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Using participatory visual methodology to explore girlhood and the construction of femininities with girls and young women in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

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The study reported in this thesis was located within the ambit of a larger, international and interdisciplinary partnership project between McGill University in Canada and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in South Africa. The Networks for Change and Well-being: girlled, from the ground up policy-making to address sexual violence in Canada and South Africa project used participatory visual methodologies (PVM) to work with girls and young women in Canada and South Africa to better understand sexual violence in their communities, and facilitate and support girl-led social and policy change. The focus in South Africa was on working with girls and young women from rural areas who are particularly marginalised due to a combination of factors that intersect in complex ways, including their age, their distance from services and resources, their gender, and the traditional cultural norms and values that still dominate social relations in these areas. My role in the project was project co-ordinator in the South African arm of the partnership. My study had two aims: the first was to analyse how girls and young women construct and reimagine their femininities within a context of rurality, poverty, and GBV; and the second to investigate how PVM might be used to engage girls and young women in challenging normative gender roles that facilitate or constrain the choices available to girls and young women in their communities towards facilitating social change. Located within the critical and transformative paradigm, the overall approach in this qualitative study was framed feminist postcolonial theory. I also used social constructionist theories of gender to analyse the data. Over a period of approximately three-and-a-half years, I used PVM to work with a group of 15 girls and young women in a deep rural area in the Drakensberg region of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. I used a number of visual methods to work with my co-researcher participants, including cellphilms, digital story-telling, and policy posters and action briefs to co-produce knowledge and create visual products to be used as tools for advocacy and awareness-raising towards social and policy change. Building on and using this co-produced knowledge and using the visual products created by my co-researcher participants, between February 2019 and March 2020, we engaged in a process of girl-led community-based policy-making which involved holding a number of community engagement meetings and a community dialogue in an effort to bring about social and policy change. In addition to the visual products created by my co-researcher participants, sources of data included transcripts of post-screening and participatory data analysis discussions, detailed meeting notes taken during community engagement meetings and community dialogues, and my field notes. I conducted an inductive thematic analysis of this data set. The findings of the study suggest that girls and young women construct their femininities in relation to masculinities and in relation to idealised constructions of femininities, and heavily influenced by the convergence of poverty and ideas about tradition and culture. Girls and young women are required to construct their gendered identities as they navigate the precarity of girlhoods shaped by poverty, gender inequality, and ideas about culture and tradition that silence, commodify, and devalue girls and young women. In combination, these factors form the adverse social and material circumstances that influence girls’ constructions of their femininities in relation to masculinities and idealised constructions of femininities, and shape the options available to them to cope with, manage, or respond to such adversity. Importantly, however, the findings of the study also suggest that as social constructionist theories of gender suggest, formed as they are in particular social and historical contexts locally-specific idealised constructions of gender and hegemonic gender relations can and do change over time. Further, the findings and outcomes of the study also suggest that PVM enabled my co-researcher participants to challenge gender and cultural norms that were previously thought of as unassailable, and imagine alternative identities and futures in which their health and well-being is not always at risk. PVM was also crucial to the process of girlled community-based policy-making that ultimately led to the development and signing of a community reporting and response protocol to address early and forced marriage. The findings of this study have important implications for the development of sustainable, holistic, responsive, and context-relevant policy, programming, and interventions to effectively support and promote the health and well-being of girls in the global South.


Doctoral Degree. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg.