Point/Counterpoint on Samahope: Our Two Cents

As promised, here are our thoughts on Samahope’s use of patient profiles to raise money for fistula repair in Sierra Leone:

Although we’re kind of in love with the idea of a Kickstarter for poor women’s vaginas, we’re concerned about the fact that these women are presented primarily in terms of their injury. The key information provided for potential donors browsing through the photographs of possible recipients is “name, age, nature of fistula.” Some of the profiles list a few of the women’s hobbies or interests (“gardening” is a popular choice), but the bulk of the information is fistula-related.

We’re also troubled by the coercive dynamic implicit in the offer of assistance in exchange for public admission of a stigmatizing injury. Even in the best-case scenario, in which the women have no shame about their injuries and aren’t worried about stigma, Samahope is asking women to publicly reveal private information in exchange for help. Leila points out that she has personally spoken with fourteen of the women, and they were all willing to share their stories, but we suspect we’d also be “willing” to publicize our gynecological issues if it meant we would get otherwise unaffordable much-needed treatment. If ladies who aren’t willing to disclose their condition to the global public aren’t eligible for funded surgeries (as Leila’s comments suggest that they’re aren’t), this whole process starts to seem pretty coercive.

Here in the U.S., we don’t think it’s acceptable to force women to publicly describe their vaginas in exchange for vagina-related assistance: We’d never accept it if, say, Medicaid were to require women to post their names, photos, and description of their gynecological problems on a website in order to visit an OB/GYN.  That policy might find a fan in Rush Limbaugh, who famously said that he should be allowed to view the sex acts of young women who received government-subsidized birth control, but that’s hardly indicative of mainstream morality; his comments were (rightly) greeted with horror by the general public.

Both of these concerns (the reduction of a person to an injury, and the potentially coercive nature of the requirement to reveal private medical info) are heightened in the case of the underage girls on the site. We propose that when the question is: “hey, should i post this photo of a 14 year old girl, along with her name, and a description of her broken vagina?” the answer should always be “no.”

Finally, we worry that the setup of the appeal for help – presenting the women and girls almost as if they’re in competition for funding – sets up a disturbing decision process for the potential donor who must choose the most “worthy” (damaged? youngest? prettiest?) recipient for their funds. This mirrors a broader trend that disturbs us, in which NGOs compete for funding and attention by jostling to show the most pathetic victims possible. (Not just a starving woman, but a starving woman who has been raped.  Not just a starving woman who has been raped, but a starving child who has been raped. Not just a starving child who has been raped, but a starving child who has been trafficked into sexual slavery…)  This not only sets up a weird competition for who is “most deserving” or “most in need,” it also contributes to a culture in which no information is too private, and no depiction too demeaning, to demand of victims.

We are not cool with an NGO culture that focuses more on gratifying the egos of donors than on preserving the dignity of recipients. Campaigns like this one contribute to that culture, regardless of their intentions.

None of this is to say that we don’t think Samahope should raise money for fistula repair in Sierra Leone. We’re fully on board with soliciting wealthy Americans for money for poor African women’s vaginas. And actually, we think this has a lot of potential as the next great hipster cause. Think about it: hipsters LOVE to say the word “vagina.” (Look at us, for instance.) And West Africa Fistula Foundation, which performs the Samahope-funded surgeries, seems like a worthy beneficiary. Their focus on recruiting and training local staff is particularly encouraging.

We think there are some pretty easy fixes for the problems we’ve identified above. Nixing the photos of the underage girls would be a great start. We also challenge Samasource to consider whether they could raise money effectively for fistula repair without running photos of pre-operative patients at all. We understand the urge to present real people in need of immediate help – we’ve all seen the research showing that individuals are much more inclined to give when they have a particular person with whom to associate the need for donations. But we think creatively presented profiles (yes, and photos too) of post-op patients would be a more ethical way to establish this connection. Although it would definitely forego some of the urgency of the appeal, showing women who are able to live full, healthy lives as a result of fistula repair would be a moving testament to the value of Samahope’s work, and would clearly underscore the need to fund help for similarly situated women.

