Janneke Verheijen

Janneke Verheijen (Delft, 1978) obtained her Master’s degree in Cultural Anthropology and Non-Western Sociology at the University of Amsterdam in 2003 and her PhD degree in Medical Anthropology in 2013. Her Master thesis built on six months of ethnographic fieldwork and revolves around the impact of television on women’s daily lives in a Guatemalan village. It was awarded with prizes and published into a book titled De Nieuwkijkers van El Remate, which is now mandatory literature for all first year anthropology students at the University of Amsterdam.

Between her MA and PhD studies, Verheijen worked as a social scientist at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Malawi, conducting research on the impacts of AIDS on the food security of smallholder farmers. Her doctoral research, which was funded by the IS-Academy of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reversed the angle and examined the impacts of livelihood insecurity on HIV risk. During one year of meticulous fieldwork in a southern Malawian village, Verheijen interrogated what she has come to call ‘the transactional sex paradigm’: the widespread assumption that lack of an independent income is the primary factor inhibiting poverty-stricken African women from protecting themselves against HIV infection.

In her dissertation Balancing men, morals and money: Women's agency between HIV and security in a Malawi village Verheijen comes to conclusions that complicate this paradigm. Combining unique ethnographic data with statistical and historical records, she argues that many of the women’s daily life decisions were instigated by their need for community inclusion, and the resultant need to conform to – highly gendered – community norms. Being married (whether formally or informally) proved vital for a respectable status. Means to make money were available but preferably not resorted to as these too risked women’s entitlement to community support in times of need. In short, the findings suggest that income generating projects to improve women’s economic status are unlikely to yield the desired effect of HIV prevention.

Some responses from the field of social science research on HIV/AIDS and gender in sub-Saharan Africa:

Prof. Dr. Ann Swidler, University of California, Berkeley:

“A brilliant examination of transactional sex in Malawi, by far the best I have read on the topic. Also one of the most insightful, moving studies of the profound interdependencies that characterize village life in Africa.”

Caroline Bledsoe in Population and Development Review, 2014, 40(1), pp. 161-164:

"Having spelled out this premise about the links between women’s poverty and risk, Verheijen sets out to deconstruct it. What, she asks, is “poverty” in this setting? What is “risk,” and what in particular is at risk? And in which direction does causation run? One at a time, each element that has supported this convenient premise is extracted, held up to minute scrutiny, reworked, and re-inserted into what begins to look like a very different proposition. For this, she draws on important works in social science and development theory, and on ethnographic materials gathered from a rural village in the poor south of Malawi, a country ranked as one of the poorest in the world and where HIV/AIDS rates are high. I was struck repeatedly by the clear, direct manner in which the author confronts the most foundational claims about gender, poverty, and risk; and the concentration and skill with which she introduces and develops each concept, each case, each point in the light of the overall question that frames her study. … The result is very much the author’s own, and a marvelously original piece it is.”  

Adam Ashfort in African Studies Review, 2014, 57(2), pp. 214-216:

“Verheijen takes the analysis of sex and discourses of destitution a step further than others who have explored “transactional sex.” She notes that the claim that women reluctantly accept proposals for sexual partnership from men in order to meet basic needs for themselves and their children is a staple of everyday moral codes governing village life. Living in a village over a long period of time, however, allowed Verheijen to observe that this ideology of desperate need is by no means the whole story:

Our data furthermore indicate that the common discourse that destitution drives Mudzi women to accept relationship proposals does not always tally with daily life practice. Women also engage in relationships because it is simply customary to be wed; in order to be a respected community member; to avert suspicion of husband-snatching or prostitution; to accomplish tasks that only males, and particularly husbands, are supposed to carry out; and for physical and emotional affection. (Verheijen 2013:163)

In other words, sexual relationships between women and men are not a product merely of destitution and vulnerability, but are shaped by relations of cooperation and competition among women as well. … Indeed, despite the prevailing ideology that places men at the center of sexual action, Verheijen’s books shows that fathers, brothers, husbands, and lovers are often at the margins when it comes to women’s decisions about sexual partnerships.

The aim of Balancing Men, Morals, and Money is to answer the question of whether more money will encourage women to make safer sexual choices in a context where the prevalence of HIV is high. Based on long-term field research in a poor rural village in one of the poorest countries in Africa, and the world, the book suggests the answer is: No. Women’s choices of sexual partnerships are not merely driven by destitution indicative of pervasive vulnerability. Balancing Men, Morals, and Money is an important addition to the growing literature on love, sex, money, and AIDS in Africa that shows how African women are not merely vulnerable victims, but agents in shaping their own destinies. It deserves a wide readership.”

Verheijen’s current research interests are the anthropology of every day life, poor men’s survival strategies, extreme poverty, development intervening, social capital, risk management, money flows, gender relations, HIV/AIDS, SRHR.

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