Thursday, 15 August 2013

Hey overseas volunteers- it's not you, it's us

Two years ago, fresh from my first development internship experience, newly conscious of how unqualified and generally useless I was in the world, a friend mentioned she wanted to volunteer in Africa. An English graduate, I could barely contain my scorn as I asked her what would she volunteer as. A teacher she replied or in an orphanage or something, just for like two weeks or whatever. What you want is a holiday, I pointed out. No, she insisted, I want to help. I, in reply, went on an unmitigated rant about people with no skills insisting on travelling to developing countries to work with orphans, why doesn't she volunteer at home, etc. etc. The term poverty porn was used numerous times and the friendship strained.

I don't think I was angry at my friend, more ashamed of my own naievety which had once matched hers. Only the year previous to that conversation, I had spent the summer combing websites looking for volunteer opportunities at home or abroad with NGOs or charities, genuinely shocked that no one wanted my free labour. Of course, it didn't occur to me that my years of waitressing experience and a whole two years of college education qualified me to do nothing useful. In my mind, I was a body willing to work for free. Surely, the poor charities should be begging me for my help?!

Oh, how we've all learned. People working in development (of which I only barely class myself, having the minimum of experience. However, I continue.) are scornful of voluntourism and with real, concrete reason. Too often, volunteering is aimed at enriching the volunteer's experience and not contributing anything meaningful to the community. I once got talking to a guy in Camden's Barfly who proudly told me he had volunteered in Africa. It transpired he spent one week planting trees and one week teaching maths in Ghana (I wish I was making this up by the way). I laughed too much to get angry at him and he flounced away, presumably to try and woo a more amenable girl with his tales of aid worker hardship.

This post from the always excellent WhyDev clearly sets out the serious issues with voluntourism.  Aside from English grads trying to pack some meaning into their holidays however, there is the issue of aspiring development professionals, probably still at university, who volunteer - often paying to do so- because they can't get any internships. Internships as an undergraduate are literally like gold dust. I will forever thank my university for establishing an internship programme within my degree. Nervous about graduating with literally zero experience, many students spend a summer or two on these programmes working with street kids in India or the like and for their efforts, develop a hefty slice of debt and nothing but scorn from development professionals. They're not bad people, these young volunteers! They're just thinking about the career prospects.

The thing is, a two week volunteer placement in Zanzibar for example, won't impress any NGO. Experience is obviously a plus but why not volunteer at home, in a women's shelter or a soup kitchen or a homework club for children of asylum seekers? If you can't afford to volunteer abroad and have spent your time at university working part time, shout that proudly. Everyone describes themselves as hardworking on a CV but you can actually demonstrate it. Trust me, that's more impressive than a few weeks volunteer work.

Again, this is not meant to be a dig at those who do volunteer abroad. I understand why and that the motivation is usually good. A lot of the problem actually stems from the NGO sector and it's stubbornly middle class expectation that parents will fund young people to work for free (look out for an upcoming post on how development needs more working class!). So, young volunteers, ignore the scorn you receive from development workers. It's all their bloody fault in the first place. 

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Dodging hipsters in Portland and being Beat in Big Sur

Earlier this summer, I spent a few weeks in the US visiting family in Portland, Oregon and Santa Cruz, CA. I've been to California a number of times but it was my first time visiting Oregon.

Portland is rainy (even in June) and full of hipsters but has great coffee, tonnes of food carts serving cheap and tasty food, lots of beautiful scenery and a book shop that occupies an entire city block- what more could one want?! Portland is known for its craft beers but despite my best efforts, I didn't get to sample as many as I would have liked! I did try some Oregon wine though, which was really good. The Oregon coast is also beautiful and I loved the countryside driving north towards Washington.

I took the train from Portland to San Jose- 22 hours on the Amtrak Coast Starlight. It was a gorgeous way to travel, slow but comfortable with amazing scenery along the way. Going by train always feels like a more romantic way of travelling. I've loved long train journeys since I was 17 and flew into Warsaw then boarded a train across the Belorussian border to Brest. The Coast Starlight has a viewing carriage with floor to ceiling windows and the economy carriages were extremely comfortable. It was cheaper than flying and a much more enjoyable way of travelling. 

I stayed with my aunt in her beautiful home in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Although we did a lot for the three weeks or so I was there- hiking in the Redwoods, visiting San Francisco, walking along the coast in Santa Cruz, driving down to Big Sur- most days I was quite content to just lie out on the deck. .

. . . I know, it's hard to imagine why!

Santa Cruz is one of my favourite places on earth and San Francisco is a great city but the highlight of the trip for me was driving down the coast to Big Sur. It was simply amazing. Bizarrely, the countryside reminded me of the West of Ireland at times, with the yellow and red flowers in the rolling hills- and of course the grey skies!

We also visited Berkeley; there's some amazing views from the top of the campus right across the Bay. 

We spent 4th of July in San Francisco and I visited the Beat Museum for a second time. I first went when I was 16 and obsessed with Jack Kerouac. Now, I prefer the overlooked female Beat writers who lacked the freedom and recognition of their male counterparts. The Beat Museum is small but well worth a visit, with a great gift/book shop. They also pay due recognition to the many women Beat writers. I love this quote from Gregory Corso.

I had an amazing time and managed to do it all on an extremely small budget, staying with family and flying standby (my father works for an airline). Overall, I spent less for a month in America than I did for two weeks in Northern Spain two years ago! 

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

On being a Western harlot in other countries

There was worldwide shock and outrage earlier this month at the news that a Norwegian woman who was allegedly raped in Dubai had been sentenced to prison for extramarital sex, consuming alcohol without a licence and perjury. Marte Dalev was charged with extramarital sex because under UAE law, she was not raped. Rape is not easy to prove in any legal jurisdiction. Under Sharia law however, a rape only occurs if it is witnessed by four adult Muslim men or if the rapist confesses. This makes it almost impossible to prove a rape occurred.

Dalev's story is unfortunately not an isolated case. Australian Alicia Gali spent eight months in prison in 2008, after reporting being raped at the hotel where she worked. Her case was not widely publicised by her family, apparently due to advice from the Australian government. Dalev's case was barely reported in Gulf media outlets and when it was, it was mostly to express outrage at the evil Western media who were besmirching Dubai's good name. It was pointed out that Dalev was drinking and so was partly to blame if she was raped. The idea that a rape victim is to blame if she has been drinking is still prevalent here in Europe too, lest we forget.

Dubai, UAE

I'm moving to Oman next month, which has a similar, sharia-influence code of law to the UAE. I've seen calls to boycott Dubai as a holiday destination on Twitter and have been reading countless articles on this terrible case (Dalev's case was since suspended, thankfully). It's made me think a lot about travelling to countries which have laws I not only disagree with but actually abhor; laws which offer me little protection as a woman- especially a Western woman who likes a drink.

Some of my friends and family have questioned why I would want to live in a country such as Oman, especially as I am such a proponent of women's equality. I obviously don't see living there as condoning women's second class status but I am extremely interested in living in a completely different culture for a year and learning Arabic. In Uganda, I was lucky enough to meet some amazing Sudanese women. I hope to travel to Sudan sometime in the next two years. This is not because of their government's fantastic human rights policies or their heavily corrupted Public Order Laws but because I find Sudanese culture interesting and beautiful and Sudanese people friendly and warm. No one travels to a country because of governmental policy, you travel to see and experience new and different things. The things you see are not always good.

At the Gadaffi Mosque, Kampala in 2011. 

Dalev committed no crime. Her only mistake was to go to the Dubai police. As a resident of Abu Dhabi, it's surprising she was not aware of the UAE's draconian laws regarding rape. However, it is completely understandable that probably shocked and traumatised she automatically did what we European women are always taught to do if we are attacked; report it to the police.

Many young European women I've met who have travelled in Africa or the Middle East are unaware of the current political and legal situation of the countries they're visiting. In Uganda in late 2011, as Somali militants upped their terrorist activities in neighbouring Kenya, many people in Kampala became nervous they would soon strike Uganda. Discussing the situation in a typical expat bar,  I remember being shocked at a Dutch girl who scoffed at such an idea. She was completely unaware, having failed to adequately Google the country she was moving to, that just the previous summer, two suicide bombers had killed over 70 people in downtown Kampala.

Being aware of the laws in UAE would obviously not have protected Dalev against rape. However, knowing how rape is treated by the legal system there would have saved her some of the extra trauma she was forced to go through. As we all know, it doesn't matter where in the world you are as a woman or how careful you are- whether you're in jeans and a headscarf or a miniskirt, drunk or sober- rape happens. Stories like Dalev's does not stop me travelling to the countries I wish to visit but it certainly does remind me to know as much as possible about the country I am travelling to.

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Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Sexual Violence in Peacetime and War: It's not a Competition

In recent years, there has been an increased focus, from the media and international institutions, on the use of sexual violence in war. This is significant as it is important to recognise sexual violence in conflict not as something which just 'happens' but as a weapon of war and/or a tool of genocide. Recognising this includes taking into account the wider political situation and also considering gender inequalities in society. The use of sexual violence during war is a symptom of societal misogyny which also causes sexual violence during peacetime. Theses two 'types' of sexual violence are inextricably linked and cannot really be separated. We cannot speak of the reasons for one, without touching on the reasons behind the other. I always assume this fact to be self-evident.

But write an article about sexual violence in war and someone will inevitably comment 'what about rape or sexual violence that occurs in the home, during peacetime? That's under reported too.' This is of course a valid point. But what baffles me is the juxtaposition of the point, as if sexual violence in peacetime and war are somehow in competition with each other for attention. Similarly, writing about rape or sexual violence, whose victims are predominantly female, will almost always cause someone to say 'men are raped too, why are you ignoring that?'. No one is ignoring that men are also raped (in peacetime and war) but the simple fact is the vast majority of victims of sexual violence are female. As such, most of the discussion is framed around female victims.

Sexual violence occurs in war because it also occurs in peacetime. These two forms of sexual violence cannot be isolated from one another as they largely occur because of the same political, cultural and societal reasons. Speaking about one is not to belittle the other; highlighting one is not meant to detract from the other. In fact, speaking about one should draw attention to the fact that sexual violence is unfortunately a pervasive problem around the world, in peace time and war, in many different countries and societies.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Kids Club Kampala in Kentishtowner

My latest piece for The Kentishtowner, North London's only daily online magazine (and now once a month in print!), is an article on Kids Club Kampala.

Kids Club Kampala is a great charity I first came across on Twitter, which works with slum communities in Uganda. It was established by Olivia and Corey when they were just 18, fresh out of some gap year volunteering in Kampala. The organisation impressed me with their community led projects, the fact that all their staff are local (apart from the girls running the fundraising/operational side of things in London) and that it's a very young, ambitious NGO.

Read the piece here to find out more.

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Thursday, 25 April 2013

I'm back. . .

I haven't really posted in a few months. I've been quite busy finishing up my BA (nearly there!) plus applying for Masters, jobs etc. Now, I have less than a month of university left and I have a job which begins in August; I'm moving to Oman, to teach in a private primary school there. Excited does not begin to cover it.

I started this blog when I stopped working full time for Justice Africa and returned to the Irish Centre for Human Rights, as a way of staying immersed in the issues I enjoyed working on- mass atrocity prevention and memorialisation and sexualised violence in conflict.

So, I will be distracted no more. Expect lots of (not so cheery) pieces on the above plus probably stuff on the current abortion debate in Ireland- which never seems to end.

Thank you sincerely to The Gender Jurisprudence and International Criminal Law Project who included my 'Women and Conflict' section on their resources page. They have inspired me to write a lot more on these issues, to justify my inclusion!

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

A healthy dose of liberal guilt

I really enjoyed this piece 'Hey aid worker! It's not about you,' by Weh Yeoh over on WhyDev last week. It points to wider issues with our generation's habit of over sharing online (she said earnestly, on her blog) and highlights the problems this causes for those who work in aid or development.

A lot of the commentators on the piece got their knickers in a twist and quite unnecessarily. I think Weh probably exaggerated his point slightly at times in order to drive it home but he's right to question aid workers posting online selfies on donor funded trips, etc.

Instead of taking offence, people who work in development should take on board what he's saying and maybe think a bit harder about what they share on FaceBook, Twitter, Instagram or whatever. Aid beneficaries are not exotic backdrops for your profile photos.