Stay tuned for Samahope founder Leila Janah’s response later on…

Let’s Get Ready to Rumble

Our initial reaction when we first saw Samahope was: Man, what brilliant satire. It so perfectly skewers the particular sort of poverty porn-y, competitive victimhood-encouraging NGO that we’re always ranting about. But as we clicked through the site, which posts pictures of Sierra Leonean women and girls suffering from fistula and asks for donations to pay for surgical intervention, we began to get that uncomfortable tingling that accompanies the realization that something you thought was a hilarious send-up of a disturbing phenomenon is actually just one more example of the disturbing phenomenon itself. (What? It’s a real feeling. We get it all the time.)

We didn’t want to jump to any conclusions, though, because Samahope is backed by Leila Janah, the founder of Samasource, which is “an innovative social business that connects women and youth living in poverty to dignified work via the internet” that we’ve been fans of for years. But when we reached out to Leila on Twitter, she told us that Samahope is totally for reals. We mentioned that we were having a lot of uncomfortable, squicked-out feelings about the whole “repair a broken vagina for just $3 a day” approach and that we were going to blog about them (because that’s why people have blogs), and offered Leila the chance to share her perspective as well.

So tomorrow Wednesday we’re going to have an Onion-style Point/Counterpoint in which we’ll explain why this hurts our brains, and Leila will explain why Samahope is doing important and necessary work. Hopefully we’ll all learn and grow.

WTF Friday, 6/29/2012

If you’re ever in need of some good, hot WTF action, here’s a pro tip: Head on over to Kickstarter, and type the name of any African country into the search bar. We tried “Congo” yesterday, and uncovered these gems:

  • The crew over at 1 Million Bones raised more than $25,000 to create “a 2-minute time-lapse video shout-out to the entire country to tell them about One Million Bones.” They promised that supporters who pledged $15 or more would be entitled to “have a bone made in your name.”

    We don’t even know which way to joke about this. On the one hand, the reality of this is so strange that it almost transcends humor: Is the idea that these supporters are being pre-memorialized now in case they are genocided at a later date? Is it a way to get an authentic “victim of mass murder” experience without having to go to the trouble and expense of being brutally killed first? A statement that the memory of a genocide victim should carry roughly the same weight as that of an individual who donated approximately two Chipotle burritos’ worth of money?

    But on the other hand, there is a whole range of “I’ve got a big bone with your name on it” jokes available to us here, and we’re reluctant to just let them go.

  • These modern-day Dr. Livingstones raised nearly $29,000 to go exploring in the Republic of Congo to see if they could find living dinosaurs. They helpfully point out that “the The Congo Basin is a region of Central Africa larger than the state of Florida, more than 80% of which has been totally unexplored.” (We assume they are using the standard “photographed and posted to Facebook by white people” definition of “explored.”) Their rewards were pricier than 1 Million Bones,’ but how could anyone resist “a handcarved Spear made by the Baka Pygmy people along with a picture of the person who carved it holding YOUR spear” for the low, low price of $100? Or corporate naming rights to one of the many new species the group plans to discover, for only $1500? (First 5 pledgers also receive free Pygmy crossbow!)

    For an extra dose of WTF, please refer to this Huffington Post article on the project, which refers to the research destination as “the African Congo.” Look, we know the search for a modifier with which to identify which Congo you’re talking about is time-consuming and tedious for all of us. Congo-K, Congo-B; Heart-of-Darkness-Congo, Heart-of-Darkness-Adjacent Congo; etc. Why don’t we all just agree to call them “Rape Congo” and “Dinosaur Congo” from here on out? Sound good to everybody?

And, some late-breaking WTF news from Peter Doerrie’s always-interesting Twitter feed: Apparently, Zimbabwe suspended all weddings this April in order to “curb fraud.” Marriage officers have been warned that if they perform marriages in spite of the ban, “jail is waiting for you.” According to The Scotsman, “The authorities complain foreigners, mostly from Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are paying Zimbabwean women to enter into marriages of convenience so that they can obtain residence permits. In a case that recently came to light, a desperate local street vendor agreed to marry a Nigerian man for just £6 in 2006.”

New Piece at The Atlantic

We have a piece up at The Atlantic today!

It’s about the four ICC staff members who have been detained by the Zintani militia in Libya, and why this is a super-duper-big-deal-for-serious-we-mean-it for the court. (We don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s possible that the phrase “Black Hawk Down” gets used.)

In short, the violation of the staff’s diplomatic immunity complicates an already tense interaction between Libya and the ICC, and potentially undermines the court’s ability to work in unstable contexts.

Some important issues raised by this crisis that we didn’t have space to discuss in the article:

  • Reuters’ bizarre quote from outgoing ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo that “the Zintan authorities claim they have the right to investigate the case against the ICC pair,” but “It’s not what we would expect from the court…from the defense.” Really, dude? How about “they have full immunity from investigation, detention, and prosecution, so this is categorically unacceptable and they must be released immediately.” Couldn’t he have started at FIFA last week?
  • The fact that you can bet LMO would have given an unambiguous statement of support for any Office of the Prosecutor or Registry staff members in similar circumstances. Defense counsel have always had a bit of a struggle at the international tribunals (enthusiasm for international justice is limited to prosecuting the architects of mass atrocity, not so much defending them); should we take the absence of international outcry regarding Taylor et al.’s detention as one more indication of their second class status?
  • Traditionally, a large part of immunity’s force within international law has been based on reciprocity; states respect foreign officials’ immunity because they didn’t want to put their own diplomats at risk. That dynamic isn’t present for international institutions, which “take” more immunity than they “give.” The ICC is a particularly strong example of this, given that it asserts the right to try heads of state and other officials who would otherwise be immune. Does the Court’s inability to reciprocate make its claim to immunity for its staff members less compelling?
  • Unlike domestic courts, the ICC can’t try crimes that have been committed against itself. In light of recent events, that seems like a serious weakness.

Thoughts?

This Week in Advocacy Videos We’re Kind of Wigged out by

A tipster just sent us this link to the Enough Project’s latest SPLA propaganda video George-Clooney-in-Sudan video (embedded below). For those unable to watch, highlights include:

  • Graphic images of two maimed children, including a young boy whose hands had been blown off “less than an hour ago”
  • The line “for the first time since the Stone Age, people are living in caves”
  • The reduction of the conflict to “blacks who have been on this land since creation” vs. “invading Arabs who want to take their land.”
  • Hagiographic descriptions of the SPLA – er, sorry, we mean “brave Nuba rebels fighting for freedom.”

We don’t have the energy to go through this yet again, so if you’re wondering why we’re horrified by this, please refer to this excellent Dart Center tip sheet on working with victims and survivors.

New Post on Kony Over at The Atlantic

Kate and I have a follow-up to our drinking game post (more analysis, but fewer cocktails) over at The Atlantic.  Excerpt:

Invisible Children has turned the myopic worldview of the adolescent — “if I don’t know about it, then it doesn’t exist, but if I care about it, then it is the most important thing in the world” — into a foreign policy prescription. The “invisible children” of the group’s name were the children of northern Uganda forcibly recruited by the LRA. In the group’s narrative, these children were “invisible” until American students took notice of them.
 
Awareness of their plight achieved, child soldiers are now visible to the naked American eye. And in fact, several months ago, President Obama sent 100 military advisors to Uganda to assist in the effort to track down Kony. But according to Invisible Children, these troops may be recalled unless the college students of America raise yet more awareness. The new video instructs its audience to put up posters, slap on stickers, and court celebrities’ favor until Kony is “as famous as George Clooney.” At that moment, sufficient awareness will have been achieved, and Kony will be magically shipped off to the International Criminal Court to await trial.

For more, head over to The Atlantic’s website. Enjoy!

The Definitive ‘Kony 2012′ Drinking Game

Yesterday a momentous new work of filmmaking was released to the public. We’re speaking, of course, of Invisible Children’s Kony 2012.

The internets are busily debating the merits of the video and accompanying advocacy campaign, but one important question remains unanswered: What should I drink while I watch it?

Tragically, we watched the thing stone-cold-sober, but to spare you a similar fate, we’ve assembled the following drinking game.

