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Spring 2023 Speakers

February: Jessica Spence

Speaking for themselves: The importance of enabling Ugandan women to share their story through photography and community dialogue 

“Agriculture is the backbone of the country,” is a commonly heard phrase in Uganda. With agriculture making up nearly a quarter of Uganda’s GDP, and nearly 70 percent of the country’s population working in this sector, this is true. However, the muscle operating said backbone is exercised daily by Ugandan women. Not only do significantly more women work in the agriculture sector than men in Uganda, but women’s contribution is also typically under-estimated and under-appreciated. Usually charged with child-rearing, home-keeping, cooking, and a host of other responsibilities, women often take charge of the farm and garden in smallholder farming families. In addition to these unbalanced and gendered responsibilities, women do not often retain financial control over the money earned from their labor and suffer from physical and emotional abuse from their male counterparts. There is increasing awareness of, and efforts to end, the vast disparities women face within this sector, namely the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal No. 5, Gender Equality. This lecture will focus on the independence and self-identity women agriculturalists have as farmers, and how that identity, coupled with their responsibilities to their families, make them a unique and strong powerhouse for agricultural development and social change. Through photovoice methodology, groups of women living in two different communities in Uganda allowed a researcher to conduct a study aimed at delving into their lives as women agriculture producers, and specifically the changes they face in agriculture due to their gender. A surprising phenomenon occurred within this study, wherein all participants decided to take self-portraits of themselves as part of their photovoice. The study resulted in themes that supported these harsh realities, including technical challenges, patriarchal society, physical fatigue, and varied agriculture practices, but also, through their self-portraits, gave evidence of self-identity and independence as “women farmers.” The personal identity and independence felt by these women provide evidence of the responsibility felt towards their family, children, and duties as a farmer.

Jessica R. Spence is an experienced researcher in gender-based agriculture issues and international agricultural education. She was most recently a program coordinator at the Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture for the USDA-FAS-funded International Agricultural Education Fellowship Program, where she worked and lived in Ghana overseeing and managing the program aimed at increasing school-based agriculture education in conjunction with 4H Ghana. She is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education at Virginia Tech. Her research focuses on gender-based agriculture issues and school-based agriculture education within international development. She gained both a B.S. in Agricultural Communications and Journalism, and M.S. in Agricultural Leadership, Education, and Communication at Texas A&M University. Her master’s thesis studied the experience of female smallholder farmers in Northern Uganda through the photovoice methodology. She is focused on conducting research aimed at the empowerment of women farmers across the developing world.

Jessica R Spence

March: Nina Mukerjee Furstenau 

Food, gender, and identity in a global context: an inter-disciplinary conversation with an acclaimed culinary writer

Food reveals a nuanced trail into the history of a region, what makes comfort there, how worship is celebrated; it reveals the labor involved in fields and kitchens, the trees that fruit, and the soils that sustain. Food story is also a personal journey connected with that community tale. Because of its universality, the sensory act of eating and the story behind that act can reach across boundaries of gender, education, access, conflict, geography, and politics in accessible ways. This approach creates opportunities for not only food research, but for a deep dive into gender roles and identity in a global context. This presentation takes a look at the uneven distribution of information between women and men due to gendered norms, literacy of women, divisions of labor, access to resources, and power relations in the context of food story. In journalism, writers learn to focus on the “five Ws,” and who, what, when, and where often make headlines across media platforms. Time and again, however, it is the last W, why, that is the heart of the story, and the pivot point in social science research. The talk closes with an overview of the field research behind Tasty! Mozambique as an example of using food story to reach across boundaries such as gender and education, followed by discussion on the need to understand cultural settings with a social science approach within research.

Nina Mukerjee Furstenau is a journalist, author, and editor of the FoodStory book series for the University of Iowa Press. She was a Fulbright Global research scholar (2018-19), is on the board of directors for Media for Change, and has won the MFK Fisher Book Award, the Grand Prize Award for Culture/Culinary Writing from Les Dames d'Escoffier International, a Kansas Notable Book award, and more. Green Chili & Other Impostors (Chilies, Chhana, and Rasa in India), her most recent work was published in October 2021 in the U.S. and December 2021 in India. Other published works include the award-winning book, Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America's Heartland, as well as Tasty! Mozambique, Savor Missouri: River Hills Country Food and Wine, and numerous stories and essays for newspapers and magazines. She engages as a speaker at conferences such as Nonfiction Now, Unbound Book, Iowa City Book Festival, Food, Fork and Pen, and more.

