Uganda, the World Bank, and LGBT rights: Winners and losers

Participants in a march demanding health-care funding to fight maternal mortality, Kampala, Uganda, May 22, 2012

Participants in a march demanding health-care funding to fight maternal mortality, Kampala, Uganda, May 22, 2012

Victory! .. isn’t it? On February 27, the World Bank announced it was “indefinitely” delaying a scheduled $90 million loan to Uganda to improve health care, in response to the passing of the comprehensively repressive “Anti-Homosexuality Bill.” “We have postponed the project for further review to ensure that the development objectives would not be adversely affected by the enactment of this new law,” a Bank spokesman said.

In the circles where I move  — international (that is, North-based) activists working on LGBT rights — rejoicing burgeoned: finally the big funders are getting serious about queer people’s oppression! Politicians joined in. Nancy Pelosi, ex-speaker of the US House, tweeted joyfully:

pelosi wb copy

Jim Yong Kim, President Obama’s appointee to the lead the World Bank (an organization Washington still disproportionately funds and dominates) brought home the message with an op-ed the next day:

Institutionalized discrimination is bad for people and for societies. Widespread discrimination is also bad for economies … Legislation restricting sexual rights, for instance, can hurt a country’s competitiveness by discouraging multinational companies from investing or locating their activities in those nations.

Let’s pause to bask in the exhilarating effect of having a powerful institution intervene for LGBT people, with a leader in global development saying the “s” word — sex, as in “sexual rights.” Yes: it feels good.

Still, this is Africa. And this is the World Bank. For international activists to laud its actions so unreservedly involves a wretched show of amnesia.

We think that debt has to be seen from the standpoint of its origins. Debt’s origins come from colonialism’s origins. Those who lend us money are those who had colonized us before … Debt is a cleverly managed re-conquest of Africa, aiming at subjugating its growth and development through foreign rules. Thus, each one of us becomes the financial slave, which is to say a true slave.

Probably few of my international colleagues will recognize those words– another leftist rant, right? But many Africans know them. It’s Thomas Sankara, then president of Burkina Faso, speaking to the African Union in 1987. Sankara had rejected the mandates of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and launched on a development path that promoted economic equality, gender justice, education, and health care as basic rights. Three months after saying that, he was dead: murdered in a coup. France and other creditor nations tacitly endorsed his killing. He’s remembered and mourned across Africa today. His successor brought the country back under World Bank and IMF tutelage; as a result, as a South African analyst remarks, “Today Burkina Faso remains one of the least developed countries in the world.”

 

For twenty-five years, the World Bank has pushed essentially unvarying policies across the developing world: privatization, cutting the public sector, fostering an export-based economy (so that poor countries become suppliers of raw materials to the industrial North, and don’t grow their own industries and markets). It imposed these restrictions as conditions for loans; that debt, in addition to crippling Southern economies, then became a weapon to enforce more conditions. Poverty spread, not development. The Bank has been friendlier to civil society than its IMF sibling; but their ideologies and impacts have been the same. Praising a World Bank intervention for LGBT rights in Africa while forgetting this history is like praising Putin’s tender concern for Crimean Russians, while forgetting the Ukrainians next door.

You can use the power of international lenders for certain instrumental ends. That doesn’t mean you have to love them. We shouldn’t just hail what they do, we should scrutinize it. And please. You cannot condemn (as indeed you should) the neocolonialism of foreign evangelists exporting homophobia to Africa, and ignore the neocolonialism of foreign financial institutions that enforce neoliberal economics on an abject continent. Why is it wrong to import one devastating ideology, and OK to import another? Sorry. You need to be consistent.

So in the spirit of scrutiny, some questions arise about what the World Bank did.

First of all: why postpone this loan? Mainly, the $90 million was earmarked to combat maternal mortality: aimed at “maternal health, newborn care and family … through improving human resources for health, physical health infrastructure, and management, leadership and accountability for health service delivery.” It entailed funding to expand and train medical staff, to “professionalize and strengthen” management, for obstetric equipment and medicines including contraceptives, and for renovating hospitals. These goals are unlikely to be “adversely affected” by the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. The real reason for the selection is that this loan was up for board approval on February 28. The Bank seized on the first loan that came along to postpone. It was a matter of convenience, not strategic targeting.

Progress, but not enough: Uganda maternal mortality rate, 1990-2013

Uganda maternal mortality rate, 1990-2013 (from http://www.countdown2015mnch.org/reports-and-articles/2013-report)

Second point: Maternal mortality is serious in Uganda — and a political issue.

The country’s rate of maternal mortality is extremely high. In the Millenium Development Goals — endorsed by nations at a UN summit back in 2000 — countries committed to reduce the level of maternal mortality by 75% by 2015. For Uganda, this would mean cutting a rate that hovered appallingly around 600 per 100,000 live births in the 1990s, to 150. A 2013 report found the rate had fallen to 310 per 100,000 live births — around a 3.2% reduction every year, the UN said, but still well above the goal. Fewer than half of mothers had adequate antenatal care, and only a third had sufficient postnatal care. Less than 60% had a skilled attendant at delivery. Despite the government’s loud promise of a National Minimum Health Care Package (UNMHCP) for all Ugandans, health services still fail to reach many poor and rural women.

Statistics on maternal health care in Uganda (from http://www.countdown2015mnch.org/reports-and-articles/2013-report)

Statistics on maternal health care in Uganda (from http://www.countdown2015mnch.org/reports-and-articles/2013-report)

By some estimates, between 6,500 and 13,500 women and girls in Uganda die each year due to “pregnancy-related complications.” That means at least sixteen women die every day.

In 2011, a coalition of NGOs petitioned Uganda’s courts to intervene. They argued 

that by not providing essential health services and commodities for pregnant women and their new-borns, Government was violating fundamental human rights guaranteed in the Constitution, including the right to health, the right to life, and the rights of women.

The case has stayed stalled in the legal system. At a September 2013 hearing, the government simply failed to show up, forcing an indefinite postponement. In May 2012, an emotional procession of women and health-care providers marched through Kampala’s streets to support the lawsuit. They got an apology from the judiciary for delays — too few judges, too little time — but the delays continued. They also met with Finance Ministry officials to demand increases in the health sector budget; those didn’t happen. Leonard Okello of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance Uganda told the press, “Dying mothers are not a priority in Uganda.”

Marchers in Kampala, May 22, 2012

Marchers in Kampala, May 22, 2012

Corruption and cronyism are undoubtedly at issue (top government officials waste a small fortune traveling for health care abroad), but the basic question is budgeting. Museveni has successfully battled back the political pressure to reorder his priorities. In 2001, African Union countries signed the Abuja Declaration, committing them to raise health spending to at least 15% of budget. (The development field seems particularly prone to these lofty professions of faith, which multiply like theological credos in the early Church.) Despite all its challenges, including one of the world’s best-known AIDS crises, Uganda has rarely made it much more than halfway to this target. The figures for recent years show a large decrease in the health sector’s budget share — from just over 10% in 2010 to under 8%:

On the right: health care as a percent of overall budget (from "Citizen’s Budget: The Civl Society Alternative Budget Proposals FY 2013/14 - 2017/18), at http://www.csbag.org/docs/Citizens_Budget_FY2013_14.pdf

On the right: health care as a percent of overall budget (from “Citizen’s Budget: The Civil Society Alternative Budget Proposals FY 2013/14 – 2017/18”, at http://www.csbag.org/docs/Citizens_Budget_FY2013_14.pdf)

Who gets the money instead?

Interesting question. Here are the allocations by sector from Uganda’s budgets for the last two fiscal years.

