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Valerie Grim
IU Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies

George Vlahakis
University Communications

Last modified: Thursday, September 10, 2009

International conference focuses on challenges faced by women in rural areas every day

Sept. 10, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Like other similar academic gatherings, the Triennial Rural Women's Studies Conference on Sept. 24-27 at Indiana University Bloomington will feature scholars and policymakers who will present papers and participate in panel discussions.

Valerie Grim

Valerie Grim

But the international conference also will include many women who experience challenges in rural areas around the globe every day. They will include the former director of a local grower's guild in Evansville, Ind., an agricultural extension officer and member of the Hopi Tribe, rural development officers from Africa and a group of nurses who work in medical programs in rural Pennsylvania.

The Rural Women's Studies Association (RWSA) will hold a silent auction benefiting social service organizations that will feature handicrafts and other items produced by rural women. The group also will likely sponsor a canned food drive.

"We're trying to be intellectual and community oriented," observed Valerie Grim, chair of IU's Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies and the organization's international co-chair. "These are examples of people who are not scholars, but who contribute to the conversation.

"When the organization was established in 1998, it was done so with the idea that we wanted to function differently," Grim added. "We wanted a conference where people also could take part, telling their own stories, articulating and critiquing their own experiences, talking about their relationships in concert with what we're trying to do . . . We wanted this to be less about us and more about them."

According to its mission, the RWSA advances and places farm and rural women's gender studies in historical perspective. Thus, the conference also will include tours of two Bloomington area farms, Stranger's Hill Organics and Susan Welsand's The Chile Woman, as well as the Center for Sustainable Living. A trip to Bloomington's Farmers' Market also is on the schedule as an option.

"We want a conference where people are comfortable being who they are. You can come to this conference right out of your farm garden, wearing your straw hat if you want to," Grim said. "The whole idea is to focus our energies on questions of community, questions of policy and questions of survival, and have those involved with that on a day-by-day basis, to help us better understand and tell that story up the line to places where it can make a difference."

The interdisciplinary conference will emphasize health and sustainability in rural communities and has the theme "Health, Healing and Rural Life." Registration for all three days is $125 for professionals and $75 for students. Grim said the conference is open to the public and people are welcome to attend individual sessions.

Between 100 and 150 visiting scholars and practitioners from Australia, China, Russia, Singapore, Nigeria, the Philippines, Canada and elsewhere around the world are expected to attend.

Grim acknowledges that many societies around the world remain male dominated, both in practice and in theory, but said that when people travel to the most remote areas, the contributions of women can be the strongest.

"When you're traveling to the most rural, remote places of the world, like in Africa, a lot of those villages consist of 60 to 70 percent women," she said. "HIV AIDS has hit communities so rapidly and devastated them that the only people standing sometimes are women and children.

"When you move outside the United States, and you move into rural Guyana, rural Dominican Republic, rural Haiti and rural Africa -- where I've traveled recently -- the communities are largely populated by women, and it is in these situations where you'll see the needs of women are not necessarily different from men . . . This research that we do is focused on reaching that population of people who are left behind."

Lead sponsors of the conference are IU's Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies and Department of Gender Studies. Other co-sponsors are the IU Department of History, the Agriculture College at Purdue University, the IU Office of Women's Affairs, the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, the Agricultural History Society, Nova Scotia Agricultural College and the Friends of the Rural Women's Studies Association.

Complete information about the organization and the conference are available online at