  • Maria Elisa Christie,
    Director, Women and Gender in International Development, Center for International Research, Education, and Development, Outreach and International Affairs.
  • Kim L. Niewolny,
    Associate Professor, Community Education and Development at the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences & Director, Center for Food Systems and Community Transformation.
  • Ozzie Obaye,
    Professor, School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
  • Anna Zeide,
    Associate Professor, Department of History & Founding Director, Food Studies Program, College of Liberal Arts & Human Sciences.

April: Emily Van Houweling

Water projects and gender goals in Mozambique: How the technocratic culture of international development conflicts with community perspectives

Gender integration and women’s empowerment goals are shaped by a technocratic culture of international development that determines which frameworks, incentives, theories, and methods are valued. Based on 18 months of ethnographic research in northern Mozambique following a rural water project, Van Houweling shows how the perspectives of gender and change shared by the community conflicted with those of the project implementers and donors. The technocratic culture of development created blind spots, contradictions in the project plans, and unanticipated consequences for gender goals.  In this presentation, she will draw attention to the negotiated space between the community and various development actors and reflect on how her own identity and multiple roles (as a student, evaluator, Fulbright recipient, and consultant) affected the water project and her relationships with participants. This research is part of her recent book, “Water and Aid in Mozambique: Gendered Perspectives of Change” published by Cambridge University Press.

Emily Van Houweling’s teaching and research interests include water and sanitation, gender and development, participatory planning, and decolonizing development. She has experience working and teaching in several countries in sub-Saharan Africa and has most recently conducted community-based research on water and sanitation access with the unhoused population in Denver. Her research has been published in leading gender, environment, and development journals, and her book, “Water and Aid in Mozambique: Gendered Perspectives of Change,” published by Cambridge University Press, just came out this year. Van Houweling received her Ph.D. in planning, governance, and globalization from Virginia Tech.

Emily Van Houweling

Our Fall 2023 Speakers

November's Speaker: Sana Illahe

Gendered Negotiation of Urban Spaces among Transgender Persons in Pakistan: Dismantling the Colonial Binary

Historically in Pakistan, there has been a recognition of third gender and non-binary gender expression, however, gender and sexuality spectrum were erased through the binary imposition under colonization. The remnants of this invisiblization are explored in the current project that studies transgender persons in Pakistan in three spatial domains: public spaces, private institutions, and familial domains. Following three different stories of victory, defeat, resilience and survival, the research showcases everyday negotiation of gender-based violence geared towards transgender persons in the urban spaces of Pakistan. The talk shares voices of how a specific gender and cultural identity among transgender persons known as Khwaja Sira navigates this violence in the city of Lahore, Pakistan while attempting to maintain their identity that is constantly at the risk of erasure by the colonial gender norms. The study also sheds light on how lack of gender cognizant urban planning reifies hierarchies present in the streets, marketplaces and other urban spaces of Pakistan explored in-depth in the study.


Sana Illahe teaches in the department of Race, Gender and Sexuality Studies at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (UW-L), as assistant teaching professor. Her research interests include studying violence against transgender people and examining the ways transgender people navigate these on a day-today basis. Her dissertation titled “Gendered Negotiation of Space — A Study on Gender and Mobility Among Transgender Persons in Pakistan” earned her Ph.D. in sociology from South Dakota State University. Her teaching especially revolves around themes of decolonization, promoting a study of marginalized identities within their own cultural frameworks. She has collaborated with many Ho-Chunk people from La Crosse in her teaching. She has also worked on a project promoting inclusive education with local tribes in South Dakota. Dr. Illahe is also a trained vocalist in Pakistani classical tradition and has used interdisciplinary approaches in collaborating with the Music Department at UW-L, to create global cultural consciousness among students.

