Voices from Syria, a recent report published by the United Nations Population Fund, revealed that women in Syria are being forced to exchange sexual favours for aid.
Men delivering aid on behalf of the UN and other humanitarian agencies have been asking for telephone numbers of women and girls, photographing them without their consent, promising meals “in exchange for services, such as spending a night with them” (page 58), and providing lifts to their house in exchange “for a visit” (page 58). The report notes that “Women and girls ‘without male protectors’, such as widows and divorcees as well as female IDPs [internally displaced people], were regarded… particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation” (page 58). Syrian women are, therefore, declining to go to distribution centres “to avoid sexual harassment by men awaiting distributions or distribution staff” (page 58).
Over the past decade, multiple reports have been published that document similar abuses by humanitarian, peacekeeping and security workers operating in the global South. For instance, details emerged last month about Oxfam, an international charity, where it was found that members of its staff were sexually abusing children in Haiti.
In fact, sexual exploitation of racialised women and girls has a long history. There is extensive evidence of British soldiers exploiting native women as they set out to establish their empire. Historian Sudhanshu Bhandari hones in on the Contagious Disease Acts of 1864 to note that, “under these acts the British soldiers in India were not only permitted but promoted to hold native young and good-looking girls as prostitutes for their carnal pleasure.”
There have similarly always been those who have tried to defend such mistreatment of women. Historian Kim Wagner notes that British brutality was often rationalised by references to “climate, physical exhaustion and, ultimately, the savagery ascribed to their Indian victims” (page 220). More recently, in the aftermath of the Oxfam episode, Mary Beard — a white, female, British academic — wondered if it was even possible to “sustain ‘civilised’ values in a disaster zone.” She continued, “overall I still respect those who go in to help out, where most of us [would] not tread.”
The rhetoric of ‘civilising’ black and brown people, thus, is as prevalent today as it was during the 19th century. It structures the relationship between the colonising armies/aid workers and the natives/aid recipients as a deeply unequal one, and erases the very humanity of those who are on the receiving end of this spectrum. In other words, Syrian women are not viewed as people who deserve aid due to their current circumstances. Instead, they are viewed as objects that can be consumed in exchange for menial aid.
Additionally, the aid/peacekeeper industry’s entitlement and claims to ‘doing good’ function to relieve its workers from any responsibility towards those whom they seek to serve/protect.
So, what can be done to address this issue?
The current episodes of sexual exploitation are, of course, a direct consequence of the displacement and dispossession that ensues due to wars and conflicts. It is also linked to the dehumanisation of women and children, and of black and brown bodies. There should, therefore, be political solutions to these underlying issues. However, immediate and practical steps can be taken to hold aid organisations accountable.
First, we should call for an end to the culture of impunity that pervades NGOs. Aid workers/UN peacekeepers must be held accountable for their actions and punished accordingly.
Second, we can put pressure on donors to withdraw their support if an aid organisation does not implement its policies around sexual harassment. Indeed, it was only after pressure from the UK government, one of the largest donors of Oxfam, that Oxfam changed its tune regarding the issue.
Finally, organisations whose workers have wreaked havoc in the lives of women, girls and boys must proactively invest in those very communities in order to re-build the victims’ lives. It is only by rebuilding the communities that we can begin to redress their violations.
The Aurat March on Thursday, March 8th, is one such opportunity for us to raise our voices and call for an end to violence against women, in this case perpetrated by the very people who have been professionally tasked with, and are paid to, protect them. And I hope that men take a stand and join this effort. Women have been writing, marching and speaking up alone for way too long. It is now time for men to do their part in ending systemic gender-based violence in Pakistan as well as beyond.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 7th, 2018.