Sterilizing Vaccines or the Politics of the Womb: Retrospective Study of a Rumor in Cameroon

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Abstract

In 1990 a rumor that public health workers were administering a vaccine to sterilize girls and women spread throughout Cameroon. Schoolgirls leapt from windows to escape the vaccination teams, and the vaccination campaign (part of the Year of Universal Child Immunization) was aborted. This article traces the origin and development of this rumor. Theories of rumor and ambiguous cultural response to new technologies shed some light on its genesis and spread, but explain neither its timing nor its content. For this task we need to examine the historical context of Cameroonian experience with colonial vaccination campaigns and the contemporary contexts of the turmoil of democratization movements and economic crisis, concurrent changes in contraceptive policy, and regional mistrust of the state and its “hegemonic project.” Drawing on Bay art’s politique du ventre and White’s thoughts on gossip, we explore this rumor as diagnostic of local response to global and national projects. This response, expressed in this case through the idiom of threats to local reproductive capacity, reveals a feminine side to local-global relations, a politics of the womb.