Why you should never wear an African dress instead of a ball gown (and other adventures of a broke intern in expat city)

Before I start this blog post, lets get one thing straight – in no way do I think that Africa is a broken continent filled with poor people and mud huts.

Ya ya, you’re saying, obviously that’s not true (and if you’re not saying that, just lie to me and tell me you know more than the regular stereotypes – and maybe start reading some better news sources). Every time I’ve been to Tanzania, it has been extremely interesting to see the wide range of technology and social innovations available, from an increase in mobile phones, to solar lighting projects, to incredibly fashionable youth. Any time that I’ve visited, there’s always been a level of sophistication that puts my grungy backpacker lifestyle a little bit to shame. A five dollar Nokia phone really doesn’t do any sort of justice when the rest of the locals you’re surrounded by have brand new iPhones or Blackberries.

That being said, as much as I’ve always recognized that this changing landscape is an important part of progress and growth (apologies for those horrible development words), each time I’ve been here my experience has had certain similar characteristics. Chaotic traffic, chickens being pulled out from under your legs on the bus system, busy marketplaces with people trying to both befriend and scam you all at once. Most importantly, I’m used to living in a community. With a family, or friends, and people that become close to your heart. I’d know the girl who runs the corner store, the neighborhood children’s route to school, the name of the boda driver who stood on the corner. Yes, East Africa had its fancy moments, but it also didn’t take much to find certain characteristics and experiences that felt similar no matter where you were.

Which leads me to the main point of this blog post – I now live in the most expensive, filthy rich area of Tanzania that I possibly could have picked. Gone are the days of chaotic and crazy. Instead, here come the adventures of a broke intern in expat central.

At first, I thought I was just seeing Dar on an off day. Okay yes, the streets weren’t crowded, but maybe people were at work. Okay yes everything in my apartment worked perfectly, but things were bound to break eventually. Okay, yes all of the restaurants around here were ridiculously expensive, but I probably just wasn’t looking in the right places. And yes the only people around were white parents and their perfect blonde daughters, but that must just be a fluke…right?

This line of reasoning has been slowly broken down over the last two weeks. My first days here, I was HORRIFIED to see people walking around in mini-skirts and short shorts. But my surprised looks at women walking around in skirts and heels were reciprocated by even more surprised looks from their side – who was this girl wearing a long, kind of beaten up skirt, and why was she wearing Walmart flip flops?! Instead of the everyday morning bustle I’m used to, as people open up their shops and get ready for work, the peninsula is almost a transplanted suburb – with moms in minivans driving their children off to the international school. And don’t even get me started on the office – who knew that “just make sure to cover your shoulders” really meant that you should bring heels, accessories, and nice suit jackets?

The icing on the cake was when I got invited to my neighbors wedding. SWEET, I thought, I’ve always wanted to go to a local wedding, I’ve heard that they’re fantastic. I’ve had friends who have gone to Tanzanian weddings and absolutely raved about them, so I was beyond excited to get out of my way-too-big apartment, and actually see another side of Tanzania. One that hopefully included a little more culture than I had been exposed to thus far. Not really having packed any North American wedding attire, I threw on an African patterned dress, some tights to cover up my bed-bug bitten legs, and was ready to go.

O how my horribly stereotypical line of reasoning backfired. Picture the fanciest wedding you’ve been to in North America, and then triple the extravagance. I’m talking diamonds dripping off of the brides dress, big screen TVs set up to capture the festivities, and beautiful reception tables placed right along the water. Every woman in there had a gorgeous evening dress, usually adorned with expensive jewelry and sparkling stilettos. Here I was, surrounded by tiaras, diamonds, and ball-gowns – and all I had on was a measly little African patterned dress and bangle earrings. To say that I hid against the wall, desperately trying to cover up my outfit with a shawl, would be more or less on point with how the rest of the evening went.

I may have to face it eventually, but travel Kailee was not prepared for gorgeous, fancy Dar es Salaam.

