Posted by Maria Codina on November 27, 2017 at 2:25 pm
The Middle East has been a hub of geopolitics since the end of the Cold War and the site of near-constant inter- and intra-state conflicts. Despite the growing interest in the region as a result of these conflicts, reporting – whether academic or journalistic – has often focused on political authoritarianism and radical religious movements. Given these preoccupations, discourses on health, well-being and gender relations have too often been framed in macro-level terms with insufficient attention to context. Moreover, these trends have combined with the enduring influence of Orientalism to produce a depiction of Middle Eastern women as lacking in agency and in need of defence by Western actors. At the same time, their health and well-being have been too often assessed in terms of decontextualised aggregate indicators employed by international and other agencies. Such reports have singled out the Middle East, for example, for its seemingly belated decline in fertility; the low uptake of essential health services; the high prevalence of obesity and non-communicable diseases among women; or the exceptionally low levels of female labour force participation despite rising educational access. Yet, nowhere in these macro-level descriptions are the perspectives of Middle Eastern women taken into account, including their perceptions of their own health, of the health care offered to them, and of how they manage the everyday challenges of maintaining their own or their households’ well-being in the context of growing poverty and inequality, and above all, regional turmoil.
This supplement is the first collective product of the work of members of a research network encompassing the Arab region and Turkey, the Reproductive Health Working Group (RHWG), that has been active for nearly three decades. Since its founding in 1988 as a small, multidisciplinary research group, it has provided a platform for the voices of researchers living in or working in the region addressing gender, well-being and the health of women, men and young people from multiple geographic, disciplinary and other perspectives. They have done so despite multiple practical, bureaucratic and political constraints and often amidst political conflict and instability.
The idea for this supplement grew out of a conversation among the network’s regional governing committee over lunch in the mountains of Lebanon, as the group struggled with the fact that the interesting and timely research presented at the network’s annual meetings does not always get published in international, peer-reviewed journals. This supplement aims to provide a dissemination forum for research presented at these meetings and to highlight complementarities among the individual studies. Recognising that several of the authors are students or recent graduates who are relatively new to publication, authors of each paper were assigned a mentor from the network who could provide support and constructive comments before submission. Papers particularly relevant to RHM were selected from among many presented over the network’s 30-year history. Thus, papers included in this supplement have been presented at RHWG annual meetings, or, in some cases, have been supported by RHWG “seed grants” and all have been supported by a mentor from the network.
The articles that are included in this supplement can be broadly organised into themes that have also been recurrent at the RHWG’s regular network meetings. The history of the network since its inception is presented in the paper authored by DeJong et al. Through exploring why the RHWG has persisted, it analyses its governance trajectory and the approach to mentorship and capacity building with lessons relevant to similar research networks elsewhere. The paper also singles out three particular lines of multidisciplinary and comparative research by its members that have both resonated with regional needs and at the same time spoken to global debates on health.