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Interviews with Thando Mlambo and Sarah Faith Thompson, winners of the 2016 Award Prize Essays

May 20, 2016

Congratulations to Sarah Faith Thompson (CC '16 and Political Science major), winner of the 2016 IRWGS Women’s and Gender Studies Award for "Sexual Violence in Civil Wars: Strength, Organizational Control, and Rebel Groups,” and Thando Mlambo (BC '16 and Africana Studies & Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies double major), winner of the 2016 IRWGS Queer Studies Award for "Destabilizing Nation and Culture: How Zanele Muholi and Queer South African Women are Creating Discursive Space through Visual Culture.”

We interviewed both students to learn more about their work and their plans for the future.

 

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What inspired you to write your senior thesis on sexual violence in civil wars?

Initially I just wanted to learn more about how various organization-level factors (hierarchy, leadership, resource access, etc.) might affect rebel groups' general levels of violent output. However, after reading Dara Kay Cohen's 2013 article on rape in civil wars, seeing the Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict (SVAC) dataset she created, and getting to hear Elisabeth Wood speak at Columbia, I was struck by the gendered differences in wartime experiences of violence and how this has impacted political science research. For example, male civilians are more likely than female civilians to be killed during conflicts, but women are more likely to experience certain forms of non-lethal violence, including rape and sexual enslavement. What this leads to is a bias in quantitative analyses toward analyzing and theorizing the more easily measured forms of violence against men.

I wanted to contribute to this emerging general quantitative direction of sexual violence research, and found that a combination of case studies and regression analysis using the SVAC was a good way to start.

You are graduating this month with a degree in Political Science. How have you been able to integrate your interest in women's, gender, and sexuality studies in the work you have done here at Columbia?

Columbia's Core Curriculum provides a common textual base from which to approach many topics. I’ve had the opportunity to write about everything from the women in Monet’s Parc Monceau (in Art Hum), to Mandeville’s contradictory categorizations of femininity in the Fable of the Bees (in CC), to how paintings in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse reflected the lack of agency of female characters (in Lit Hum).

The same is true about the political science department. I am appreciative to have had the freedom and academic support over the past year to orient my thesis around a phenomenon in armed conflict that disproportionately affects women, and which holds long-lasting consequences for these survivors’ physical and mental health.

What are your plans for the future?

Writing this thesis has made me even more sure that I would like to eventually pursue a career in research and teaching, so after working for a few years at a law firm specializing in international disputes I’ll be applying to Ph.D. programs in political science. Once there I hope to continue my study of armed conflicts, contentious politics, and the experiences and roles of women in both of these.

 

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What inspired you to write your senior thesis on Zanele Muholi’s work and Queer South African Women?

I am from Zimbabwe and have lived there, in South Africa, Ivory Coast and Tunisia, so I knew I wanted to write a thesis surrounding an African country. As an artist and musician, I also knew my thesis would have a creative subject matter. After having seen Zanele Muholi's work in Cape Town and at the Brooklyn Museum, everything came together beautifully. I was fascinated by the braveness and beauty of Muholi's participants (portrait subjects) who boldly and unapologetically claim a queer identity--given the recurring rhetoric of homophobia and hate crimes when it comes to discussions of non-heterosexuality in South Africa. I dug deeper and was able to find a host of queer South African artists and media-makers creating work that highlighted the dissonance of the legal inclusion of LGBTQI persons amidst persistent homophobia. Inspired by their work, I embarked on this year-long project which culminated in a visit from Muholi herself at my apartment in Harlem. 

You are graduating this month with a degree from Barnard College in Africana Studies and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. How have you been able to integrate your interests in the work you have done here at Columbia?

My academic training and personal interest in studies of women, genders and sexualities has allowed me to observe, experience and navigate the world acutely aware of axes of power, gender, race, class, ethnicity and sexuality (the list goes on). From running an artists workshop through my New York City Civic Engagement Program (NYCCEP) fellowship to singing in Barnard's all-female acapella group Bacchantae, I am always working to ensure that I am in some way engaging in, and contributing to, new understandings of social and cultural relations. I am deeply indebted to Barnard WGSS and Columbia IRWGS for allowing me to explore the various interdisciplinary theoretical frames that have guided my thesis, my work on Columbia's campus and continue to shape my everyday life. 

What are your plans for the future?

As I have graduated in three years, I am planning on taking it really easy over the next few months: babysitting and hanging out with my new cat. I hope to do some travelling across Southeast Asia during the winter and return to New York to apply to graduate school to further my studies in the field of gender and cultural studies.