I know there’s about a billion and fifty issues you could critique me on for this way of thinking. Obviously Dar es Salaam, crazy expensiveness and all, is part of Tanzania, and therefore represents an authentic experience. And what even is authentic anyway? I should be happy with my nice hot shower, my working refrigerator, and water pressure that has been nothing but amazing. To a certain extent, I get that, I really do. But its hard to justify living in a gated house, in the middle of a peninsula that’s isolated from the rest of the population, when half of the country is living in extreme poverty. How do you justify going to work every day to try and contribute to development solutions and poverty alleviation, but then ride around town in a massive vehicle and go to lunch in expensive restaurants? I’m not trying to be too critical – international organizations and their expat staff obviously need to support themselves, and their presence does make a big contribution to the surrounding communities. But the juxtaposition of rich white people running in short shorts, next to the side of the road where a sixteen year old mother and child break rocks into tiny pieces for a 1$ a day construction job, is just something that really doesn’t seem to make much sense. It’s extremely unnerving, and almost a bit surreal. Even more surreal to realize that my brief stint as an expat in Dar, broke intern or not, makes me a part of that juxtaposition as well.

All that being said, Dar is a beautiful city, and I’m lucky to be able to have even one brief summer in such a gorgeous place (even if it will break my wallet). Plus, on the upside, my roommate has finally arrived, which means I now have a partner in crime to go explore other areas of the city. And if we get a bit exhausted with chaotic traffic and too many people – at least we know we have a massive air condition apartment to come home too.

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Welcome to Dar: Why Bed Bugs, Prostitution, and Immigration Patrols Don’t Mix.

Hi everyone. Before we get to the story behind the title (which is what you are all obviously here to read), just a small little intro – hello Tanzania! For those of you who don’t know, I’m living in Dar es Salaam this summer to intern with the UN. I find blogging while travelling to be one of the best ways to keep you updated with this round of Kailee’s Adventures in Africa, so hopefully you enjoy. Now onto this story….its a bit long, so I’ve broken it up into three parts you can take your pick from.

Part One: Bugs

I arrive in Tanzania in the middle of the night. I say this every time I get here, but there’s something about stepping out onto the Tanzanian tarmac, some mix of tropical heat, sweat, and a warm breeze, that is such as distinct reminder of “o hey you’re back again.” My VERY broken Swahili (Mambo? Habari? Unaenda motel?) gets me a taxi driver, and a hotel right beside the airport to spend the few hours before dawn, trying to catch some sleep. Bucket showers and mosquito nets might not sound like your cup of tea, but they leave me waking up feeling refreshed, happy, and ready to take on the city.

I think this might be where it all started to unravel. I had planned to spend the first week at a hotel near where I was trying to find a place to live, hearing that it was pretty popular with both locals and expats. I’d booked an actual room for the first three nights, so I could settle in, and then planned to move into the dorm for the rest of the time. The place seemed normal, with a bar downstairs, pool tables, and cheap beer. By Africa standards, my room seemed great, clean sheets and a proper sized mosquito net. I went to bed that night feeling preeeettyyyy pleased with my plans, glad that everything was going smoothly. Until I woke up the next morning to the tiniest little bug crawling across my arm down into my bed.

I know what you’re saying, you’re in Africa and you’re scared of a tiny bug? See, that’s what I thought too, no biggie. Until I started to wake up, and looked at my legs.

Remember what you looked liked when you had chicken pox? Just the worst kind of red bumps all over your body? That’s was basically my lower half, from the legs down. Not really getting it at first, I fumbled with the mosquito net, not understanding how I could have been bitten that many times when I’d only seen a couple of mosquitos around all day, and had been under a net all night. And that’s when the bugs started running across my laptop. And my blanket. And down my legs. The phrase, “don’t let the bed-bugs bite” has never held more meaning than Day Two of this trip. Bugs in the bed, eh that’s fine, not a huge deal. Bugs that leave your legs looking like itching war wounds? Not so cool.

Part II: “Wait…how do you know all of these girls are prostitutes?”

Thankfully, having a room infested with bed bugs means the hotel upgraded me to a bigger, nicer room all to myself – sans bugs in the bed. Decimated legs hidden beneath pants, I ended up venturing out to meet some of the other backpackers staying at the dorm in the hotel. After a couple minutes sitting around drinking beer, some of the guys started talking about the ‘crazy’ night that they had before, when I was passed out cold being eaten alive upstairs. Supposedly, at night, the hotel turned into a raging party. “Ya, we were up so late, it was so crazy,” one of the guys said,” …and duddddde, did you check out all of those prostitutes? Pretty much every female in the bar was one.”

Well, that made me perk up. “Wait what? I mean, how do you know all of the girls were prostitutes?

