How ‘Depathologisation’ Indicates We Need New Words To Address Social Justice Issues

Every year, especially when you work in, with, on and around social justice issues, a new word, such as Depathologisation, is found. New languages are developed that attempt to break down walls and to create more room for intersectional work.

Whether consciously or not, many people, organisations and movements have realised that in more than one way we are fighting the same fight.

The issue of bodies, in all their glory and diversity, sits firmly at the center of many calls for freedom, justice, independence, dignity, integrity and autonomy.

It is through our bodies that we experience freedom and oppression, that we demonstrate resistance and resilience, that we encounter what ‘normal’ is assumed to be, as well as what society has accepted as ‘abnormal’. Our bodies are at the forefront of all our struggles, by way of how we look, what we say and think, how we choose to experience pleasure, what we choose to eat, spaces that our bodies occupy and the borders through which our bodies are allowed and denied access.

There are no conversations in and around social justice and injustice that can be had without considering the power and oppression of the body.

With the introduction of each new word, we are realising, or maybe remembering that we occupy a variety of ‘body boxes’.

As a black, African, lesbian, woman who is also a mother; as a Kenyan citizen, as a daughter and a worker; I consistently occupy many body boxes.

Boxes because there are boundaries and restrictions around where my body is allowed, whether it is as a black woman, or as a lesbian or as a mother. In the body box of motherhood, I will find people who have chosen motherhood, or like many others, have had motherhood forced upon them. In this box there will be diversity of race, physical and psychological ability, cultural and economic agency, ability and access, and class- just to name a few.

Within these boxes that sadly so many movements are structured around, we find, in varying degrees, that we as a collective of bodies reflect a diversity that is forcibly silenced when the ‘box’ is named by one issue.

When LGBTI became an insufficient representation of people who were non-conforming to heteronormativity and restrictive binaries, we remembered that queer is a word that allows for a lot more fluidity. But because definitions create boundaries, every word has its limits.

While a word like queer opens up avenues for alternative expressions for lesbian, gay and bisexual identities, it is still limiting for people who identify as trans* and intersex. This expansion and evolution of naming within various social justice movements shows us that organising around identities is severely limiting, because in experience, our bodies take on many identities, and often all at the same time.

A bit jaded by life, I didn’t understand why there would be a session on depathologisation.

But if ever there was a space to ask these kinds of questions, the AWID Forum was going to be it.

Depathologisation” is a mouthful. I have never been able to say this word quickly or confidently, and I am often too conscious of the squint that appears in someone’s eye when I stumble over a word that, in some ways, I resist, even as I understand its necessity.

I first came across depathologisation earlier this year, in conversations across various spaces that call for an end to “pathologisation” of people whose bodies and choices differ from the assumed and decided norm.

From a very honest and open conversation, I realised that in many ways, the conjuring of a word as difficult on the tongue as depathologisation is our continued attempt at finding language that pushes the boundaries that identity based movements and silos have created. It is our way of trying to get to the root causes of our oppression. In countries and communities where the very existence of certain bodies is pathologised and consequently criminalised, the bigger issue isn’t which bodies are restricted.

It is the social, political and economic power that decides which bodies are ‘allowed’ and which ones are not.

The depathologisation conversation covered various movements such as global intersex movements, and included some successful lobbying done to prevent the genital mutilation that intersex babies are subjected to by medical personnel, often without consent from the child’s parents. It touched on the experience of people with trans* bodies in some African countries who could only access life and identity-affirming medical attention if they agreed to the pathologisation of their bodies as various identity disorders. There were conversations about the pathologisation of differently-abled bodies, and the oppressive way in which society has decided what normal is and isn’t.

Even basic sexual and reproductive health services such as abortion have been pathologized.

A lot of our struggles emerged interconnected, with our realising that beyond the different bodies that we inhabited, the overarching issue is the continued othering, pathologisation, criminalisation and ostracism of diversity.

Despite my initial reluctance to have to learn a new word – a word that is almost impossible to translate into Kiswahili – and a new way of understanding oppression, I realised that if we consider the body as the one collective site of all our struggles, we can make a more passionate attempt to step outside the ‘single issues’ that we have constantly believed to be the thing that cause our oppression.

In many ways, this ongoing naming and re-naming of our bodies’ experiences is less a way of learning new words, and more a reminder of  the autonomy of bodies outside identities and boxes, and a way of attempting to understand our own bodies and embrace their diverse experiences, and truly realise that we really are all fighting the same fight.


This article was originally published by the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID).

Profile photo of Sheena Magenya
Sheena Magenya

Sheena Magenya is a feminist thinker and writer, passionate about change with, for, around and about African women.