along the shores of Lake Victoria takes just such an
intersectional approach. Johnson, an assistant professor
of anthropology, is studying women who work with
indigenous and introduced fish populations in Africa’s
largest body of fresh water, accounting for the history of
the region’s ecology and fishing industry and questioning
assumptions about what makes those fisheries sustainable
(and for whom).
“My interest in gender arose because there’s a
widespread assumption about women’s lives in the fisheries
where I work—that they are persistently exploited both by
the overt masculinity of fishermen and by global markets
for fish products that are exporting fish that women could
otherwise be working with,” says Johnson.
In the communities she studies, men tend to do the
fishing, with women processing fish for local and regional
markets and developing networks to sell them. Some
studies in Kenyan fisheries indicated women were trading
sex for access to the best part of a fisherman’s catch, and
that this practice increased the prevalence of HIV/AIDS.
But in Uganda, says Johnson, the women she works
with indicate that they simply say no to unwanted requests
or work with another fisherman if need be. Processing
and selling fish is often emancipatory, providing income
for health care, children’s school fees, and the purchase
of property. So while it’s true that some women in these
communities remain financially vulnerable, says Johnson,
in general “there is more of a complementary relationship
than an exploitative one.”
In addition, Johnson notes, contemporary fisheries
legislation isn’t substantially different than it was during
Uganda’s colonial era more than 60 years before, which
didn’t account for local consumption, but was established
in service to Europeans and their desire to export fish. This
means that many women are working with technically
illegal fish, based on the size, species, and gear used to
catch them. She would like to try to calculate the economic
value of these local and regional fisheries markets to
influence the development of policy that supports them
rather than criminalizes them.
Johnson, who considers her work feminist political
ecology, points out the degree to which colonial history,
the production of scientific data, and economic forums
have been male-dominated arenas. “What feminism does
there is not just to say we need to consider women in this
situation, but that we need to consider the very foundations
of scientific and managerial knowledge,” she says.
The complexity of progress
While Johnson’s work demonstrates that feminist issues
can vary widely across the globe, Amanda Veile’s research
illustrates that what may feel like obvious improvements
for women aren’t always as clear cut as they seem.
Veile, a biological anthropologist, focuses on infant and
child development and maternal–infant interactions in
environments where nutrition and health practices are
in transition. She has conducted research with remote
indigenous communities throughout Latin America, and in
each community, modernization of certain health practices
has proved beneficial in the lives of infants and mothers—
but sometimes has unexpected drawbacks, too.
Her current project in Mexico takes place in a Yucatec
Maya farming village. Its residents benefit from national
programs that provide stipends, health care, and health
education to the poorest families in Mexico.
“What really started to blow my mind was when women
started telling me that they had C-sections,” says Veile.
“They were saying it very nonchalantly like someone here
would.” The cesarean birth rate in Mexico is now nearly 50
percent; for comparison, the U.S. rate is approximately