Postdoc wins prestigious award for pregnancy paper

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Dr Ulandi du Plessis
Dr Ulandi du Plessis

Dr Ulandi du Plessis, a Rhodes University PhD graduate and postdoc fellow at the Critical Studies in Sexuality and Reproduction Unit, has been recognised by the British Psychological Society’s Psychology of Women and Equalities Section (POWES) and Feminism & Psychology after her submission on the governing of pregnancy in South Africa received 72/72 from the reviewers. 

“People from around the world apply for this prize, and competition is harsh. Dr du Plessis’ submission was given the highest possible score, which is a very rare occurrence in the social sciences,” said Distinguished Professor Catriona Macleod, SARChI Chair of the Critical Studies in Sexualities and Reproduction research programme at Rhodes University.

As part of her award, Dr du Plessis will be travelling to Windsor in the United Kingdom to present her paper at the POWES conference (10-12 July, 2019) and it will later be published in Feminism & Psychology.

The criteria of the award was to provide a 3500-word submission based on postgraduate research that makes an original contribution to the arena of gender and other intersecting inequalities.

Dr du Plessis’ submission is based on her PhD thesis, Governing pregnancy in South Africa: Political and health debate, policy and procedures (2019)The thesis analyses the post-1994 formation of the South African programme of health governance with a specific focus on the reduction of the maternal mortality rate. “It is analytically situated at the conjunction of feminist social science and Foucauldian governmentality studies, applying the latter in an original way and to a Global Southern context to provide an account of how health is made governable in a post-colonial context,” she explained.

Her submission, entitled: Governing pregnancy in the Global South: An analysis of techniques to reduce maternal mortality in the South African public health system, draws on an aspect of the thesis that analyses the intended operation of the South African public antenatal clinic (within the larger institutional system) based on this definition of health. “The analysis uncovered two subjects: the pregnant woman and the health care worker who are both governed through a risk framework,” Dr du Plessis explained.

“My research constitutes an original empirical contribution to governmentality studies and feminist thought. It shows how the ongoing concern of the health system in terms of reproductive health has been the lowering of the maternal mortality rate. I show how, in the attempt to reduce this rate, while pregnant women are constituted as subjects of risk governance, they are actually not the most important target. Instead, health workers are the main targets, their conduct having been identified through statistical inquiry as the main contributors towards the high maternal death rate,” she continued.

In feminist thought, she explained, neoliberal risk governance has become synonymous with the self-governance of the subject and an analysis of the South African context shows that the universality of the claim is flawed.

“My paper shows the usefulness of in-depth descriptive work and the conscious adaptation of established theories to consider the specifics of the Global South. It also shows the usefulness of doing an in-depth analysis of those practices that are perceived as self-evident and as a result, escape critical inquiry,” stated Dr du Plessis.

The POWES Committee who judged her submission, called it a “powerfully-argued piece that should most certainly go forward to the shortlist and is strong contender for prize winner".

Other commendations and feedback called her work “deeply impressive”, “compelling and informative” and points out that “psychology has a history of focusing on those in the Global South (including feminist psychology) and this paper acknowledges this and redresses it”.

Dr du Plessis said she feels incredibly honoured to be recognised in this way. “The women of POWES are undoubtably an incredible group of people,” she said.

Besides her supervisor Prof Macleod and her partner and colleague Dr Pedro Pinto, Dr du Plessis feels grateful for the support of the Atlantic Philanthropies and Andrew W Mellon foundations for assisting her financially during her critical research.