Uganda budget by sector, FY 2013/14 (from "National Budget Framework Paper," Ministry of Finance, at http://www.psfuganda.org/new/images/downloads/Trade/budget%20%20framework%20paper%202013-14.pdf)

Uganda budget by sector (from “The Background to the Budget, Fiscal Year 2013/14,” Ministry of Finance, p. 104, at http://www.budget.go.ug/budget/content/background-budget)

(Note the percentage figures on the right, and ignore the numbers in shillings, which are made irrelevant by inflation.) Health’s share goes down again, to less than half the Abuja Declaration goal. Other losers are education, agriculture, water and the environment. Huge shares of the budget are taken up by “Energy and Mineral Development” and “Works and Transport.” These partly reflect the growing exploitation of Uganda’s oil reserves. They also reflect the priorities neoliberal lenders like the World Bank have always urged on developing countries: go produce raw materials for export to the industrialized North! and go build the infrastructure to get them there! One commentator says the country is “focusing on physical capital at the expense of human capital.” That’s an understatement.

But the other big factor is the security sector.

Security doesn’t look so massive: only 8.2% of the latest budget. That’s only the tip of the AK-47, though. Many defense expenditures remain hidden. Uganda’s Independent newspaper noted that the “the budget for Defence in the BFP [Budget Framework Paper] has always been smaller” than the reality:

[I]n real terms that figure excludes monies accrued to Defence from external sources. The figure also does not include classified expenditure that is usually Defence’s biggest component. Because of national security, the army does not reveal certain expenditures.

The 2013/14 budget featured “about ten new taxes… introduced partly to finance the Ministry of Defence.” These included a value-added tax (VAT) on water and on wheat and flour, regressive imposts designed to squeeze money from the poor. Security is Museveni’s “topmost priority,” the Independent says, and it’s the great enemy of health. In 2012, rebel parliamentarians proposed cutting the military’s largesse by 15 billion shillings (about US$6 million) and boosting health spending by 39 billion (US$15.5 million). Museveni quashed the move in fury. He snarled that he “couldn’t sacrifice the defense budget for anything.”

The President prizes his troops: “a large military war-chest increases Museveni’s regional and international leverage, and helps cow opposition to him at home.” But the US loves the Ugandan military as well. America wants to see plenty of money spent on it.

David Hogg, Commander of US Army Africa, inspects Ugandan troops in April 2011. Photo: U.S. Army. .

David Hogg, Commander of US Army Africa, inspects Ugandan troops in April 2011. Photo: U.S. Army. .

I wrote two years ago about the US’s aims for strategic hegemony in Africa, driven by the promise of buried resources and the threat of China. Uganda, as ally and partner, is key to this design. Obama actually sent US troops to Uganda in 2011, to join its army in chasing the warlord Joseph Kony, loathed by well-meaning white people everywhere. This was a small reward for Museveni’s larger services in bringing a desolate stability to Somalia. In 2012, the Pentagon “poured more than $82 million into counterterrorism assistance for six African countries, with more than half of that going to Uganda.” Money and equipment keep flowing to Museveni’s forces. Obama showers Uganda with “lethal military assistance,” writes the pundit Andrew Mwenda, because “America’s geostrategic interests in our region, and Museveni’s pivotal role in them, demand that the American president pampers his Ugandan counterpart.” 

And here is where we can start to understand some ambiguities in the World Bank’s actions.

The $90 million loan for “Uganda Health Systems Strengthening” that the Bank was on the verge of giving drew on two earlier Bank analyses of Uganda’s health crises. There’s a 2009 paper, Uganda: A Public Expenditure Review 2008, With a Focus on Affordability of Pay Reform and Health Sector. A longer 2010 working paper, Fiscal Space for Health in Uganda, elaborated on this. (Peter Okwero, task team leader for the loan, helped compose both.) They’re fascinating documents that reveal much about Uganda and much more about the Bank. It’s an honest institution in many ways, frank with figures and often good at diagnosing what’s wrong. But its prescriptions seem to come from a different place from its diagnoses — one permeated with politics and ideology. Its medicines rarely match the disease.

The findings are unsurprising. Aside from considerable waste (caused by theft of drugs but also poor procurement and storage practices) the main problems in health care stem from lack of funds. Capital spending in hospitals has shrunk; many hospitals are old and decaying. Medical costs are rising: “Growing resistance to the existing treatment for malaria (and more recently for TB), is forcing Uganda to adopt more expensive treatments.” Meanwhile, “Uganda faces a serious shortage of health personnel in the workforce,” with only 8 doctors per 100,000 population. Staff are underpaid (even drug stealing, a major component of waste, is surely related to salaries, though the reports don’t draw the connection). And many sick people need resources just to use the system: 

65 percent of women reported lack of money to pay for treatment as a constraint to seeking treatment. Other problems included travel distance (55 percent), the necessity of taking public transportation (49 percent), concern over unavailability of medications (46 percent) …

“Preliminary health sector modeling work carried out under this study suggests that Uganda clearly needs to increase public health spending for non-salary cost at clinics and hospitals.”

Student nurses in the caesarean section ward of Rukungiri hospital, 2007: ©  Patricia Hopkins, ABC news (Australia)

Student nurses in the caesarean section ward of Rukungiri
hospital, 2007: © Patricia Hopkins, ABC news (Australia)

Except the conclusion is, weirdly, Uganda can’t. Here’s where the medicine stops fitting the diagnosis. “[Only] limited opportunities for additional public funding seem to exist,” the 2009 report says. The reports adduce this from looking at the national budget, and finding there’s just no flexibility there.

Can Uganda increase the share of its Government budget devoted to health? Reprioritizing health spending at the expense of other sectors seems unlikely. It is not clear which other sector budgets can feasibly be cut in order to increase allocations to health. Government policy has emphasized fiscal consolidation, whilst agriculture, energy, roads and USE [universal secondary education] are each identified as priorities in the coming years. … The best option for generating more health outputs in Uganda would seem to be through improved efficiency of Government spending rather than increasing Government spending. [Emphasis added]

So much for those lawsuits based on human rights! Instead … blah, blah. “Uganda’s health policymakers must identify a combination of efficiency savings and re-prioritization to sustain progress towards health targets … Efficiency gains will be needed and can be found …  The most pressing priority is to utilize the existing funding for health more efficiently.” (Italics added.) The reports show that Uganda needs increased health spending. But they end with “Recommendations to reduce the growing pressure to increase health spending.” They remind you mothers are dying, and then offer Museveni advice: how to tell those irritating women who march about dying mothers to get lost.

And it’s very interesting what budget sectors the World Bank looked at. They examine “agriculture, energy, roads” and education and find there’s nothing there to give to health care (even though Uganda’s most recent budgets managed to cut the first and last items). What the Bank doesn’t mention — not once — are defense and security, the military and police. Shifting money out of those sectors isn’t even under consideration. For the Bank, Museveni’s guns are sacrosanct. It’s the butter that needs trimming.

It’s tempting to say the Bank is showing a delicate sensitivity to Museveni’s feelings here. Why antagonize the old dictator by menacing his pet Praetorians?  But the World Bank has never hesitated to tell governments to cut their favorite projects. Instead, we need to recall the Bank’s political situation. The US is its largest shareholder; the American President appoints its head; the Yankee-led Bank put the Washington in the Washington Consensus, balancing off the European-dominated IMF. The Bank’s approach to Ugandan budgeting reflects the US’s priorities. The US gives its share of support to health care in Uganda, through PEPFAR and other programs; but its main interest is Museveni’s military, and it has no desire to see money for soldiers shifted to obstetricians. The Bank, likewise, is not going to threaten the defense sector. If that’s the choice — and they don’t even dare to suggest it — health care has to fend for itself.

The Washington Consensus: Street art from Argentina

The Washington Consensus: Street art from Argentina

The $90 million loan was meant as a way out of this dilemma, giving the Ugandan health system a bit more breathing room. It’s interesting, then, how the Bank moved so quickly to suspend it. According to BuzzFeed, the Democratic leader of the House herself called the Bank:

“Yesterday, Leader Pelosi [a curiously North Korean locution] spoke with President Kim to express the concerns of Members of Congress about the legislation enacted in Uganda,” Pelosi’s spokesman, Drew Hammill, told BuzzFeed in an email. “While we appreciate the difficult decisions President Kim has to make and their impact on the lives of many in the developing world, many Members believe that such a blatant act of discrimination should not go unnoticed.”

How odd that Pelosi phoned the Bank about its aid package before dialing her own government’s agencies. Yet it makes a certain sense; for Obama was under pressure to do something about Uganda, and some were pointing to that sacred military aid as a tempting target. Just one day earlier, Stars and Stripes — the US Army’s own newspaper — suggested as much.

[D]owngrading cooperation with Uganda’s military would be a way to send a signal to the leadership in the country, said J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. … 

“Military assistance is the one area where the U.S. has options,” Pham said. “[T]he Ugandan People’s Defence Force remains one of the few bastions of professionalism in the country, and its leadership is about the only check on Museveni and his ambitions to impose his son as a successor; hence, a shot across the UPDF’s bow might get some attention from those best positioned to get the president’s attention.”

The paper quickly backtracked: “Some experts, however, say that military ties are unlikely to be cut. Given the role the Ugandan military plays in promoting regional stability, dramatic cuts in aid should be avoided.” Lovely stability! You can see how the World Bank’s loan postponement was a happy distraction. It ended any pressure on the US government to trim its military commitments to Kampala. Uganda was already suffering, and Obama no longer needed to pile on. Pelosi’s call served its purpose.

This is stability: Ugandan soldier in Mogadishu, 2007

This is stability: Ugandan soldier in Mogadishu, 2007

The gesture is more a symbolic than a real one. The World Bank is unlikely actually to cut the loan, with four years of planning behind it. Sheila Gashishiri, the Bank’s spokesperson in Kampala, told the AP on February 28 that “the project run by Uganda’s Health Ministry will continue despite the postponement.” That probably means the funds will come through after a suitable interval.

In fact, Museveni’s regime will benefit. The whole brouhaha gives him wonderful room for rhetorical posturing. “The West can keep their ‘aid’ to Uganda over homos,” the ruling party’s press man Ofwono Opondo said, adding both that “Africa must stand up to Western domination” and that “Western ‘aid’ to Africa is lucrative and profitable trade they cannot cut off completely.” The politicos can have their cake of indignation — and ultimately eat their cake of $90 million credits too. Their rage, their language, pits LGBT people against pregnant women — a terrible side-effect of the Bank’s action. Surely that can only help brutal violence against the former spread.

Moreover, even a brief interruption in the health care loan gives Museveni ammunition. He can stand up to NGOs, Parliament, and even the courts if they demand more funding for the health sector to fight maternal mortality. “What money? The World Bank money? Where is it? There is no cash.” Those marching women can just go away. His security budget is even safer now from niggling jealousies.

And yet all this aid-cutting and health-care gutting is, we’re told, a blow for equality, against discrimination. We talk so much about “equality,” in the Western LGBT movement! The word is our fetish; we raise up those rosy equal signs as if they were the Black Madonna of Częstochowa.  But maybe we need to think more deeply about equality’s meaning.

Here is the logo for the State Department’s Global Equality Fund, which supports LGBT organizing around the world.

GlobalEqualityFund_blog

You have to love that rainbow circle: it’s seductive as the One Ring. So, too, is the call for dialogue. But what if that sphere dialogued with this one – a chart of global inequality, prepared by no less impeccable a capitalist center than a famous Swiss bank:

oct18_global_wealth

It’s a bit more … detailed. As are these circles:

Top: Wealth shares by country, 2000 (from Wikipedia; data from  http://www.wider.unu.edu/research/2006-2007/2006-2007-1/wider-wdhw-launch-5-12-2006/wider-wdhw-press-release-5-12-2006.pdf; Bottom: Wealth shares by region, 2010

Top: Wealth shares by country, 2000 (from Wikipedia; data from http://www.wider.unu.edu/research/2006-2007/2006-2007-1/wider-wdhw-launch-5-12-2006/wider-wdhw-press-release-5-12-2006.pdf; Bottom: Wealth shares by region, 2010

You’ll notice that Africa, with one-sixth of the world’s population, has one percent of its wealth. Uganda is a tiny, tiny sliver within that. I want the rainbow ring, but there’s something missing. How do these visions of equality connect?

The US-based Human Rights Campaign, which gave those iconic equality symbols to the world, also weighed in on the World Bank’s statement, inveighing at recalcitrant countries that

you will pay a high price for discriminatory practices. Whether viewed through a moral or economic lense [sic], discrimination does not pay. … HRC applauds Secretary Kerry and World Bank President Kim for taking a stand on LGBT equality. But the work is far from done.

HRC’s international work, of course, is mainly supported by the profits of vulture funds, exploiters who traffic in Third World debt and immiseration. Equality can mean so many things.

VULTURE 9So who won, and who lost? The World Bank won. They’ve sent the US a message that they are pliable to its political requirements. They’ve sent Uganda a message that there will be Consequences, but the Consequences won’t affect the programs Museveni most loves — the ones with guns. Then, messages mailed, the World Bank can finally produce the loan, which will take it off the hook (except to collect the interest). Uganda’s government is also a winner. They get to stand up theatrically to the blackmail of perversion; in the end, they probably get the cash. They also get an excellent argument against shifting money from the security establishment, or ending the deaths of pregnant women.

To these you can add the US government, which can rest confident that its military aid to Museveni has again evaded question. And you can add Western gay movements — especially those in the United States, allied not-quite-knowingly but easily with the administration’s interests. They’ve flexed their macho muscles and proven that they have some power, power to make the poor pay for what other people have done. I mean, it’s true that LGBT communities in Uganda are still laboring under oppression, and we haven’t done so much about that; but at least we get to oppress someone too. Isn’t that a consolation?

The losers are all in Uganda. They’re folks whose voices, though sometimes ventriloquized, are too faint or peripheral to be heard: mothers, children, LGBT people. Here’s to the victors! Great job.

mother-support

Ireland and damaged belonging: From Magdalene Laundries to Cupcake Scrub

Still from The Magdalene Sisters, a 2002 film on Ireland's Magdalene laundries

Still from The Magdalene Sisters, a 2002 film on Ireland’s Magdalene laundries

“It is true,” he said, “that you cannot commit a crime and that the right arm of the law cannot lay its finger on you irrespective of the degree of your criminality. Anything you do is a lie and nothing that happens to you is true.”

I nodded my agreement comfortably.

“For that reason alone,’ said the Sergeant, “we can take you and hang the life out of you and you are not hanged at all and there is no entry to be made in the death papers. The particular death you die is not even a death (which is an inferior phenomenon at the best) only an insanitary abstraction in the backyard, a piece of negative nullity neutralised and rendered void by asphyxiation and the fracture of the spinal string. If it is not a lie to say that you have been given the final hammer behind the barrack, equally it is true to say that nothing has happened to you.”

“You mean that because I have no name I cannot die and that you cannot be held answerable for death even if you kill me?”

“That is about the size of it,” said the Sergeant.

–Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman

“A priest-ridden Godforsaken race,” James Joyce called his fellow Irish. Till about twenty years ago this was true. Ireland now is a society (Quebec in the 60s was another) that’s whirled through an extremely swift process of secularization. Damped down in part by the church-abuse scandals, weekly attendance at Mass has dropped precipitately (from close to 90% of professing Catholics twenty years ago to barely 20% now). That’s only the tip of the altar — even if many of the signs of this seismic shift might be taken for granted elsewhere in Europe. Divorce, long banned in the Constitution, became legal in 1995. You can now buy condoms without a prescription. Even the Archbishop of Dublin grudgingly acknowledges that the country’s secularization turned out to be “in great part” a benefit, like the earth revolving around the sun, which was a risky thing when first tried but seems not to have done too much damage.

In step: Anti-clerical cartoon by Gustave-Henri Jossot (1866-1951)

In step: Anti-clerical cartoon by Gustave-Henri Jossot (1866-1951)

As with Quebec, the status of homosexuality has served as bellwether of these changes. The State decriminalized same-sex sex in 1993, outlawed discrimination in 1998, and, three years ago, permitted civil partnerships for lesbian and gay couples. Dublin is now a gay tourist destination.

Militant secularists tend to see superstition’s recession and liberty’s advance as simultaneous and inseparable. Indeed, when the patriarchal conception of personhood that dominated Irish politics for decades gave way to a modern ideal of equal citizenship, it was (to paraphrase the Archbishop) in great part good. You couldn’t ask for a worse symbol of the old, medieval-minded Ireland than the infamous Magdalene Laundries. Perhaps the non-Irish don’t know much about these; they were an appalling survival of slavery into modern times. From the 1920s on, the Church imprisoned thousands of “fallen” women — women who had sex outside marriage, or even their young children — forcing them to labor unpaid, as penance, in profit-making laundries. Many were stripped even of their identities, given a new name when they arrived at their religious jails. Many spent their lives in confinement. The government was complicit in the horrors (police often dragged girls back if they managed to escape); it allowed them in subservience to a Church that claimed large elements of State-like power. The public remained largely unaware till 1993, when one convent sold land on which a disbanded laundry had stood. 155 unmarked graves of women were discovered on the grounds.

All that is over, surely — the last laundry closed in 1996. The secular State assures that no woman or man will go nameless, that equality brings freedom. True? The gays are doing great in Ireland, after all. And yet … other kinds of sex are less lucky.

What happens during secularization? The truth is: Parts of paternalism always survive. Power is polymorphously perverse and adaptable. The secular State can all too readily assume a pastoral mantle, in the presumption that some people are unready for citizenship and need surveillance and protection.

As long as you don't pay for it with your filthy prostitution earnings

As long as you don’t pay for it with your filthy prostitution earnings

I sometimes call this the ideology of damaged citizenship — or better, perhaps, since not all the victims are citizens, “damaged belonging.” Elements of it underlie citizenship discourses almost everywhere, since equality is always partly fictive. But I believe they’re particularly insidious where rapid changes in belief give politics a new foundation that’s insecure, untrusted, wobbly. Identifying some members of the community as damaged serves a dual purpose. It justifies the State’s power to control and intervene. And it defines certain people who resist that power as not fully members of the polity, not qualified to speak at all. It also allows religious claims and repressions to renew themselves in sheep’s clothing, in a safely secular guise. The new regime draws on the old one for support.

Irish anti-abortion protester, 2013

Irish anti-abortion protester, 2013

“Damaged belonging” is the model whenever politics starts to revolve around, not people’s claims for participation, but the State’s claims on their behalf. Sometimes these are people who genuinely need protection, like kids, though (since they aren’t allowed to speak for themselves or describe the hazards they face) the threats conjured against them often run from exaggerated to imaginary: pedophiles rather than poverty, prostitution rather than family violence. Sometimes the furor demands the State defend a purely theoretical person, the fetus. (Barney Frank’s line remains the best ever on abortion politics in the United States: “Republicans believe that life begins at conception, and ends at birth.”) Only a month ago did Ireland — extraordinarily regressive on abortion for all its liberalism in some other areas — pass a law saying that saving a mother’s life could be prioritized over preserving a fetus’s viability.

Sometimes, on the other hand, real citizens need protection from damaged citizens, or people altogether outside the citizenship pale. The poor or, that reliable staple of current European rhetoric, the migrant become the terrors.

So many of these stories come together in … the sex worker. Sex workers number among the demanding, undeserving poor. They’re migrants not neighbors, people from Out There coming to claim our benefits and corrupt our shores. On the other hand, they recruit our children into prostitution. And of course, having done that, they want the State to kill their fetuses for them. (A UK abolitionist site, despite couching itself as feminist, condemns “risk of pregnancy [and] high abortion rate” among the “hazards of prostitution.”) 

Last November, Ireland’s government, under pressure from anti-prostitution campaigners, announced a review of the country’s laws on sex work. (Ireland effectively decriminalized buying and selling sex in the 1980s, but soliciting and brothel-keeping remain illegal, accompanied by the usual sweeping laws against loitering.) The ultimate aim was to impose the so-called “Swedish model,” which criminalizes the purchaser of sex. The campaign to put the screws on the government offers interesting insight into how religious forces ensure their influence in the supposedly secular State. Ruhama was one of the main players. What a nice womany group, down to its ecumenical-lefty name (Hebrew for “renewing life”)! It says on its website that it

regards prostitution as violence against women and violations of women’s human rights. ‘Prostitution and the accompanying evil of trafficking for prostitution, is incompatible with the dignity and worth of every human being’ – UN Convention 1949. We see prostitution and the social and cultural attitudes which sustain it as being deeply rooted in gender inequality and social marginalisation.

This defense of “gender equality” is nice. But coming from Ruhama? Weird.

We will do anything to stop prostitution. Even quote the UN.

We will do anything to stop prostitution. Even quote the UN.

In fact, Ruhama is a project of the Catholic Church, not previously noted for its attachment to the idea. When it was founded in 1993, its registered office (legal headquarters, that is) was the Provincialate of the Good Shepherd Sisters in Dublin. In 1995, it changed digs (moving as often as Simon Dedalus!) to the Dublin address of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity. In 1998 it moved again, relocating with the Sisters of Mercy. And in 2002 it found its final resting place, at least till today, at All Hallows College, a private Catholic school (directed by the Vincentians, a collection of orders that counts the Sisters of Charity in its family). They must feel nervous, typing UN language into their computers in these sacral locations; isn’t there some anti-Antichrist software on hand? But “Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you.” That’s Luke 10:19.

Ruhama’s board today includes two Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, and one of the Good Shepherd Sisters.  Here, though, is a list of some of its board members from the past:

Sr. Angela Fahy (Sisters of Our Lady of Charity), 1993-2000
Sr. Evelyn Fergus (Good Shepherd Sisters), 1993-1996
Sr. Jennifer McAleer (Good Shepherd Sisters), 1993-1995
Sr. Noreen O’Shea (Good Shepherd Sisters), 1993-1998, 2003-2008
Sr. Helena Farrell (Sisters of Our Lady of Charity), 1995-2000
Sr. Johanna Horgan (Good Shepherd Sisters), 1995-2005
Sr. Aileen D’Alton (Good Shepherd Sisters), 1996-2000
Sr. Margaret Burke (Sisters of Our Lady of Charity) 1996-2006
Sr. Ann Marie Ryan (Sisters of Our Lady of Charity), 2000-2004
Sr. Clare Kenny (Good Shepherd Sisters), 2008-2009

It’s like Sister Act! Ruhama, as a service organization, also gets tons of Irish government money, some of which it then uses to lobby the Irish government for anti-prostitution laws. The whole thing illustrates the easy way that religious mandates can be repackaged, to mesh with and support State power.

Women in Magdalene laundries, ca. 1930s

Women in Magdalene laundries, ca. 1930s

But it’s more than that. Both of these religious orders ran Magdalene Laundries for decades. Their hands are stained with the sweat of the women who worked there, and the blood of the women who died there. These God-fearing enforcers are the “fallen” people, and not even their own slave laundries could wash them clean. The orders’ offers of compensation to the survivors of abuse have been risibly inadequate, and they’ve continued to rake in money from the properties where the horrors happened. (In land sales in 2006 alone, the Sisters of Mercy “received €32m for a 16-acre tract in Killarney. And the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity sold the site adjoining its Magdalene Laundry in High Park Dublin for €55m.”) Now, with consummate sliminess, they are using a feminist-sounding front to campaign against sex work, on the grounds that it’s — get this — “slavery.” Or as they put it: Ruhama’s “view is that trafficking for sexual exploitation,” into which they lump all prostitution, “is a contemporary form of slavery, with a distinctly gendered bias.” Really! (On its off days when it’s not oppressing sex workers, the Holy See doesn’t even like the word “gender.”) Ambrose Bierce called hypocrisy “prejudice with a halo,” and you can see why.

Women on their way to Oireachtas hearings on sex work laws, 2013: Eric Luke

Woman protesting outside Oireachtas hearings on sex work laws, 2013: Eric Luke

The Joint Oireachtas (Parliament) Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality held hearings on the prostitution laws in early 2013. These were a stacked, tilted joke. The official record shows that only one speaker from the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland was allowed to testify. There were twenty-three witnesses from member groups in the Ruhama- inspired, anti-sex-work Turn Off the Red Light campaign, including two from Ruhama alone. That isn’t democracy, it’s a sing-along; you might as well listen to the Vienna Boys’ Choir. But then, as Flann O’Brien told his readers years ago, ““The majority of the members of the Irish parliament are professional politicians, in the sense that otherwise they would not be given jobs minding mice at crossroads.”

Red light, blue light: The Garda

Red light, blue light: The Gardaí

One academic delicately complimented Turn Off the Red Light for “a brilliantly run campaign” which “rested on a shaky foundation, that of limited comprehensive knowledge about the actual nature … of prostitution in Ireland.” No surprises, then: in June, the legislators recommended the Swedish model, criminalizing all purchase of sexual services. They unanimously added other, still more draconian proposals. People who provide accommodation to sex workers would be criminalized — meaning that indoor sex work (by far the safest kind) will be illegal, and sex workers can be driven from their homes.  The Gardaí (police) would be able to disconnect any phone suspected of being used by a sex worker: an effort, as activists note, to

cut off sex workers’ access to communication by phone – which would affect them in all aspects of their life, not merely their sex work activity…. Denying sex workers the right to use telephones could also have adverse effects for their safety, by making it impossible for them to use “ugly mugs” schemes that alert them to dangerous clients, or preventing them calling for help if attacked.

And, incredibly, “the accessing of web sites – whether located in the State or abroad – that advertise prostitution in the State should be treated in the same way as accessing sites that advertise or distribute child pornography.” This is absurd on innumerable grounds, but it’s also horrible. Even a sex worker who checks ads (say, to see what the competition are doing) could be arrested.

Outreach health and social service workers who engage with sex workers through these sites, as well as sex industry researchers, would also be affected. It goes without saying that this proposal would require a significant expansion of the apparatus already in place to monitor Irish internet usage.

This is damaged belonging with a vengeance. In the name of protecting sex workers, they’re cut off from phones and from the Internet; not just buying their services but contacting them virtually becomes criminal; the law treats and insults them as exploited children, “fallen” and powerless, and all in the name of protection. Down that road lie the Magdalene Laundries that Ruhama’s founders used to run.

Sex Workers Alliance Ireland pamphlet

Sex Workers Alliance Ireland pamphlet

Already, even before a law’s been passed, the deprivation of basic rights is starting. As I noted in a previous post, police in Ireland have rarely if ever used the ASBO (Anti-Social Behaviour Order), a tool of repression common in the UK, one that allows jailing suspects even for acts that are not illegal. But not long after the Oireachtas report, the Gardaí in Limerick sought ASBOs against eight alleged sex workers, mostly Romanian, to strip them of freedom of movement in the city’s center. Years in prison just for showing their faces on certain streets! Once you’ve become a non-person, as Flann O’Brien’s policeman explained, the law’s letter doesn’t matter because you have no name. Anything can be done to you.

The great blog on sex workers’ rights El estante de la Citi has recently posted an analysis of Ireland’s anti-sex-work panic that appeared in the underground magazine Rabble. I recommend the blog. It’s in Spanish, and in fact also offers a Spanish translation of the same piece, and as soon as I opened it Google Translate kicked in on my browser, to turn it back into English — this is globalization in action. Thus I discovered that Google translates “las Lavanderías de las Magdalenas” (Magdalene Laundries) as “Cupcake Scrub.” (It’s probably a tribute to the Spanish-speaking world’s own secularization process that “Magdalenas” first reminds an electronic brain of not the saint, but the sweet.) But this made me remember some of the awful names of anti-sex work purges that police have mounted in the past. New York had “Operation Flush the Johns” this year. Rio de Janeiro, where police crack down lethally on sex workers all the time, has seen Operation Shame, Operation Sodom, Operation Princess, and Operation Come Here Dollbaby. Who is to say that Operation Cupcake Scrub isn’t part of Ireland’s repressive future?

Virgin madeleines: These cookies are clean

Virgin madeleines: These cookies are clean

I want to close simply by quoting some of the Rabble article:

The Magdalene Laundries existed to control women’s lives, and made money, but rescuing modern Ireland’s fallen women is worth quite a bit too. You could never be certain of their motivations but you can certainly speculate as to why some organisations are involved in this. Laura Lee [a sex worker activist] says of the motivations: “Their agenda seems to be nothing more than continued funding. Government funding and salaries. It suits them to portray the sex industry in a very bad light. The rescue industry is worth big money. They’re all saying we’re pimped and trafficked —even if we’re jumping up and down saying no we’re not.” When actual sex workers are telling a different story to TORL [Turn Off the Red Light], you could be forgiven for asking the awkward question, ‘Who might know the most about being a sex worker?’ …

Rachel, a Romanian escort working in Dublin for the past number of years questioned [the claims that Ruhama and TORL make], and the absence of sex workers own voices in the debate. … “They say they want to fight against human trafficking but all the escorts I know work of their own free will. I remember the raid last year, 200-ish accommodations were searched by the police and they didn’t find one single escort who was trafficked or working against her will.”

But despite the good intentions of those who are genuinely behind TORL it doesn’t take away from the fact that criminalising buyers makes things more dangerous for sex workers. The fear of the potential consequences of criminalisation are pretty evident for Rachel: “If condoms will be used as a proof of sex with a client (if it is criminalised) then sex workers might stop using them.” The repercussions of this type of fear for the health of the women and their clients is obvious.

