Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Sexual Assault and International Work

I am pretty sure we've all heard of CBS correspondent Lara Logan's sexual assault in Egypt. If you have not, read here. In any case, she was beaten and sexually assaulted for a good half hour before she was saved. It raised anger in me, as a woman, and as someone who's had her own near misses, both in the U.S. and overseas. At the same time, it made me think about a few things, namely the ideas of women traveling and working overseas.

You see, if you're a woman who wants to travel, the first thing people worry about is your safety. Sadly, people will often discourage women from traveling, whether she's backpacking across Europe or working in a developing country. If you do travel and something happens to you, well, you accepted the risks of the job, didn't you? If you're Western, well, you have loose morals anyway, right? This is because, regardless of how "enlightened" our society is, traveling is still not seen as an acceptable "space" for women. The punishment for leaving said space? Well, you shouldn't be surprised if something happens to you!

The sad thing is, rape is a unique exception to risk situations. If a soldier is wounded or dies in battle, he or she is considered a hero. If someone is mugged (regardless of whether they're out or they carelessly left their wallet out in the open), we feel terrible for them and the thief, if caught, will surely be punished. If a woman is raped, we start asking questions. What was she wearing? What was she drinking? How much was she drinking? What time of night was she out? Who was she with? Where was she going? Was she a virgin? Was she married? Is there a war in her area ("Well, rape is a weapon of war anyway!")? Was she conservative/liberal? Was she ever a criminal? We ask questions that are completely irrelevant to the crime that was committed. It doesn't matter that someone dared to force themselves on a woman (which is violence in and of itself), it matters if she somehow did something to "deserve it."

It angers me for two reasons. One, I know a ton of amazing men, as friends, as brothers, as family, and it bothers me that we live in a paradigm that assumes they are no more than wild beasts. I think men are better than that and that truly decent men would stand up and defend everyone's right to feel safe in their bodies. I am blessed to know truly honorable guys who have taken initiative in leading events like "Take Back the Night", who call their buddies on inappropriate jokes and who show that they care for the women in their lives. When this violence is justified as someone else's culture, it also carries a racist element. Having known good Kenyan men in a country where I was often harassed and grabbed helped me to work through an element of prejudice and realize that it is even more crucial for men to step it up, regardless of cultural context.

The other is that, when it comes to work and travel, if it never becomes safe for women, it can impact much of the work we do overseas. For example, when it comes to sexual violence in other countries, women will be more open about their experiences with a female journalist rather than a male. Or, in cases of economic empowerment projects for women, it is much more culturally appropriate for a woman to lead these events. In many countries and cultures, people feel more comfortable if things such as women's education, economic empowerment and women's health were addressed by females. If we cannot do this work because it's considered "too dangerous", who will? Now, I'm not trying to squash local initiatives or say that we Western women are the ones who will save the world but I am trying to point out that, where our expertise and knowledge is requested, we need to be able to provide services in a culturally sensitive manner. For women's issues, they have to be handled by females.

There is no excuse for violence against women. We may face risks that men do not often face but these are risks we face, not only when embarking on great adventures but in our day to day lives. What a sad day it is that, when we do face these risks, we are often branded as the bad girl. In the end, we lose sight of the real heroes among us.

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