NGO Safe Space

Shaista Aziz: keynote speech at Humanitarian Congress Berlin, 5 Oct 2018

Watch Shaista’s speech at the Congress here (Day 2, first session): http://humanitarian-congress-berlin.org/2018/

In February this year a news story ‘broke’ leading international news bulletins around the world, involving an international development organisation known to millions around the world and a UK institution that is part of the country’s DNA: Oxfam.

The Times splashed its investigation about Oxfam and the behaviour of a number of western aid workers or “expats” who had been “buying sex” from “local women” which is code for poor, working class and vulnerable women of colour, while they were in Haiti, responding to the deadly and devastating earthquake in 2008.

The story was picked up by news organisations around the world, and involving a number of other international humanitarian and aid organisations – the story took on a life of its own.

At the heart of the story is patriarchy, power, privilege, race, toxic masculinity, women, men, girls and boys, harmed and damaged by systems and structures and power that is overwhelmingly white, western, male and has its roots in the legacy of colonialism and neo colonialism.

Also at the heart of the story are the women whistleblowers, many of whom have paid a heavy price with their careers put on hold, or destroyed; some who have been painted as villains in the story for bravely speaking out to protect vulnerable people and to instigate change.

The way the story was framed, however, by many seeking to only look inward during this “scandal” was that the reporting was a right wing and orchestrated attack on the aid sector, that the UK government, hostile in its attitude towards international development and the previously ringfenced international budget was using the Oxfam “scandal” as an excuse to cut funding for the development and aid sector.

More on this later.

For now, back to the women. Who are the women at the heart of the story? They’re white, European women working in international headquarters for development and humanitarian organisations, they’re women of colour, fewer in number, and so more easily identifiable, working in the same settings and headquarters and in the “field” and they include those women who are referred to in the sector as beneficiaries. Through this label alone, their agency is immediately removed and the power structures that are imposed on them laid bare for anyone who really wants to see and understand what is going on.

In 2007 I was sent to Haiti while I was employed by Oxfam to interview women across the country about their experiences of climate change, and how their lives were being impacted by so called ‘natural disasters’. The women I met were amongst the most economically and socially disenfranchised women in the world, and this was before the 2008 earthquake. They were dark skinned Haitian women, poor, working class, and they had nothing.

They were open with me and we had many candid conversations about what it means to be a woman in one of the poorest countries in the world – a country where I saw women and men’s entire persona and body language change whenever UN peacekeepers were around. Haiti, like many parts of the world humanitarians work in, has a long and devastating history with colonialism.

As I travelled across Haiti I didn’t meet a single woman whose priority it was to “barter” for sex with foreign aid workers. I did however see up close and personal the NGO cultures involving lighter skinned Haitian women being ferried around in white land cruisers and taken to fancy restaurants and parties.

I’m a former Oxfam, Save the Children and MSF employee. I have spent more than fifteen years working as a communication specialist with aid organisations and working in contexts such as Haiti, Liberia, Ethiopia, Somaliland, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Palestine and Yemen, with vulnerable communities, girls and women in the immediate aftermath of natural disasters, and during war and conflict as mass displacement of civilians is taking placeAs a former aid worker, I’m not shocked by the Oxfam revelations

I’ve worked with refugees and women living on top of rubbish dumps in Iraq, as they fled for their lives with the clothes on their backs and their children under their arms.

Over the years I have met many, many women who have told me about how they were asked to “trade” their bodies for “aid” and told to provide oral sex and full blown sex if they wanted to ensure their children received food and access to water

We all know these stories exist in the humanitarian sector and they have existed for decades and decades – so what made this year’s Oxfam and Save the Children stories, and MSF and UN stories so different?

Why is it that eight months on from the reporting on Oxfam that women and men who have suffered sexual abuse and sexual harassment in the aid sector are still scrambling around seeking accountability and redress? Why are victims and survivors still overwhelmingly unwilling or unable to report cases to their employers via their internal systems?

Why are victims and survivors dependent on crowd sourcing and fundraising campaigns to seek legal advice on how they can pursue a pathway to making their former or current employers take their complaints of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment seriously?

Earlier this year, #MeToo exploded onto the scene, second time around, #AidToo, #ChurchToo, #MosqueToo, #TimesUp, #WebelieveHer, #Why I didn’t report all followed

A global movement has started and it’s not going to stop.

It is a global movement of solidarity, a global movement of quite controlled and loud and visible rage, a global movement seeking redress, a global movement seeking justice. A global movement placing an inclusive, representative feminism and a global movement that increasingly understands intersectionality, and that real feminism is intersectional and is rooted in challenging systems of oppression which victimize women in specific and particular ways based on their identities.

Intersectionality is a term that was coined by American professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. The concept already existed but she put a name to it. The textbook definition states:

The view that women experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity. Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society. Examples of this include race, gender, class, ability, and ethnicity.”

In other words, certain groups of women have multi-layered facets in life that they have to deal with. There is no one-size-fits-all type of feminism. For example, I am an Asian woman and visible Muslim woman, as a result I face both racism and sexism, I cannot separate one from the other as I navigate around everyday life.

Even though the concept of intersectionality in feminism has been around for decades, it only seems to have made it into mainstream public arena in the past year.

As a woman with intersectional identies my experiences of sexual harassment, racism, Islamophobia and sexism were unique to me: in the headquarters I worked in, I was almost always the only woman who looked like me. To many in my own country, the UK, I look foreign, including to my colleagues and yet I have the privilege of sounding like I do. I speak English like an “English person” is what I’ve been told my entire life.

I have agency, I have economic independence. I have a first world passport – and yet, in every aid organisation I’ve worked for, I’ve been subjected to racism, Islamophibia, sexism and sexual harassment.

In one office I worked in, a man who I have never met before in my life told me “I have never kissed a hijabi woman before”.

In February I wrote a piece for the guardian titled:

As a former aid worker, I’m not shocked by the Oxfam revelations.

A culture of bullying, harassment and racism is rife among agencies around the world. This is an industry in need of reform.

On the back of this article I received over 100 emails from people around the world wanting to share their experiences. For many it was the first time they had shared what had happened to them – they told me this in the emails that sent.

In February I chaired a panel discussion in the House of Commons titled:

Are #metoo and #timesup flash in the pan social media moments or part of a new inclusive feminism movement?

This is where I met Alexia Pepper de Caires, a former Save the Children aid worker and a whistleblower. Along with two other feminists and women working in the aid sector we founded NGO Safe Space to support victims and survivors of sexual abuse in the aid sector, and to specifically platform and amplify the voices of women of colour – who are the first to be silenced and the first to be minimised.

Women such as Lesley Agams, a Nigerian woman and a former Oxfam employee, who went on record with her story.

We immediately created a network of contacts building intersectional feminist support – we are seeking to find an intersectional response.

We need to see accountability.