Saturday, March 31, 2007

Preventing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

I have just spent 2 days on a UN training course about preventing sexual exploitation of beneficiaries, and in the workplace. This is an attempt to fight the dirty under-belly of peace-keeping missions, the collateral damage caused by humanitarian aid. It is a positive sign that the UN recognises this problem openly (how could it not?) and is trying to do something about it.

Sexual exploitation can occur where there is a power imbalance, a gap between those who have power (and/or wealth), and those who don’t. The emergency context is evidently one such example, and the "you can have your food ration if you come to my compound after office hours" form of exploitation unfortunately does happen. There are also the unusually light-skinned 'peace-keeping' babies growing up with no fathers. Disaster breeds disaster, and there are many disturbing stories.

As the only foreigner participating in the workshop I got a bit of an insight into how relationships between Sudanese men and women work. There were of course the odd question like, “is it possible for a girl to be 'raped' if she is not a virgin?” I was pleased that the other participants were able to put the questioner straight on that one. But, in discussions many of the causes of sexual assault were generally blamed on the girl, with people commenting that “she was asking for it in those tight western-style trousers”, or “poor men, they can't control themselves, it's only natural” (Cue: lots of embarrassed giggling from the group). I bit my tongue for a while but finally felt I had the right to say what I believe, so I spoke up and said that men should assume responsibility for their actions. Let’s give men some credit; they can control themselves. Let’s not blame the victim/survivor, when surely the one who has power in a relationship of inequality is the one who is responsible for exploiting that power?

I pointed out that men must understand that no means no. To which, I found a surprising answer. The whole group agreed that the problem was not saying no, but saying yes. Women will never say yes, they told me. Only prostitutes say yes. A ‘real’ woman resists, and always says no. Of course, I understand every culture has its language of codes and signs, and that ‘no’ has many shades. Yet, I can see that establishing consent is problematic when no can really mean yes. So while men must learn to respect no, women must find the courage to say yes.

Honey Seller

A Honey seller in the market. This honey is thick and sweet and strong, and filthy! It is collected directly from the trees, and you find bits of dirt, honeycomb, and bees' legs all mixed it. But delicious. Funny how back home I used to inspect my lettuce for bugs, and now I just close my eyes and eat honey with bees' legs in it. Yuk! Standards are clearly dropping.

A Marriage Proposal

"Sorry, no cold coke here. But, would you like to be my wife?"

Basic Schools

I have just done an assessment of 20 Basic Schools. Basic meaning Primary, though basic is a more fitting description. Some schools are so basic you can barely even find them – they have temporary rakuba (grass matting) structures which fall apart every year. Where there are permanent structures they are usually roofs, doors and windows missing. The schools lack books, blackboards, chalk, and facilities such as latrines and water. I remember a teacher in Darfur once complained to me that people came into the classrooms at night and defecated under the desks. I naively told him that he should lock the doors, to which he replied "but look, we have no doors and no windows, people just climb in". Where do you start? The teachers’ salaries are not always paid, and some are shockingly low (about $50 a month, which really doesn’t go far here). And with up to 90 children in a single class, getting an education here is not easy.