International NGOs often represent Africa as timeless, rural and natural place. Within this overarching approach are a subset of themes, and the most dominant one is images of women and children.
Why this is important: Through images of women and children the Africa aid narrative borrows heavily from the very outdated “Women in Development” (WID) development theory, pertaining to the role and function of woman, predominantly as mothers and carers of children.
The aid narrative also borrows from the modernisation theory that portrays Africa as underdeveloped and largely populated by poor and suffering natural women and children, abandoned by husbands and fathers.
This distance-creating dominance “of discursive strategies of infantilisation and feminization through ubiquitous portrayals of children and women” are still largely projecting WID thinking as seen in the choice of individual stories of women who are seen solely as mothers and nurturers” (Dogra 2012).
It is significant to note that (in my research) where images show women and children together, the appear in many cases in a passive and disempowered way. This is especially evident in images of mothers and children, just sitting, waiting for help while looking phlegmatic and absent. (eg: see below)
Within the agricultural and rurality archetype, women and children make up the vast majority of images. These images of women and children seem to focus specifically on women’s roles as mothers and careers of children, which seems to “assume that the best place for a woman is in the home”.
Tthis focus on women and children as the main representations of African people experiencing hunger or famine, largely omits the presence of men, and brings into question men’s roles - and even existence - in society and the family.
Constructed “incomplete families” through the extremely low presence of men in images, also work to differentiate Western family ideals from African, which has been criticized for “reproducing colonial perceptions of the backwardness of the developing world and the advancement of the developed world (Dogra 2012). Through the absence of men, women are constructed as natural and abandoned victims.
However, while this focus on women and children and the absence of men in the vast majority of the analysed images, may indeed communicate these messages, I feel something needs to be said about the realities and reasons as to why men are often not seen in images.
It’s no doubt the case that men are at times absent or forced to leave their families - specially in times of food crisis
From my own experience interviewing and photographing African refugees however, e.g.: in South Sudan, it is false to view this absence as “evil men abandoning their suffering wives and children”.
Rather, in many cases, men leave in order to provide for their families - that is working, or looking for work in different geographic locations, or trying to organise help, transport of whatever may be needed by their families.
This can often mean long travel and absence from their families, but may at times be the only option men have to actively care and provide for their families.
This then leaves women “alone” caring for their children, but it does not mean that they are “abandoned” in that actual sense of the word.
Unfortunately, only very rarely are these realities communicated through image captions, though very few examples did exist where that was the case.
NGO’s need to work a lot harder, to incorporate these details and nuances in their publications, and to make sure their fundraising and communication does not skew or omit such facts, and overall aim to better meet requirements the call for a representation that describes both “context and complexity of the situation in which local people live” (ACFID , 2010).
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This series of articles is based on excerpts from my own Master thesis research “A New Vision for Africa? An Examination of Representations of African Famine Emergencies and Food Crises by Australian International Non-Governmental Organisations”. The paper is copyright of the author. Any uses are governed by the fair dealing provision of the Copyright Act (1968).