and, at times, solitary) engagement that ethnographic methods entail while simultaneously questioning how we can address gender-based violence in fieldwork. We believe these goals create significant but not insurmountable challenges. In perhaps the most powerful moment of our workshop conversations, a senior colleague announced he had failed terribly, having never once asked a student about their risks or experiences of gender-based violence during fieldwork in decades of student supervision. He vowed to change that. We can all follow this courageous example to take action against gender-based violence in fieldwork.

Following the 2018 workshop, many of the participants authored a joint statement, “#MeToo Meets Global Health: A call to action,” appearing in the June 2019 issue of Health and Human Rights Journal. Part of a special section on global health fieldwork ethics, the joint statement marks an effort to bring discussion of the realities of gender-based violence in fieldwork into professional discourse and to begin to map actionable steps for change in how global health workers are trained, supported, and assisted in reporting cases, during and after fieldwork.  Medical anthropology, as a key discipline contributing to global health, must play a central role in this undertaking.

We are delighted to have additional commentaries, hosted here at MAQ, from anthropology colleagues reflecting on the joint statement. Elizabeth Wirtz underscores the importance of how gender-based violence is framed, not just in terms of grappling with the limits of cultural relativism, but in our assumptions of who will be victims and who will be perpetrators. She questions the heteropatriarchal underpinnings of our fieldwork methods and conceptual framings of gender and urges us to be inclusive of all genders and sexual identities in our reckonings of gender-based violence. Gelya Frank further points out that, for all of our critical analysis of culture, gender, and power, anthropologists are not exempt from participating in acts of violence and the structures that facilitate them. Even as the American Anthropological Association has moved toward creation of clearer and more actionable processes to handle cases of sexual misconduct, Frank encourages us to continue to bring our critical lenses to bear on gender-based violence and to recognize that inequalities in who is affected reflect broader inequalities in our discipline and our society. Kimberly Theidon pushes us to (re)consider how our disciplinary structures silence those who experience gender-based violence—both through enabling perpetrators to remain in positions of power as well as encouraging the complicity of many of us through our own silence. Theidon reminds us of the people—and their knowledge, talent, and skills—lost to the vital endeavors of global health due to gender-based violence.

No one voice or collection of voices can articulate all that must be said about gender-based violence in fieldwork—we need a diverse multitude of voices to contribute to our understanding of the issues faced in the field.  We welcome further comments and discussion on gender-based violence in global health fieldwork and within the context of medical anthropology. Above all, we welcome the action that the sharing of experiences, processes, and strategies can bring. Visit wetooglobalhealth.org to join the discussion.