University of Birmingham academics will investigate Iraqi and Syrian refugee women in Jordan and gender activism in Ghana thanks to two grants totalling £549,585 awarded by the British Academy (BA) through its Sustainable Development Programme 2018.

The programme funds excellent, policy-oriented UK research, aimed at addressing the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and advancing the UK’s Aid Strategy. It supports researchers in the humanities and the social sciences working to generate evidence on the challenges and opportunities faced in developing countries and respond to the Sustainable Development Goals.

The first grant of £282,568 has been awarded to Dr Yafa Shanneik of the School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion. Her project will focus on the changing nature of family structures, within sexual and conjugal relationships among Iraqi and Syrian refugee women in Jordan.

Yafa Shanneik

The project aims to improve gender socialisation amongst these women. It will look at how they express resilience through re-defining their heritage in order to gain dignity and empowerment and fight against violence within their patriarchal refugee context. The project will examine:

  1. How heritage can be redefined to empower women to gain dignity and resilience as refugees in Jordan;
  2. How being a refugee increases the vulnerability of the women, subjecting them to interpersonal or structural violence; and
  3. What religio-culturally sensitive support mechanisms exist within the law, civil society and among NGOs that can be used by the women to oppose violence within their refugee context?

The project will use innovative research methods, including art and Virtual Reality technology, and will offer judicial training programmes and awareness sessions for refugee women and social-work students. It will build on work already undertaken by Dr Shanneik and her colleagues, most notably the project ‘Reconsidering Muslim marriage practices in Europe: the case of Iraqi and Syrian war-widows’,

Dr Shanneik says, “This project aims to improve the status and quality of life of refugee women by understanding how religious and cultural resources are used to empower them, provide dignity and address structural violence.

“Gathering insights of refugee women’s problems, understanding their needs and contexts and engaging them so that they find their own solutions to their problems are essential for securing a sustainable, safe and well-functioning refugee community in Jordan.”

The second grant of £267,016 has been awarded to Dr Kate Skinner, of the College’s Department of African Studies and Anthropology. Dr Skinner is also a fellow of the University’s new Institute of Global Innovation (IGI), where she forms part of a team conducting research to combat gender inequality. The IGI was established to inspire, support and deliver world-leading, multi- and inter- disciplinary research that addresses some of the most pressing challenges that affect humanity at a global level.

Dr Skinner and her project team will investigate gender activism in Ghana. Building on earlier studies that document gender activism since the country’s return to multi-party democracy in 1992, this project will focus on the period 1966-92, which is severely under-studied.

Through oral history and archival research, it will identify how Ghanaian women organised under military, single-party and short-lived multi-party elected governments; and how they negotiated national priorities, cultural particularities, and universalist ambitions through the international women’s movement. It will generate new perspectives on Ghanaian women’s political participation, reaching out to policy-makers, activists, researchers and the wider public.

The project is extremely timely as Ghana’s Minister for Gender, Children and Social Protection is working towards an Affirmative Action Bill to address the under-representation of women in public life.

Dr Skinner says,

“Although women are under-represented in Ghana’s parliament, they have been very active and well-organised in other areas of public life, including in particular professions, civil society organisations and the women’s wings of major political parties and movements.

“This project will document their experiences and the strategies that they pursued at home and abroad. Our ‘archive of activism’ will help to inform public and policy debate at a time when the principles and implementation of Affirmative Action are under scrutiny.”

The University’s Institute for Global Innovation will support this project by providing funds to purchase film equipment. This support will allow Dr Skinner to create a series of impactful videos detailing the experiences of gender activists.