Nassau Count District Attorney Kathleen Rice announces the results of "Operation Flush the Johns" in Mineola, NY, 2013

Don’t patronize me: Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice shows results of “Operation Flush the Johns” in Mineola, NY, 2013

Criminalisation pushes the industry further underground and creates more pimps. It also gives the Gardai more control over these women’s lives. And it means that two women who are both sex workers and share an apartment for safety and security might be convicted of brothel-keeping. … Sure, just bring back the Good Shepherd Sisters, Ireland still needs to be saved. You can’t be having filthy, dirty, sinful, sex for money. No, you should be out cleaning jaxes for minimum wage. If you can’t pay your ESB bill or put food on the table for your kids? Well so be it. Better than being a whore and all that.

the-third-policeman

Outstanding defenders of the Irish State: Flann O’Brien novel, cover

Correction: The first version of this blog post incorrectly attributed the Rabble article to activist anthropologist Laura Agustin — mainly because the post that followed it in El estante de la Citi actually was an article by Agustin, and my eyes blurred from having too many browser windows open. My apologies. Be sure, though, to check out Agustin’s blog at The Naked Anthropologist, for plenty of excellent insights on trafficking, sex work, and morality policing that are indisputably hers. 

Human Rights Watch on women’s sexuality: Nice women don’t have one (1)

lesbian invisibility

Still hazy after all these years

This is Part 1 of a three-part post

Missed connections; or, how not to find lesbians

Here’s some of what a friend of mine, an Egyptian lesbian, 33 and butch, told me about days and nights during the Revolution in Midan Tahrir, where she put her life on the line.

We felt the presence of women, very strongly — and the presence of queer people very, very strongly, on the front lines, at essential moments. How amazing it was when people were just dealing, without judging. On February 2, the Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood] were there, and in a couple of hours they organized an assembly line to break the stones, to carry them to the front lines, with water and food supplies — they organized a hospital. I was with the shock troops, in the front line.   … We needed to frighten the other side, so they would think that we were stronger than they’d thought. They had guns, Molotov cocktails. We were fighting them with sand and rocks.  I was up there wearing a hood, to protect me, and you couldn’t tell if I was male or female. There was this Salafi near me, and he kept eye contact. He came down to me, to give me water. He said, I’ll take you further up, to the real front, the most dangerous zone. Just keep me in your line of vision, we can support each other.

I stayed there for hours, with eye contact with this man, on the line—and in the end I was positive that he realized I was a female. And he helped me stay there. …

It was moving for me, later, when I got to know about other protests in the global North inspired by Egypt. I’m not into this kind of petty nationalism—I believe in human rights.   But I am tired of being told: you are a second class individual, because you’re from the global South. You’re third class, because you are female. You are fourth class, because you are lesbian.   Suddenly we are at the center of the world. And suddenly we know that we can do it.

After the Revolution, Human Rights Watch, like other rights groups, sent hordes of workers to Cairo to interview Important People and figure out what had happened. One was Minky Worden, a colleague of mine, who’s editor of HRW’s spanking new anthology, “The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights.” I doubt they found my friend, a grassroots activist, Important enough to spend time on; zero of her passion or vision animates the book.  The volume claims to be a comprehensive picture of “the recent history of legal and political battles to secure basic rights for women and girls”; it banners a rah-rah quote from Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee: “Women are not free anywhere in the world until all women in the world are free.” Well: some women. In 332 pages, the book doesn’t contain even one substantive mention of lesbian or bisexual women, their struggles, or their human rights.* Talk about being fourth class.

Ugandan demonstrator in New York, 2011

It’s 2012, and this should not happen. It’s shocking on many grounds. You can’t describe the international women’s movement in the 20th and 21st centuries without describing lesbian and bisexual women. They’ve been there at every juncture — as Charlotte Bunch and Claudia Hinojosa, for instance, have shown in documenting just one part of this rich history, lesbians’ activism at the UN. (Even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights owes a lioness’ share in its creation to Eleanor Roosevelt, who was, by modern biographers’ estimation, bisexual.) These fighters, like my friend, have stayed on the front lines: they’ve helped keep feminist movements conscious of difference and honest about the raw realities of sexuality. If they’ve been a target for violent attacks on feminism — more reason for HRW to acknowledge their importance! — they’ve also been among its boldest thinkers as well as bravest defenders.

I won’t even obsess here over the volume’s complete silence about the massive rights violations against transgender women and men — or its indifference to trans activists’ amazing successes at encoding progressive conceptions of gender in national laws. Some things no longer surprise me. But as a former Watcher, I do wonder what HRW was thinking, or failing to think. There are only a few possible interpretations of its perspective:

  • There are no serious human rights violations against lesbian or bisexual women.
  • Lesbians are not women.
  • Lesbians are not human.

It would be interesting to know which of these reflects HRW’s current official position.

Lesbians are real women, and sometimes it bears repeating: Dyke March in Soweto, 2007, © Behind the Mask

Of course, I started the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, almost nine years ago. We did a slew of reporting on lesbian, and bisexual, and transgender women, and trans men. We hired the first-ever researcher at a a major human rights organization to work primarily on lesbian issues. One therefore feels particular disillusion that all this hasn’t filtered into the organization’s understanding of women’s rights. It’s tempting to mutter, with the grandpaternal gruffness of encroaching senility, that this omission wouldn’t happen if were around. Non ego hoc ferrem calidus juventa consule Planco: feed that to your Babelfish. But that’s absurd. The silence speaks to deeper structural problems as pressing during my tenure as they are today. It illuminates at least three things:

  • how a large organization like Human Rights Watch fails to foster conceptual or practical connections within its work;
  • how lingering insecurities about sex (especially visible around sex workkeep it from accepting sexual autonomy as a fundamental value;
  • and how human autonomy itself remains a problematic principle for institutions across the rights-defending business.

Let’s start with the first.

I’ve pretty much spent twenty years trying to mainstream sexuality within the work of human rights. We rolled back many prejudices at Human RIghts Watch; but barriers in attitude persist. Three, hardly confined to the organization, remain relevant here:

Demonstrator in Windhoek, Namibia, 2001

Sexuality is not respectable. You may have a right to exercise it, but don’t expect me to bring it up in decent conversation. One sees this in the diehard reluctance of human rights researchers to raise the matter in their colloquies with “mainstream” partner organizations. I can easily imagine Minky thinking you can’t really promote the positions of lesbians (or, God forbid, pr-st-t-tes!) in a volume with a contribution by one Nobel winner (Shirin Ebadi) and a blurb by another (Gbowee). Never mind recent events in Liberia, which suggest Gbowee may not need a reminder that sexuality is always politically central. Sometimes they grasp these things better in Freetown than in New York.

Sexuality isn’t that important. Here what I’ve often called the “humanitarianization of human rights” kicks in: in an era of massive humanitarian catastrophes, cases seemingly on the scale of individuals shrivel in significance next to the gargantuan, aggregate anonymity of a Rwanda, a Darfur, a Sri Lanka. Without a queue of zeroes trailing the numbered victims, a situation can’t merit the diligence of crisis. Of course, if you tabulate the women and men jailed every day under (for example) anti-prostitution laws, many tortured or raped as a direct result, the zeroes start to accumulate, and the crisis becomes real. More below. But it’s still hard to persuade rights institutions of the simple, obvious fact that asserting one’s sexual autonomy is one of the major triggers for abuses worldwide.

Sexuality is private. It’s something you only do (legally) behind closed doors, and it can’t possibly be implicated in grand public events like revolutions. This is a delusion sustained by never talking to revolutionaries about why they were really there. Suffice it to remember Audre Lorde, who wrote that

In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. For women, this has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information within our lives. …

During World War II, we bought sealed plastic packets of white, uncolored margarine, with a tiny, intense pellet of yellow coloring perched like a topaz just inside the clear skin of the bag. We would leave the margarine out for a while to soften, and then we would pinch the little pellet to break it inside the bag … Then taking it carefully between our fingers, we would knead it gently back and forth, over and over, until the color had spread throughout the whole pound bag of margarine, thoroughly coloring it.