The guys kind of sniggered. “Well I mean, other than the fact they were all trying to get some D? Mobs of flashy girls dancing up on you and asking for money was probably a give away. But in all seriousness, there were a lot of men going off with girls last night. And not in a ‘we’re both drunk and want to hook up’ way. In a ‘she’s twenty and he’s sixty’ kind of way.”

I didn’t really know what to make of those comments. Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with sex work (although it will always give me the creeps to see some older white man paying for sex from a young, twenty year old African girl), but did I really want to be staying at a place known as a Dar hot spot for that? What if the guys were just exaggerating? It didn’t have to be that big of a deal, right?

Over the next day or two, what the guys had been saying was definitely confirmed as true. During the day, the hotel was perfect, cute, central, and with very friendly staff. At night? If the loudspeakers didn’t wake you up, the drunk howling definitely would. Other travellers at the bar made comments about seeing older men making out with much younger girls, and the same group of guys made comments the next night about having a very similar experience yet again. The clincher was when I went to meet a potential landlady about an apartment. After asking me where I was staying until I could find a place, she gasped in shock. “You absolutely cannot stay there, that is a brothel! A single girl alone – no, you get out of there right away!”

In defense of the hotel (which shall remain nameless), during the day, it was actually quite lovely. They had the nicest staff, a cute balcony to eat breakfast on that overlooked the palm-trees, and when the noise from the bar didn’t bellow through your rooms, they were quite quaint and lovely. But as single woman travelling by herself, hearing story after story about nighttime prostitution, that definitely made me feel uncomfortable. I vowed to leave the next day, only letting myself spend one more night in a place that gave me the creeps.

Part III: Immigration Patrol

The final night in the hotel was not one of my finest travel moments. Trying to sleep in a room that felt like you were sitting beside the speakers downstairs, freaking out every two seconds over the possibility that a drunken patron would stumble into your dorm, is not the most conducive to a calm and collected. Kailee Finally falling asleep around 5am, I woke up by crashing my head on the bunk above me as someone yelled,

“Hi. Wake up. Immigration is here for you. Come out now.”


Lets go back a step.
Technically, I am not supposed to be just a “tourist” in Tanzania. Even though I’m not being paid, unpaid employment counts as a different category of visa. But given that the Tanzanian visa process is a completely nonsensical system, my supervisor advised it would be easiest (and supposedly the norm) just to enter into the country with a tourist visa and then they would figure the rest of it out from there. I’ve been here twice before, and had done that every time, so it shouldn’t have been a problem.

Until it was. Here I am, barely slept, hair everywhere, having a full blown panic attack in the middle of some random Dar es Salaam hostel. I swear, every thought that I could have possibly had ran through my head in a matter of 8.5 seconds. O SHIT, they’ve found me, how did they know I don’t have the proper visa already, o my god, why is immigration here, are they going to interrogate me, I don’t know anyone here, what if they kick me out of the country, what if I cant do my internship and fail graduate school, where the FUCK is my contact at the UNs number, o shit she’s not even in the country until next week – O MY GOD WHAT IF THEY TAKE ME TO JAIL?!?!?!

Ya. You can tell I went a bit overboard . But hey, you get three hours of sleep and then wake up to Tanzanian immigration at your door, I bet you’d be freaking too.

Giving up on trying to find my only contact at the UN, I leave a frantic message for my roommate in Tanzania who is still back in the States, going something along the lines of “Elyssa I’m about to be taken by immigration, I don’t know whats going on, contact our supervisor.” Figuring I can’t stall any longer, I go outside and try to face the patrol.

I swear these guys must have thought I was crazy. I looked like hell, my hair was everywhere, my pajamas were a ratty pair of tights and tank top that were almost falling off, and all I can think is “MAKE THEM THINK YOU ARE JUST A TOURIST RIGHT NOW, CONVINCE THEM YOU ARE JUST A TOURIST RIGHT NOW.” So I start rambling. And rambling. And rambling. I think I said some words in Swahili, and then I went off about how they woke me up and I was feeling sick and o my goodness, so sorry for their wait, and no no no, I didn’t want to go to the hospital for malaria because I wanted to go to Zanzibar today because that’s whats tourists did, and have they ever been on safari because I REALLY WANTED TO DO A TOURIST SAFARI!!! After five minutes of nodding politely, and smiling along with my crazy rant, they looked at my passport, made a few notes, and told me to have a good day.

I was literally shaking. I went back and forth between thinking that they were going to come back and take me with them, to thinking I need to go to the UN office right this second so we could process the proper paperwork ASAP. Half-way through my meltdown, the receptionist walks into the dorm. “O they got you to? Immigration checks all of our guests nowadays, just to see their passports. They’ve been here all morning.” Turns out, this was just a routine check.

While you sit there laughing at how dumb I could be, a word in my defense; in all of my trips to Tanzania, or elsewhere in East Africa, I’ve never had immigration show up to check passports at a hotel. I’ve also never been woken up, still half-sleeping, to be informed that immigration is here “to see you.” I mean, if he woulda said, immigration is making the rounds, maybe I wouldn’t have thought they were going to deport/take into custody/arrest me. Who hears “immigration is here FOR YOU” and thinks anything else?! I probably could have stopped to think how technically I am a tourist, since I haven’t started working yet, or that my paperwork will be processed soon, or how immigration has larger things to worry about than a 23 year old intern, but those were all afterthoughts.

As much as it’s funny to sit a day later, in my beautiful new place, and laugh at how silly all of those stories sound, the last couple of days have been pretty frantic and rough. Contrary to popular belief, I’m actually not that great of a traveller. You know those people that pack light, can figure their way through anything, and are always making friends and seeming in control? Totally not this girl. My hectic-ness back at home multiplies abroad, especially when I’m navigating a foreign city completely on my own. I hate flying solo, and I do best surrounded by people I love, not holed up in some hostel where I know no one. Bug bites, illicit sex work, waking up to a panic attack over immigration status – on their own, or back at home, something to laugh at. In a new city, where you know absolutely no one, not so much. Moments like these leave me cowering, lonely, and afraid to have to navigate this by myself. Everyone always talks about their “amazing experiences” while travelling, but can’t a girl have a moment or two discuss how shitty some travel moments can actually be?

Thankfully, my love for Tanzania and the rest of this beautiful continent overrides those fears, and pushes me to keep coming back here. Regardless of a few bumpy days, at the moment of “okay world I’ve had enough,” comes those amazing moments where life just works. Where the kindness of a stranger led to me finding the most beautiful apartment. Where I walk down the street and find that I still remember some Swahili and can converse with the boys lounging by the banana stand. Where the guard in my complex comes up before I go to bed just to make sure I am settling in okay, and know how to use everything. Where I stand on my porch, watching the sun set over the city, feeling the breeze of the Indian Ocean, and realize that being alone in Dar is scary, but it means I’m back in Africa. And there’s nothing better than that feeling.

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I think we need to talk about Rwanda.

I think we need to talk about Rwanda.

I’ve been struggling all week to come up with words, any words, to try and articulate everything that my mind has been wrestling with when it comes to Rwanda. As you probably know, April 7th is the anniversary of the genocide. 20 years ago today, lists were being written up, roadblocks constructed, and the mass-slaughter that killed 800,000 Rwandans was just beginning. We all know the details, we all know the ending and we all know what has happened since. As a student who studies conflict, I read these stories everyday. I’m used to discussing violence, rape, and genocide, analyzing their components and consequences. But with Rwanda…I haven’t been able to detach. Its been on my mind, in my heart, and this week especially, I see Rwanda everywhere. Maybe its because it’s the anniversary, maybe its the increase of articles and op-eds, maybe its because I thought I heard the women on the bus mention Kigali– but for some reason I can’t stop thinking of Rwanda.

I’m not sure why this is affecting me so deeply. I wasn’t there in 1994, I haven’t worked in Rwanda; I haven’t ever even come close to experiencing that level of suffering in any context. I’m a naïve, little, white student from Canada – am I even allowed to have a claim on a conflict that I have no direct ties too? How do you talk about a conflict that isn’t yours, but that you care about so deeply, so fiercely? I need to find a way to wrap my head around what Rwanda should stand for, and I keep going back and forth in my mind on how to do just that.

Rwanda is my breaking point. I’m fascinated by it, always have been. Sometimes I worry that those who study conflict are a little bit perverse, have this weird fascination with human trauma that isn’t normal. But something about what happened in Rwanda, and what has happened since, captivates me in a terrifying way. Want to discuss the conflict in DRC? Go back to Rwanda. Want to understand the elements of modern genocide? Go back to Rwanda. Want to pinpoint the biggest failure of the international system? Go back to Rwanda.

This March, when I was travelling East Africa, I was able to visit Rwanda for the first time. I’ve written about this previously, but Rwanda was a beautiful, breathtaking country, that in no way resembles its history of 1994. You don’t suddenly cross the border and enter a broken country, complete with flashing signs that say “WE HAD A CONFLICT HERE.” In reality, my trip to Rwanda was filled with clean streets, friendly people, and lush hills of the countryside rolling past as I drove out to Lake Kivu. Rwanda has a booming economy, a great tourism sector, and has made substantial progress in reaching development indicators. Yet, although its not on the surface, the genocide is there, breaking through when you notice machete scars or when you get in a taxi and the first thing someone tells you is that their entire family was killed.

Memorials were the hardest, especially those that were not official. The churches on a hillside, a field where people had fled, a school where women and children had been told they would be safe. Nyamata was my first. A women who only spoke Kinyarwanda, a genocide survivor, took me through the church, pointing out the piles of torn clothing, where you could see skulls that had been cracked with machetes, where grenades had taken chunks out of the building. She took me underneath the church, into a tiny hallway filled with coffins. There were coffins for the bones of babies, for the bones of children, and then larger ones for the bones of adults, laid out from floor to ceiling and piled one on top of each other. The next church was similar, except here you could see where people had come to try and survive, displaying all of the pots, pans, food, schoolbooks and other materials they had carried to the church because they had thought that here they would be safe. There was spears laid against the wall, and as my guide explained, these were used to go in through a woman’s private parts, and out through her head. Beside this, a wall of blood from children’s heads being smashed against the concrete.

How do you make sense of this amount of violence? How do you remember, how do you reflect, how do you articulate that you don’t know whether to cry, to scream, to sob, to get angry? After exiting one of the churches, I was taken to a reflection bench, where I was supposed to take a moment to contemplate everything I had just witnessed. How do you reflect on that? How do you look at the tools used to destroy entire communities, how do you look at bodies of children preserved in lime and laid out on tables, how do you rationally make sense of that level of violence? How does reflection, or remembrance, or sadness, or contemplation ever allow you to be able to comprehend that sort of trauma?

I guess that all I can say to describe Rwanda is that my heart hurts. All I can say is that I want to understand, to care, to take on some sort of collective guilt, but that nothing will ever be enough. All I can say is that I’m million of miles away, sitting in my cozy grad-student apartment in Toronto, and all I can do is picture myself, standing under a crumbling church, with bones piled high above me, coffins stacked so high that I can’t breathe, that I’m suffocating on the mildew of old skeletons, realizing with unmistakable horror just what humanity is capable of.

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Why Should You Care About Sexual Violence?

Why should you care about sexual violence? This seems like a silly question to ask, doesn’t it? You read the news and there is a story about a woman raped in the Congo, in  CAR, in Syria, and you think to yourself “how horrible, what a tragedy.” Of course rape is an important issue, and morally reprehensible. Sexual violence is a human rights violation, it’s disgusting, and an atrocious part of modern conflict; however, it’s also seen as something that happens “out there,” in some far away war, in situations that don’t really impact your own life. We cringe, we are sad when we hear these stories…and then we move on. We may say that we care, but do we really?

As much we claim that sexual violence is important, worldwide trends sometimes speak to the opposite. Although there are a wide range of civil society actors working to end this practice, sexual violence is often sidelined by governments and international organizations. While there are UN organizations working on sexual violence, they are understaffed, incoherent, and have incredibly low amounts of funding. Governments ignore high rates of sexual violence in military institutions, and peace delegations often fail to see sexual violence as an important topic that needs to be addressed. Sexual violence is framed as a “soft issue,” taking a back seat to the more important issues of the day, such as military engagements or macro-economic policy. It is important, just not as important as other, more pressing, issues.

So then, why should we care? What makes sexual violence so special and why should we give up our already pressed time to care about another story of human suffering? That, dear reader, is what I’m going to try to convince you of.

Sexual violence has reached epidemic proportions:
I’m sure you’ve all heard the latest fatality reports from conflict zones across the world – 140,000 dead in Syria, thousands killed in CAR raids, dozens killed in Kiev protests. These conflicts are important and disturbing, and their rate of violence deserves to be taken  seriously; however statistics on sexual violence match and exceed many conflict casualty numbers, yet do not receive nearly the same attention. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, estimates of sexual violence reach as high as 1.8 million individuals. During the Rwandan genocide, it is estimated that 250,000 to 500,000 women were raped, and in the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict, between 20,000 and 50,000 were raped. In Sierra Leone, 215,000 women were raped during the civil war and in Liberia, it is estimated that 18% of the population has been subjected to sexual violence. Hundreds of women continue to be sexually assaulted in Burma, Somalia, Sudan, and Syria. When you take into account that very few will actually report sexual violence, these numbers are staggering.

Even when you turn away from sexual violence committed in conflict, numbers on violence against women are just as shocking. The UN recently released a study estimating that about every 1 in 3 (around 35%) women world-wide will experience gender based violence in their lifetime. Last week, The Lancet released another study estimating that approximately 7% of women world-wide experience violence at the hands of a non-partner. In some area’s, such as sub-Saharan Africa, these numbers reach as high as 21%.

It doesn’t just happen “over there”… sexual violence in epidemic in North America too:
When we talk about sexual violence, we often frame it as something that happens in armed conflict or something that happens far away from our ordinary life here at home. That assumption is extremely false. In North America, approximately 1 in 4 women will experience sexual assault in her lifetime. 18% of US women have experienced either rape or attempted rape in their lifetime, and 1 out of 17 Canadian women face the same. These rates are slightly lower for men, but are still prevalent.  Not only are these statistics startling, but the after effects of rape can also be horrifying. Victim-blaming and slut-shaming are common occurrences, with those meant to protect victims failing to provide an adequate response. Take for example the case of Daisy Coleman, who was drugged and raped by fellow students, blamed and bullied on social media, and then had to watch as her attackers were absolved of rape charges. Or the 14 year old girl from Missouri, who was raped by her teacher. She committed suicide after she was blamed for causing the rape, while her attacker was only sentenced to 30 days in prison. Or Rehtaeh Parsons, a Nova Scotia teenager who committed suicide after the video of her gang rape spread over social media, inducing bullying and harassment. These aren’t few and far between events. The wide scope of sexual violence, and it’s horrifying after effects, can be found in thousands of cases across Canada and the U.S. We need to recognize that sexual violence is also a pervasive element of our own society.

Sexual violence costs billions of dollars:
Okay so you’re still not convinced. Yes sexual violence is horrible, and yes maybe it occurs at a higher rate than you’d like to admit…but that still doesn’t explain why the world should care more than it already does. Sexual violence isn’t just a moral and social strain on our society though; it is also a huge economic one.

In Canada, the total cost of sexual assault is approximately 1.9 billion per year. The total cost of intimate partner violence is approximately 7.4 billion per year. This comes out to around 334$ per person, more than the cost per person of government revenue associated with fighting illegal drug use. In the U.S, intimate partner violence costs around 5.8 billion annually in health losses, and estimates go even higher when figuring in other related expenses. Economic losses through drops in workforce productivity are also prevalent. The U.S looses 8 million days of paid work annually because of the effects of domestic violence. Conservative estimates approximate that 1.2 GDP points are lost in Brazil and Tanzania because of violence against women, and some studies suggest it could cost up to as much as 10% of the UK’s GDP. Extrapolating globally, sexual violence and violence against women costs BILLIONS of dollars for the world economy.

A drain on economic resources also occurs when sexual violence prevents the victim from being able to participate in their community. For example, when militia’s use gang-rape in conflict, often this result’s in obstetric fistula, ostracizing the woman and hindering her from contributing to her community. The psychological effects she experiences (such as trauma and mental health issues) may also prevent her from returning to a normal life, causing strain on her family, her children’s well-being, and her ability to further their socio-economic status. All of these issues factor into poverty rates, cycles of violence, and a lack of social stability that is needed for economic success. In addition, these stats don’t even begin to touch on the amount of revenue that could be earned if other barriers to economic inclusion (trafficking, informal job markets, lack of financial access, ect.) were addressed as well – but that would be a whole other blog post.

Even a brief look at the economics of sexual violence gives us a clear picture: violence against women and girls costs money. TONS of money. It rips apart communities, and blocks energy and investment from being channeled into wealth creation alongside social cohesion. Sexual violence isn’t just a moral and social issue – its also just bad economics.

So…why should we care again?
As I’ve tried to demonstrate, sexual violence isn’t some far-away occurrence that affects a small portion of the world population. It doesn’t just happen in conflict zones and it doesn’t just happen in the developing world. It doesn’t just happen to women, and it doesn’t just affect the single individual that is assaulted. Sexual violence is a pervasive social and economic issue that affects huge portions of the worldwide population. And it will continue to affect huge portions of the worldwide population, unless a more drastic effort can be made to eradicate the use of sexual violence as a common practice.

There are reasons to be (slightly) hopeful. In 2008, the UN created a specialized department to directly deal with sexual violence in conflict, and the Secretary General has also spearheaded a Violence Against Women initiative. These efforts have been matched by other international organization, such as the ICC and the G8, who are making an effort to address sexual violence. Public outrage after gang-rapes in countries such as India and South Africa has led to increased debate and discussion on how we address sexual violence globally. Civil society organizations, academics, and policymakers are all joining in on this discussion, and high profile figures such as UK Foreign Minister William Hague have put sexual violence on the global policy agenda. Most importantly, there are thousands of grass-roots activists and survivors worldwide that work tirelessly to address sexual violence on the community level. These are all important steps in the right direction. But to get there, we have to care. The international community has to care,  governments have to care, and you have to care.

As I hope these examples demonstrate, there are many reasons why you should care about sexual violence. It’s a social, moral, economic, and political issue that affects us all.  For more information about sexual violence, check out some of the organizations posted below – they do amazing work on this issue area. And, if you fancy, you could follow my blog, since I’m sure there will be more posts related to this issue in the near future. Thanks for reading.

Women Under Siege

Women to Women International 

UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict

International Coalition to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict

Nobel Women’s Initiative 

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The Power of Stories

I know I’m a few weeks late but….happy 2014! The goal for this year? Actually get this blog up and running! And to start this year off, I’d like to start my rambling musings on a topic I’ve been thinking a lot of tonight. And that topic is the power of stories.

What really got me started on this topic was that earlier, I was watching an amazing Ted-Talk by Roxanne Krystalli, on the role of narratives in conflict and the ethical responsibility that this brings with it. If you have a spare fifteen minutes, I would really recommend checking it out. It really got me thinking though, not just on the power of stories in conflict, but the power of stories in general. I’m not sure about you, but in a day I’m bombarded with news and information from around the world, a conflict breaking out in South Sudan, a new internet hub starting up in Nairobi, another gang-rape in Delhi. They can become overwhelming, exhausting, and conflated, with my brain jumbling everything together in some sort news bubble that swirls around and around in my head. Yet, when I took a step back today and really thought about it, I seem to be missing the emotional elements behind what I was absorbing – the love, compassion, hate, cruelty, ignorance, and empathy that are such crucial elements of all this information, yet seem to go unnoticed. In a world where the connection to those human qualities can seem distant, how do we place importance on the power of stories to illuminate human spaces?

The graduate program I’m currently in, you may say isn’t that heavy on qualitative processes. We focus on policy, on data, on concrete measures to analyze problems. We discuss broad security issues, and talk about economic policy with fun words like poverty, growth, and development. What we don’t discuss are the people that these policies and projects affect. We don’t talk about the woman who moved into the city because of urbanization and now can’t find work, or the man who left everything of his old life behind to live in a tent in a refugee camp. Coming from an undergraduate degree in anthropology, that disconnect from the story-telling process suddenly hit me – I hadn’t realized how much I missed that deeper, human connection until I heard Krystalli describe the moving element that listening to conflict stories brought to her. Why will I care about the dynamics of refugee provision unless I can understand the fear and pain that can accompany leaving your home in the middle of a war? Why do I want to work towards ending gender violence, unless I can hear women describe their experiences ? Sitting in a basement researching security reform, or UN response to sexual violence is one thing – but unless we can connect this to the people behind the policy problem, what is our motivation for doing any of it?

I don’t think that this pattern, of emphasizing the quantitative over the qualitative, is just something that happens within the confines of my masters program either. The development world in general privileges data. Open sourced data, crowd sourced data, big data, statistical analysis, quantifiable measurements that can numerically tell us how a program is doing – these are the markers by which the development world can tell how well it is doing. It’s much easier to make the case that a program is succeeding (and therefore deserves more donor funding) if you can back it up with the hard numbers. It is much harder to justify why the humanity behind those numbers is relevant, why we need to put the human face to the stats. Don’t get me wrong, statistics is incredibly useful and is a much-needed tool for any project, whether that be in post-conflict reconstruction in eastern DRC or building wells in Lesotho highlands.  But understanding the dimensions of how a project affects actual people, understanding their emotions, and thoughts, and most importantly their stories is something I really believe needs to be given just as much privilege.

Watching that talk tonight, jolted me into the realization of how disconnecting this process can be, of wanting to work in international affairs but being separated from the people that the issues we work on are truly affecting. It seems a bit ridiculous that quantitative analysis is seen as a legitimate form of data, but that when I mention the importance of qualitative analysis, this needs to be justified. I’m curious if this is something that other people are experiencing, or if this is just a mid-semester crazy-grad school thought. How do you include story-telling as part of development practice? How do you try to grasp that human element in a world that seems disconnected from this? And finally – I’m really interested in how you make the case for qualitative data as a legitimate form of analysis when quantitative seems so privileged!

That’s it for today. Thanks ya’ll. If you want to check out Krystalli’s Ted-Talk, the link is below (you really should, its fascinating!)


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The Day We Talked About Rape

To ease the end of the week grad school anxiety, a group of classmates and myself get together every Sunday to make a weekly dinner. We cook, drink wine, relax and talk, spending a few quality hours in our non-school personas. What I love about these evenings is the fact that these women are some of the smartest people that I have met, and our conversations are always lively and interesting. That night, the topics of discussion ranged from projects we’re working on, to discovering spirituality, to our favourite guilty pleasure movies. However, there was one topic brought up that I really want to delve into. And that topic was rape.

Disclaimer: I study rape. I study rape in conflict,  I study sexualized violence in developing communities, and I study gender based violence that occurs on a global scale. And while the stories I research are heartbreaking, the constant stream on my twitter feed updating me on the mass scale of violence being committed against women in all corners of the world has numbed me to any shock value. When I describe instances of gang rape to classmates, and they are visibly shaken and cannot finish listening, it always surprises me. Not because I’m immune to the scale of tragedy, but because hearing these stories has become the norm.

Which is why it really perturbed me when, during dinner, the discussion turned on to rape. Each girl had a story about someone close to them who had experienced sexualized violence or a sexual assault. These weren’t stories that occurred far away, things that I could read about and feel horrified, but analyze with an academic gaze. This was not rape halfway around the globe, but a discussion of real women we knew who had been sexually assaulted. The fact that the experience of rape was brought so close to my own personal life, well it really shook me up.

Every girl at that table had a story about a friend that had been sexually assaulted. That’s five out of five of us. Several weeks earlier, this trend was also demonstrated, at a panel discussing the role of women in the workforce. After the talk, several women started an informal discussion about the problems they have faced in their respective fields. Stories ranged from knowing of women who had been given unwanted attention by employers, to women who had been sexually assaulted while working abroad. These aren’t few and far between occurrences that happen to a certain segment of society, or events that only target a small subset of individuals. This is happening to women we know; friends, family, and community members.

A new report by the National Research Council in America has just been released demonstrating the widely underreported incidence of rape. In 2010, the US Census Bureau accounted for 188,280 incidents of rape and sexual assault. However, the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence survey accounted for 1.3 million rapes for the same year. The FBI only reported 85,503. In Canada, 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime, with the Statistics Canada Victimization survey in 2004 estimating that approximately 512,000 people had been sexually assaulted. This does not take into account that for every 100 cases, only six will come forward and report it. I could continue giving you more stats, but I think we all get the point by now. This isn’t a small number, and these aren’t rare occurrences.

We ended dinner that night on a somber note. As one of my friends said, “I don’t know how you do this. This topic is so depressing.” And to an extent, I do agree with her. These are horrible stories, about pain and suffering and violence committed against women on massive proportions. But that still doesn’t mean they aren’t one of the most important topics we need to be talking about. These stories can’t be seen as an outlier, happening to other people in other parts of the world. They happen right here at home. And while it horrifies me, and makes me so angry, I think that anger may be the most important thing that can come out of this. If our entire society was that angry about how often this occurs, if our entire society got angry at the rate of rape,  if our entire society got so mad that they just couldn’t handle it anymore, we have to ask ourselves- would this still be a problem?

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