How Not to Discuss Sexual Violence against Third World Women

Last week I was invited to the Dutch embassy to celebrate the launching of the Nobel Women’s Initiative’s report on sexual violence against women in Sudan. The report is titled “Survivors Speak Out: Sexual Violence in Sudan,” and it is meant to address the situation of “mass rape” and other forms of sexual violence against Sudanese women of all religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

As a Masters student interested in issues of gender and gendered violence, I was quite excited to be one of three students chosen to represent my university. I, a Mexican of indigenous background and a convert to Islam, was chosen alongside one Christian Lebanese PhD student and a second-year Masters student of Iraqi and Muslim background. Upon arrival to the embassy, the first thing we noticed was the demographic. We were three of the five minorities in a group of more than 50 people. There were only about four men, including the ambassador and a representative from Amnesty international. Whereas demographics may be irrelevant in some contexts, I think the demographics of this event set the tone for what would be an afternoon of drawing dichotomies, praising the big bucks coming from abroad, and presenting few recommendations to solve the issues. As three of the five minorities we were photographed constantly… My Iraqi friend, who is also a hijabi, attracted numerous people who kept asking to take a picture with her. It was like being in the zoo. Nonetheless, perhaps one of the most shocking (but not really) facts was that in an event celebrating the launching of a report about Sudanese women, there were no Sudanese people.

The speakers made a point in saying that the Sudanese government was against the work done by the organization; yet, no other Sudanese representatives from universities or NGOs were invited. There were no black people either… the report was surrounded by the whiteness that put it together and the money that funded it.

This report was presented in front of representatives of the Canadian senate, Canadian Foreign Affairs, the media and various NGOs yet it was more a mingling cocktail party than anything else. Among the three different speeches, the representative of Amnesty International had the most effect on me (and I don’t mean in a good way). He first recalled various issues of gender violence in Canada to try to appeal to the Canadian crowd and make the link to sexual violence in the Third World. However, the situation of the Stolen Sisters in Canada and sexual violence against indigenous women was not among the events mentioned. According to him, gender violence is non-existent in Canada or the Netherlands, which sharply contrasts with Amnesty’s own campaigns supporting the rights of indigenous women in Canada.

Nonetheless, he managed to make the link. He went on to tell us about the stories of “brave” Sudanese women who have been raped and abused, but who are looking to put an end to sexual violence. He described his role as one of a listener to horrible stories. The speaker also continued to praise the efforts of the First World, drawing a sharp dichotomy between the “us” and “them.” Sexual violence was described as a problem of the developing world and, in the Sudanese case, as a by-product of Islamic law. His suggestions continued to call the First World to pledge their support to end sexual violence in Sudan and to assist NGOs in the work in the Africa and in refugee camps. He then went on to thank the Dutch government for pledging a large amount of money to helping projects in Sudan, and to congratulate the crowd for another “successful” year in the area.

After the speech I felt uneasy, but I could not quite pinpoint what bothered me the most. Was it the lack of Sudanese people? Was it the dichotomy between the First and Third World? Or was it the idea that the First World is the solution?

When I went home and I read the report, I didn’t feel any better. The report compiles horrific statistics and stories of sexual violence in Sudanese provinces. Every couple of pages there is a picture of a woman, some of them in hijabs, working for NGOs or assisting refugees, but none of those women were present at the event, or even mentioned. Similarly, the report presents various examples on how Islamic law, as understood by the current regime, oppresses women. It also quotes Sudan’s president, Omar Al-Bashir, as saying:  “It is not in the Sudanese culture or people of Darfur to rape. It doesn’t exist. We do not have it.”

Yet, the report offers no tangible policy recommendations. It tells people to call for Al-Bashir to be brought to justice to the International Criminal Court, where very few cases have been brought forward (most of them from Africa). Bringing a leader to trial in international settings is not an easy process or a neutral one. I think that examples from Latin America (i.e. Augusto Pinochet or Alberto Fujimori) show that no matter how horrible the human rights abuses are, political and economic interests often come before justice.

Furthermore, the report also suggests collecting more funds, but we do not know how the funds are used and how this benefits Sudanese women, especially when foreign NGOs are denied entrance in Sudan, and the report points out that human rights activists are also prosecuted in the country.

By the end of the report I felt hopeless. What is the solution to  a situation when aid and development are so politicized both in Third World countries and in the West? What can be done if it is assumed that Islamic law is inherently bad towards women but we fail to acknowledge the legacies of colonialism and war? How can we make decisions without the women whose lives are at stake?

I am not an idealist. I happen to think that the parts of the world named “The West” or “the First World” can offer much needed help to countries in what is called the “Third World” or the “Global South” – but I believe that this help does not only come in the form of dollars and fancy speeches. Although financial aid may deliver something, it does not always come hand in hand with a real commitment to justice and peace. It can instead come with military interventions, like in Iraq and Afghanistan, or with financially assisting other governments or militias with arms and money that are used against civilians, or with a particular neoliberal pro-market form of development endorsed by organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

While it is true that at some point we (in the Third World) should get over the history of colonization, imperialism and military interventions, failing to acknowledge that history and its remnants does not benefit our communities in any way. The narrative has to change. The patently absurd idea of discussing sexual violence against Sudanese women without Sudanese women present has to become unthinkable. How can “Third World women” become empowered when the mainstream narratives say that they have to be saved from inept and violent brown men by Western countries with white majorities and big bucks?

Defensiveness in the Time of Da’esh
Friday Links
#ListenNotSave - Niqab in Canada
Who Can Talk About Palestinian Misogyny?