I find the erotic such a kernel within myself. When released from its intense and constrained pellet, it flows through and colors my life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitizes and strengthens all my experience.

This goes without saying

All three presumptions, however diminished at Human RIghts Watch, still haven’t gone away. Moreover, the organization’s structure reinforces them.  For the uninitiated, the group (typical of large rights institutions) is proudly centered on its regional divisions, dealing mainly with “mainstream” issues on the several continents. Then there are a range of thematic divisions — LGBT, women, health, business, and others. The latter are small, generally underfunded (during the seven years I was there, the LGBT program never got access to Human RIghts Watch’s general support money), and distinctly understaffed.  In order to do the work they need to do, they must depend on other divisions’ cooperation: not only to propose press releases or take on reporting on their own, but to assume the yeoman labor of talking to groups that represent thematic interests, not just “mainstream” ones, in their areas.

Connections: sign from a lesbian feminist march, June 30, 2011, Aguascalientes, Mexico

My staff worked extremely hard to sell sexuality issues to other divisions as, well, sexy. Yet overcoming the three attitudes above was a challenge. Ordinary practice and accumulated prejudices whispered to an ambitious researcher that an interest in LGBT issues would not, in the long run, embellish one’s career. What was needed and not forthcoming was a clear mandate from the group’s governance: a message that thematic issues were not poor stepkids, a child among the ashes doing work ancillary to the great stream of human rights, but were intrinsic to its current and core — and the organization’s “mainstream” sectors had to take them up.

Habit is a great deadener: so Beckett said. In 2009, someone in the organization’s program office analyzed which thematic division’s concerns were most or least taken up by other parts of the organization in their work. Not surprisingly, LGBT issues came out near the bottom. The program office (responsible for overseeing all the programmatic work) attended on me with a guilty hangdog-Hamlet look, saying This was an organizational failing and was there anything they could do? I had plenty of suggestions, starting with a general instruction from the leadership that each relevant division propose at least one project on LGBT rights. But the conversation faded at the crowing of the cock, as Shakespeare wrote in a famous play about a Denmark where nothing quite gets done.

The wrong kind of activists: LGBT rights demo in Beirut, 2009 (Photo: Alexandra Sandels)

This anthology is the result. Minky — the book’s editor, and, as I say, a colleague whose work I generally respect — writes how in April 2011 she spent her time in Egypt “interviewing human rights activists, women’s rights activists, and organizers of the Tahrir Square protests.” Now, I don’t know all the questions she asked, but I’m 99% sure some never occurred to her: “Do you know any lesbians? Were there any lesbian women in Tahrir? What were sexuality’s roles in the revolution?” The third would have gotten plenty of interesting responses. The other two, asked of most people, would have led ultimately to my friend, and to quite a few other women whose stories would have been compelling. But moral hesitation, or a monolithic category of “women” that foreclosed any subdivisions, or some other internal censorship kept the idea, I’m betting, from transiting her mind. And as a result, she never learned. The problem at Human Rights Watch is that the information to establish the urgency of the issues doesn’t arrive in sufficient quantities, because the questions don’t get asked across the organization. So the organization still doesn’t learn.

Part 2 continues below.

*The word “lesbian” occurs exactly twice in the book, both in an article by Gara Lamarche, HRW’s former Associate Director. One instance refers to his efforts in 1994 to expand “Human Rights Watch’s mandate to include lesbian and gay issues” — which the rest of the book might leave you supposing hadn’t succeeded. The other mentions Atlantic Philanthropies’ funding in South Africa “to address gender-based abuse and hate crimes against lesbians.”

CORRECTION: I’m reliably told the demonstration against Ugandan legislation shown above was in London, not New York.

Human Rights Watch on women’s sexuality: Nice women don’t have one (3)

This is part 3 of a three-part post. Parts 1 and 2 are above.

Campaign poster for Proposition K, a 2008 initiative to decriminalize prostitution in San Francisco, US

Professionally, we prefer victims:  or, the rescue trap

Does human rights – the Western human rights movement  — respect human autonomy?

I don’t just mean “sexual autonomy” now. I mean autonomy that encompasses and goes beyond that, the power of everyone to speak for themselves, represent themselves, be the selves or unselves they desire.

What a silly question. Of course! That’s the whole point, isn’t it?

And yet.

Other people ask the questions better than me. Teju Cole, for instance, countered the save-Africa panic churned up by the Kony 2012 viral video by naming and shaming the “White Savior Industrial Complex” and its attentions to the continent. He doesn’t single out the human rights industry, but it’s implicit in the way he describes social movements doing it for themselves:

One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism. … [A] nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. …

… How, for example, could a well-meaning American “help” a place like Uganda today? It begins, I believe, with some humility with regards to the people in those places. It begins with some respect for the agency of the people of Uganda in their own lives. A great deal of work had been done, and continues to be done, by Ugandans to improve their own country, and ignorant comments (I’ve seen many) about how “we have to save them because they can’t save themselves” can’t change that fact.

Let me draw into this discussion an example from an African country I know very well. Earlier this year, hundreds of thousands of Nigerians took to their country’s streets to protest the government’s decision to remove a subsidy on petrol. … But what made these protests so heartening is that they were about more than the subsidy removal. Nigeria has one of the most corrupt governments in the world and protesters clearly demanded that something be done about this. …

This is not the sort of story that is easy to summarize in an article, much less make a viral video about. … There is certainly no “bridge character,” [Nicholas] Kristof’s euphemism for white saviors in Third World narratives who make the story more palatable to American viewers. And yet, the story of Nigeria’s protest movement is one of the most important from sub-Saharan Africa so far this year. Men and women, of all classes and ages, stood up for what they felt was right; they marched peacefully; they defended each other, and gave each other food and drink; Christians stood guard while Muslims prayed and vice-versa; and they spoke without fear to their leaders about the kind of country they wanted to see. All of it happened with no cool American 20-something heroes in sight.

Women in fuel protest, Lagos, Nigeria, January 2012 (Photo: AP/Sunday Alamba)

It’s interesting how often Nick Kristof serves as symbolic figure for folks who want to critique the white savior complex. But he sets himself up for it. His telegenic stunt activism – live-tweeting his raid on a brothel to “rescue” women, congratulating himself on his flirtations with peril, all with a cool eye on divine Reputation and its Valkyrie paparazzi – lays out a seductive pattern for the type. (He comes up for approving mention in The Unfinished Revolution too.)  Laura Agustin, as always, is incisive:

Welcome to the Rescue Industry, where characters like Kristof get a free pass to act out fun imperialist interventions masked as humanitarianism. No longer claiming openly to carry the White Man’s Burden, rescuers nonetheless embrace the spectacle of themselves rushing in to save miserable victims, whether from famine, flood or the wrong kind of sex. … The Rescue Industry that has grown up in the past decade around US policy on human trafficking shows how imperialism can work in softer, more palatable ways than military intervention. …

Like many unreflective father figures, Kristof sees himself as fully benevolent. Claiming to give voice to the voiceless, he does not actually let them speak.

Instead, as we say nowadays, it’s all about Kristof: his experience, terror, angst, confusion, desire. Did anyone rescued in his recent brothel raid want to be saved like that, with the consequences that came afterwards, whatever they were? That is what we do not know and will not find out from Kristof.

