The burden of care

From 2004-2007 I carried out research for my PhD in Batticaloa, a coastal town in eastern Sri Lanka. Those years of living and researching in Sri Lanka were turbulent: I was there when the 2004 tsunami hit the shores of the island; when the already precarious ceasefire between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) unravelled, descending into fighting which eventually led to the annihilation of the Tigers and the deaths of thousands of Tamil people in the north. What struck me, and what I ended up focusing on in the writing up of my PhD was the ways in which everyday life was held together. I questioned and explored how certain routines and rhythms were held in place despite layers of loss, suffering and uncertainty – but also argued that what is ‘ordinary’ and ‘normal’ in contexts of extreme, protracted violence is constantly remade. In particular I looked at mothers – what it meant for them to keep going – to find meaning when searching for disappeared husbands and sons who had been killed and, the constant threat of violence against their lives and bodies.

I remember visiting one mother whose 14 year old son had been taken by the LTTE. This was her only son. He was snatched on his way to school. She had tried to hang herself twice since his abduction. When we met she had nothing to say. She sat mute with pain.

Another mother had threatened to kill herself in front of the LTTE if they did not return her son. She shouted and screamed outside the camp where her son was being held until they released him, something that almost never happened.

Now in 2017 as I sit and reflect on my current research with a group of migrant women from the DRC, Burundi, Rwanda and Angola  – I am again trying to make sense of ‘the everyday’ and the ‘ordinary’ – the attempts and means of keeping going when lives are shaped by layers of loss and violence.

In earlier posts (see Poking the wound – research, stories and process – thinking through the complexities  and “This small piece of paper” and Being seen) I’ve written about the challenges that the women face in Johannesburg. These are women who fled to South Africa seeking safety and support – and for most – their everyday lives remain precarious and full of risk. Risk because they are cross-border migrants – the scapegoated ‘other’ – accused of making life for local South Africans harder; of taking jobs away from locals even though they can’t find work. They are the ‘other’ whose reproductive bodies are represented as threatening and hostile – bodies that are blamed for burdening an already fraught and struggling healthcare system. They are the ‘other’ assumed to have had children in order to access documentation (which in reality they cannot do) and (non-existent) forms of welfare. They are the ‘other’ who are expected to integrate into a city that does not want them – expected to simultaneously ‘live in invisibility’ while proving they deserve to remain. As ‘othered’ bodies the entanglements of vulnerability and risk frame a troubling and exhausting everyday life.

I have also reflected on the challenges of doing research in this context. I have described the questions – around representation, responsibility and role – that have arisen when working with individuals who are traumatised and, who have many immediate and often, urgent needs. I have been challenged personally in many ways and particularly in writing this reflection about some of their experiences, my relationship with them, and the lenses through which I try to understand their undoubtedly complex lives: motherhood and migrant mothers.

Like the mothers I met in Sri Lanka, for this group there is that everyday struggle to find meaning, to keep going, and especially to keep yourself and your children safe. But in contexts of suffering and violence mothers are almost always defined by their gender, their relationship to others and their wombs – as wives of men killed or disappeared, as daughters at risk and, as mothers. They are mothers in conflict zones – victims and/or survivors, or migrant mothers – working away from their children or enduring life in a refugee camp. As researchers we create these labels and lenses through which lives are explored. We create another ‘other’ – the mother as a research subject…

…To read the rest of this blog post visit: The burden of care.

About Becky Walker

Becky Walker is a postdoctoral research fellow with the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS).

With a background in Social Anthropology and Development Becky’s work has largely explored women’s experiences of everyday violence in both South Asia and Southern Africa. Becky holds an Msc and PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Edinburgh where her research focused on the conflict in Sri Lanka and women’s strategies for negotiating everyday violence.

In 2010 Becky moved to South Africa to take up a Postdoctoral fellowship with the Centre of Indian Studies in Africa (CISA) at Wits University and also taught Gender and Development as a sessional lecturer in Social Anthropology. In 2013 she then was awarded a Wotro-funded postdoctoral project through ACMS that explored the multiple vulnerabilities faced by migrant sex workers in Johannesburg.

The project considered the impact of migration legislation, trafficking discourses and transnational networks on feelings of belonging amongst migrant sex workers in Johannesburg and Amsterdam. It also drew from an innovative arts based participatory project that Becky and a colleague ran in a women’s shelter in inner-city Johannesburg, and on-going research at ACMS into sex work, migration and trafficking. Becky’s current work builds on the Wotro project to explore the vulnerabilities faced by migrant mothers who sell sex in South Africa with a particular focus on the intersections of mothering, being migrants and selling sex and also, challenges encountered such as access to healthcare, stigmatisation and discrimination.

Becky has published widely from her research including a articles and chapters on everyday violence, sex work, trafficking and migration and sex work and motherhood.

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