Dr. Sana Illahe

October's Speaker: Jennifer Langill

Gender Transformations Embedded in Livelihood Transitions: Changes and Continuities in Hmong Gender Roles and Relations in Northern Thailand

Feminist research has long critiqued the overly economic focus of development studies and scholarship, calling for greater attention to the gender and broader social dimensions of development. While we are seeing much more gender sensitivity in development discourse, overwhelmingly approaches remain siloed between economic and feminist lenses. In this talk, I present an integrated gender and development analysis of livelihood change in an ethnic Hmong village in northern Thailand. I outline 30 years of livelihood transitions in this village through the entry point of gender roles and relations. Such an approach identifies both gender transformations as well as gender tensions and inequities that persist. I argue that gender is more than context and outcome, but woven throughout all forms of livelihood, economic, and environmental change.


Jennifer Langill is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography at McGill University. Her work falls at the intersection of feminist geographies and critical development, drawing on feminist approaches to livelihoods and political ecology. She is specifically interested in the relationships between social and political marginalization, livelihood activities, and individual lifeworlds. Her current doctoral research examines intergenerational livelihood transitions for Hmong populations in northern Thailand, and the intersectional outcomes of these political economic and environmentally driven changes. Her first publication from this research was recently published in Gender, Place & Culture. Prior to this, she studied human-environment relations in the Peruvian Amazon, specifically flooding, gendered livelihood seasonality, and environmental change for floodplain communities. She has also consulted for The Alliance of Bioversity International and International Center for Tropical Agriculture on gendered migration and land restoration in Burkina Faso.

Jennifer Langill

September's Speaker: Bernice Owusu-Brown

Women’s labour market participation and intimate partner violence in Ghana: A multilevel analysis

In recent decades, the capabilities approach has emerged as the most pertinent theoretical framework for elucidating development, well-being, and justice. By emphasizing the multifaceted nature of human well-being, the capability approach advocates a broader perspective of development beyond mere economic growth. It underscores the necessity of considering various dimensions that contribute to the enhancement of human lives by assigning importance to freedom. One prevalent form of freedom violation is intimate partner violence, which stems from historically unequal power dynamics between men and women, resulting in the subjugation and discrimination of women by men and hindering the full realization of their potential. This profound restriction of freedom does not only violate their fundamental human rights but also jeopardizes their health, and, consequently, obstructs their active engagement in national economic and social development. The capability approach prescribes women’s empowerment as a remedy for curbing violence, as reflected in both conventional economic and non-economic models. These models forecast that women's engagement in the labor market enhances their bargaining power, leading to a decrease in intimate partner violence. However, in conflict are rather pessimistic models suggesting that women who earn more than their partners via their labor market participation are at risk of expiring increased partnered violence. Conscious of this bi-causal relationship and accounting for the potential endogeneity, I set out to empirically investigate the direction of association of this relationship within the Ghanaian context. Our key finding indicates that woman’s work status significantly increases her likelihood of becoming a victim of partnered violence. I conclude that while there is a growing focus on creating job opportunities for women to foster gender equality and development, it is essential to consider and address the implications this may have on their safety and well-being.

Bernice Owusu-Brown is a recent Ph.D. scholar in development economics who focuses on intimate partner violence (IPV) in Ghana. She is a postdoctoral fellow with the Department of Economics at Virginia Tech. Dr. Owusu-Brown obtained her Ph.D. through a collaborative program between the University of Ghana and the United Nations-World Institute for Development Economics (UNU-WIDER), where she conducted extensive research on the economics of intimate partner violence in Ghana. Her research examines the intersection of gender, health, and economic development with specific focus on the economic and health effects of intimate partner violence and social empowerment. Her research takes a multidisciplinary approach, drawing insights from economics, gender studies, sociology, and public health to understand and explore the complex relationships between health, gender, and development. In addition to her research, Dr. Owusu-Brown has worked and interned with the UNU-WIDER in Finland and Imani Africa in Ghana, providing technical assistance on the mechanisms through which gender-based discrimination affects health outcomes and economic development. She is passionate about translating her research findings into actionable policy recommendations that can contribute to reducing gender-based violence and promoting gender equality in Ghana.

Dr. Bernice Owusu-Brown