Placard from sex workers' human rights march, March 2012, Cape Town, South Africa

The temptations of this kind of self-aggrandizing self-delusion are all the stronger in international human rights work, which carries both the armor of moral impeccability and the obligation of representation. Its job is carrying stories across borders; it takes on representing people in absentia, a strange, dangerous task.  Who’d be surprised if, in the process, its practitioners begin to acquire a creeping indifference to the wills and voices of those they represent?

Human Rights Watch is not overcome by those impulses, but it’s certainly not immune either. It used to say, in its self-descriptions, that it provided a “voice for the voiceless.” This phrase, so malignly common among those who work and talk across borders, neglected the fact that the movements and activists and even victims it supported usually had plenty of decibels at their disposal, and could scream with the best of them; it was just that the West preferred not to listen. But if you say that about yourself enough, you start acting that way, around the edges.

The effects showed when, for years, rights activists who were recipients of HRW’s prestigious annual award – articulate spokesmen at home — arrived in the US, only to be handed the speech the organization had written for them. They showed in a film screened at one of the Human Rights Watch gala annual dinners, full to the gills with gazillionaires: a very nice production about the organization’s work in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The problem was that, as the minutes wore on, you realized not a single person from the DRC was speaking. You saw them them in footage, interviewed by an HRW researcher, who diligently took notes; but the soundtrack and the voiceovers drowned them out. The organization did’t think them relevant: They cannot represent themselvesthey must be represented. Instead, HRW talked to itself about its own efforts in the DRC. It felt like a cross between Heart of Darkness and Krapp’s Last Tape.

Oh, Krapp

Some shows up in The Unfinished Revolution, as well. Although it calls itself “Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights,” two thirds of the book’s chapters are by present or former HRW staff. And with two articles on Afghanistan, you’d think an actual Afghan could have been found to write perhaps one. It’s hard not to read in this an unconscious confidence that the organization knows best about the world and its countries, better than the countries’ citizens do. As the old Oxford doggerel went:

First come I. My name is Jowett.
There’s no knowledge but I know it.
I am master of this college;
What I don’t know isn’t knowledge.

For far too long information in the international human rights movement has flowed from periphery to center, from Congo and Cairo and Buenos Aires and Bangladesh to London, Geneva, New York. Only there, once edited and published in the capitals, did it mature into Knowledge. And there it stayed, little bartered back and no returning current. Sometimes it festered, and the gangrene of arrogance set in.

shut up, he explained

I’m certainly not calling this universal, in Human Rights Watch or anywhere else. Nor is it some sinister, deliberate plot to deprive others of their voices and agency. It’s rather a danger built into the practice of representation, the art and politics – Faustian with a touch of Edgar Bergen – of speaking for somebody else. The exercise of lending vividness to the lives of others tends to shale into the assumption that one knows what they want, and what’s best for them. You get more used to their desperation than their autonomy. You start seeing victims even when they’re not there.

There is a less tendentious dimension to this problem as well – one not just about the problems of practicing politics in a still-imperial world, but about democratic politics itself, and its discontents. A line of thinkers, including Isaiah Berlin, Joseph Raz, and John Gray, has emphasized that a coherent liberalism, unlike most philosophies, can imply no single vision of the Good Life to which members of a community should aspire. The old moral philosopher’s vision of existence cut to one dress pattern is motheaten now. Modern democratic society must embrace the maximum diversity of life projects without tilting its overt or intangible preference toward any.

Human rights, which expressly aims only to set out basic ground rules for the functioning of political societies, in some ways models this modern claim to neutrality in values. Yet maintaining the pose of studied impartiality is particularly hard both for communities and for individuals accustomed to subjecting not just acts, but lives, to moral scrutiny. And political life, as well as the practice of rights protection itself, keeps slipping back over into an idea that freedom implies a positive commitment, is about you living the life I like for you, one fulfilled not just in itself but by certain external standards. Some versions say: Now you are free to live the Good Life, which means wearing gray pajamas, saluting the Leader, and bathing in cold bilgewater every morning at 5. But it hardly has to be that extreme. More commonly they tell us: Now you are free to live the Good Life, which is the life of political struggle and engagement. Or the life of appreciating Beauty and Art. Or the uxorious life of family with someone whose genitals differ from your own.  Or the life which certainly does not include selling your sexual services online.

What kind of self-correction can we build into human rights movements — especially with the moral exemption from critique they often claim — to keep them understanding victimhood as an exceptional breach rather than a definitional condition of people’s lives; to keep them respecting autonomy in all parts of all people’s lives, including that most charged and symbol-laden sphere, sex?

Me, I have no answer. In fact, the best self-correction I know is asking questions.

However. This has been as long as a human rights report; and since reports end with recommendations, I’d feel amiss if I didn’t offer a couple, at least to Human Rights Watch. Here goes:

  • Human Rights Watch needs to work much, much harder on integrating thematic issues across all its work, so that no wasted opportunity like the untruthful, unfinished Unfinished Revolution occurs again. And donors have a role to play in this. You need to support the LGBT Rights Program, and other thematic divisions, because their work is vital. But supporters who care about sexual rights should press HRW to make it part of all its relevant reporting. Before you sign the check, ask HRW’s leadership to tell you in concrete terms what they are doing to change both the mindset and the structure of the organization, to implement and cement that integration. If you’re going to show you think the work is important, so should they.
  • I’ve got no idea whether, after years of being dissed, sex worker movements are really interested anymore in nicely asking the mainstream organizations to recognize their rights to bodily autonomy and livelihood. A sex worker picking up The Unfinished Revolution couldn’t be blamed for saying, Why bother? But in principle, one should press the organization to do the right thing. And I recommend bypassing the lawyers and their obfuscations, and going to Ken Roth and the leadership directly. If anybody still cares to make an effort, the World AIDS Conference is coming up, and Washington is just a short train ride from New York. This might be a good time to demand a meeting.

Sexual rights are too important to get screwed again.

Lesbian Avengers flyer, US

N.B. This piece draws on the draft of the volume I’m finishing, tentatively titled Out of Here: Sex and Rights in the World. If you like it, look to buy the book when it’s published. If you don’t like it, buy the book anyway and deface the margins.

The state and your sex life

One of the first signs that Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was of an authoritarian temper indistinguishable from the Mubarak regime came last March, when the military took seven women it had arrested during a sit-in in Midan Tahrir and subjected them to virginity tests. One, Samira Ibrahim, filed an official complaint after her release. The military first denied the act; then defamed the women, saying they were

“not like your daughter or mine … These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square, and we found Molotov cocktails and (drugs) in the tents.”

The army ultimately explained,

“We didn’t want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren’t virgins in the first place … None of them were.”

Samira Ibrahim pressed forward heroically with the case despite public stigma and anonymous threats. In this video (now subtitled) she describes the experience.

On December 17, thanks to her courage, a state administrative court banned the practice of virginity tests in military detention. In a concession to protesters, the military also pressed charges of sexual assault against the lowest-ranking figure it could find responsible, the conscripted doctor who actually performed the exams. (Shades of Abu Ghraib — a few rogue soldiers!)  His trial starts next week, but the charges have already been downgraded to “performing an act that violates modesty.”

For me, the tests, with their brutal assertion of state power over the suspect body, recall the practice of forcing men accused of homosexual sex to undergo forensic anal examinations — carried out on hundreds or thousands of victims during Egypt’s 2001- 2003 crackdown. An article on those exams is here.

Sex workers on feminism

It’s movie night!  This video, made by sex workers, features sex workers speaking out about women’s right “to choose what happens to one’s body and to control what happens to one’s body.” It’s a rousing defense of the right to bodily autonomy as well as sexual expression, and I particularly like the slinky music playing in the background.