Rariu and Luo women: Illness as resistance in rural Kenya

Nancy Kay Luke, University of Pennsylvania


The dissertation examines illness as women's resistance to the power of men and Western medicine in rural Kenya by exploring the meaning of an indigenous reproductive illness, rariu, suffered by rural women among the Luo ethnic group. The study utilizes a conflict approach to both theories of gender stratification and illness. The study finds that illness labels are not simply imposed on passive women as designations of their deviance; illness may act as a response to the social control mechanisms of the powerful. The constraints of patriarchy in the Luo context have traditionally ensured that women cannot pose a direct, organized challenge to the gender hierarchy. Thus, rariu represents quiet, indirect resistance facilitated by women's illness networks and traditional healing. Rariu offers women a respite from social responsibilities, including work and sexual intercourse, and deflects the stigma of role deviations, such as infertility. The qualitative analysis illuminates gender and wider social relations in the rural Luo context and shows how women's social interactions with husbands, illness networks, and healers (both traditional and Western medical) influence illness decisionmaking, specifically labeling and treatment decisions. The analysis of household survey data investigates social and economic determinants of these decisions, focusing on context-specific measurements of women's position and networks. The results confirm that those who are least empowered relative to husbands and illness networks are more likely to label their symptoms as rariu. Health-seeking behavior for rariu also demonstrates women's resistance to the processes of medicalization and labeling in Western medicine. Clinicians delegitimate women's suffering of rariu and do not treat it seriously. Rural Luo women do not need the certification of illness from Western medicine, as the women's community legitimates suffering and treats rariu with traditional medicine. Nonetheless, Western medicine offers women an alternative route to relief. After visits to the clinic, however, women conclude that Western medicine cannot cure rariu, and women return to the care of traditional healers. Rural Luo women reject Western medicine the same way it rejects their experience with rariu. This power of “mutual delegitimation” is another example of Luo women's quiet resistance to both men and medicine.

Subject Area

Social structure|Families & family life|Personal relationships|Sociology|Womens studies|Public health

Recommended Citation

Luke, Nancy Kay, "Rariu and Luo women: Illness as resistance in rural Kenya" (2000). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9989621.