To play, you will need: eight (8) pickleback shots; one (1) Brandy Alexander; one (1) bowl Feuerzangenbowle; one (1) six-pack of Tusker Lager; one (1) jar green Play-Doh; one (1) bottle of Zima; one dozen (12) chocolate chip cookies; one (1) My Little PonyTM cocktail made of equal parts Malibu rum and Sunkist orange soda (generally used for statutorily raping 14 year olds); three (3) bottles of wine, one (1) brick wall.

  • Footage that makes you concerned that you are watching the wrong video because all you see is a bunch of white people doing hipster shit like undergoing vimeo’d Caesareans and making home movies of their children that involve actual special effects - slam a shot of pickleback, brace yourself for what comes next.
  • Nonspecific use of “Africa” or “African” instead of precise location or actual nationality – pound a Tusker.
  • Interviews with vulnerable Ugandan children about past trauma that make you think “Good lord, no IRB would ever allow any of this” – snootily sip a Brandy Alexander, try to have an opinion about homonationalism while you do so.
  • Recognition that Ugandans, other Africans have agency, do not need white college students to save them through the innovative use of bracelets – eat one gooey, delicious chocolate chip cookie (Psych! You never get to eat a cookie!)
  • Appearance of Adolf Hitler – down some Feuerzangenbowle, consider growing a moustache.
  • Statement that all that’s needed to solve the problem of the LRA is for enough Americans to “know” and “care” about Kony – slam head against brick wall, consider just giving up entirely.
  • Assumption that girls are only good for sex slave-ing, play no other role in the violence – drink a My Little PonyTM, feel kind of icky about it.
  • Exasperated Prendergast hair flip – drink one Zima, consider washing your own headsuit.
  • Assertion that “no one” cared about Joseph Kony for decades until white college students took up the cause – drink half a bottle of wine, wonder why all those Ugandans he was attacking and kidnapping during that period were unaware of him.
  • Statement that Africans are “invisible” if they aren’t a cause célèbre among middle-class white people – finish bottle of wine, cry.
  • Scene in which preschooler quickly understands entire Invisible Children policy platform, which is presented as a good thing – eat enough Play-Doh to make you feel kind of queasy.
  • Three-point action platform consisting of (1) signing a “pledge,” (2) sending money for an “action kit” that contains some bracelets, stickers and posters, and (3) sending more money so that IC will have that money – imagine what the results could have been if these genuinely brilliant marketers turned their attentions to a cause that is actually within the U.S. government’s direct control, like the Dream Act, cry so hard that you can do a shot of your own tears.

 

[Note: This photo of team not-so-invisible-children posing with the SPLA originally appeared on our blog in 2009, and was taken by photographer Glenna Gordon on the Sudan-Congo border in April 2008. If you're using it in your posts about Kony 2012, you should be crediting her.]

What to Get for the Couple Who Has Everything: A Registry for the Deby/Hilal wedding

According to the Sudan Tribune, Idriss Deby (of Being-President-of-Chad fame) is engaged to marry the daughter of Darfur strongman Musa Hilal (of Being-A-Big-Janjaweed fame). Word is Deby paid a brideprice amounting to a whopping $26 million US.

Given the history of the region, including Chad’s involvement in the Darfur conflict, this development obviously raises some important questions.  Chief among them: What to buy the happy couple as  a wedding gift?

Fear not, readers, we’re on it.  Our annotated Deby/Hilal wedding registry is here:

  1. A Battle Tank

    Brought to our attention by CBlatts’s attempt to find “the most expensive thing on Amazon,” the JL421 Badonkadonk (no, really) apparently has a bitchin’ sound system.

  2. A Relaxman Relaxation Capsule

    To relax in after a rough day rocking out in the battle tank, obviously.

  3. Some uranium ore

    Mahmoud Ahmedinejad wishes he were getting married so he could register for this too.

  4. A Le Creuset casserole dishSelf-explanatory. It’s a wedding.

Yes, Internet, We Are As Upset As You Are About the NYT’s Sahar Gul Piece

We’ve been blogging for four years now, and we can’t remember a time when so many readers have contacted us about the same thing.

