A couple of weeks ago, news broke out regarding sexual abuse at More Than Me, a chain of schools for vulnerable girls in Liberia founded and run by an American charity. Launched by Katie Meyler, the schools’ stated purpose is to take in and educate girls at the risk of sexual exploitation. As the network expanded, Meyler was praised and celebrated in the West for her work. From being invited to the White House by president Obama to rubbing shoulders with the likes of Warren Buffet, Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey, she was viewed as an altruistic do-gooder saving poor, black girls.
It turns out, however, that her co-founder, Macintosh Johnson, had been raping girls. He intimidated girls, threatening to take away their scholarship or even kill them if they exposed him. His close relationship with the CEO, Meyler, made those threats credible. It was not until foreign media outlets conducted an investigation that this exploitation became known widely.
Analysts note that Meyler kept Johnson in place even after having suspicions. When his deeds were known and police reports filed, the organisation tried to shield Meyler and blamed the local Liberian culture. Meyler has now temporarily resigned from her position.
This story is not new. We witness similar do-gooders coming to Pakistan to set up schools and projects for vulnerable girls and boys. Many have no background in these fields; yet we receive them with open arms because we are in dire need of resources. We are a poor nation, and every dollar helps.
Liberia is a stark reminder, however, that these projects are not a panacea. The kinds of abuse that took place there happen in Pakistan as well. What can we do then to attract foreign capital and knowledge, but still ensure that our young girls and boys are safe and thrive?
First, Ministries of Education and Human Rights, among others, have to set up a range of vetting and monitoring processes before as well as during programme implementation to ensure that children are not abused and exploited. When found the licences of such organisations have to be revoked and appropriate legal action taken.
Second, we have to insist that foreign charities engage with local communities, beneficiaries, activists and practitioners in a deep and meaningful manner. A participatory model of development entails that foreign organisations move away from their own agenda, and instead pay attention to local needs, including giving local practitioners a voice in decision-making.
Third, we, like Liberians, have to look critically at our own internalised inferiority that makes us view foreigners as saviours, even those who are clearly underqualified and clueless. Indeed, white saviourdom is a two-way street — while foreigners may consider black and brown girls as ideal rescue-objects, we too view them as superior.
A more appropriate mode of engagement is one that is premised on friendship and alliance. Feminist movement-building teaches us that if two sides engage with each other from a perspective of friendship then the outcomes are beneficial to both. Such an approach entails viewing the other not as a recipient of aid or service, but as a partner with whom one enters into a relationship of mutual dependency and care.
Finally, we have to address the culture of impunity that surrounds sexual violence. We have to make it possible for girls and women — and yes even boys — to speak out about the violence done to them. This requires creating an atmosphere of trust, confidentiality and empathy, and an expectation that strict action will be taken against the perpetrators.
Concurrently, we have to create an understanding in society that harassment in any form is not permissible. Such a transformation in societal attitude requires concerted efforts in all sectors — from laws and their implementation, but also from community and religious leaders who yield immense power at local/neighbourhood levels. Let us nurture a culture where sexual harassment by anyone — foreign or otherwise — is made unequivocally unacceptable.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 24th, 2019.