For those of you who don’t have a Google News Alert set up for “torture” or “horrific abuses inflicted upon vulnerable children, golden retrievers, and baby bunnies”, Sahar Gul is the young Afghan girl (reports of her age differ, but at most she is 15 years old) whose husband and in-laws burned and beat her for her refusal to engage in sex work. Graham Bowley is the New York Times reporter who, in his own words, “wouldn’t be turned away” by hospital workers who told him that the abused girl was too traumatized to speak with him.

And yes, “reporter barges into tortured child’s hospital room, demands previously-reported-in-multiple-media-outlets details of atrocities inflicted upon her, then publishes self-congratulatory report about doing so” is exactly the sort of thing that makes us clutch our Advil bottles and bang our heads against the wall. (It’s important to take prophylactic anti-inflammatories before incurring self-inflicted head wounds, by the way.)

But the online reaction to Bowley’s post detailing his pursuit of the story has already hit most of the points we would have made. Dan’s response over at “Finding My Tribe” sums up our feelings exactly. Even the (generally nutballs) NYTimes commenters seem to agree:

“But I realized that despite the delicacy of the situation, I should have pushed past ‘no.’” Thank you, Mr. Bowley, for making me want to throw up.

– NYT Commenter “AH”

So we thought instead of (just) adding some more outrage coals to the fire, we’d take this opportunity to talk about professional responsibility and retraumatization. There’s a reason the UNICEF guidelines for interviewing children specify that interviewers must “avoid questions, attitudes or comments … that reactivate a child’s pain and grief from traumatic events.”

The risk of retraumatizing someone you’re trying to help is an issue we’ve both grappled with in our work representing asylum applicants. You try to balance the need for convincing detail with the harm inflicted on the client, but that necessarily entails asking people questions that no one should ever have to answer, like “and what were you tied to during the second gang rape?” Questions like that have the potential to do all kinds of terrible things, like triggering painful flashbacks, or causing physical distress, so the decision to ask them needs to be weighed very, very carefully. If they have the potential to save the victim’s life through a successful asylum case, then they are probably worth it. Probably.

Here, however,  it’s hard to know why Bowley needed to interview Sahar Gul at all – he himself notes that the AP had already done so. So he was balancing the harm of re-traumatizing a tortured child who did not want to be interviewed against…what, exactly? His desire not to be scooped by the AP during his first week in Kabul? We can see why that might be a concern for the reporter, but why should Sahar Gul give a toss?

If you would prefer that the paper of record not engage in such behavior, we suggest that you email the New York Times Public Editor at public@nytimes.com. If you like, use this script:

Dear Public Editor,

I recently read your reporter Graham Bowley’s description of his attempts to interview Sahar Gul, an Afghan girl in her early teens who was the victim of horrific abuse at the hands of her husband and in-laws. Bowley states with apparent pride that he “pushed past ‘no,'” and interviewed her after hospital workers informed him that she did not wish to speak to reporters, and was too psychologically fragile to repeat her story.

It’s difficult to formulate a response to this story that does not begin with the words “what the…” As Bowley notes in his article, Gul had already been interviewed by other news organizations. Her story had been told, and was already available to the press and public. Bowley was not adding substantial new information through his reporting (the mango juice does not count). Rather, he appears to have returned to the hospital to soothe the burns to his ego from getting scooped by the AP.

How is it possible that this was not only acceptable journalistic behavior for a Times employee, but that Bowley and his editors saw fit to crow over it by publishing a blog post about the reporter’s heroic success in overcoming the resistance of a traumatized child?

Once again: what the …?

Sincerely,

[Your name here]

And, if you’re looking for more information on the issues discussed in this post, the DART center has a great info sheet on interviewing trauma survivors of all ages, and Jina Moore takes on the particular issues with reporting on rape here.

Welcome to the New Regime

New Year, New Blog… New World?  Check us out, we’ve gotten so fancy!

(And by “fancy,” we mean “we have a WordPress blog hosted on a real URL, like normal people.”)

Feeds should have transferred automatically, but please update your links elsewhere.  We think we’ve ironed out most of the kinks in the transition, but appreciate your patience as we address the problems that we’ve almost certainly overlooked.

Happy New Year!