This is the 1st piece in one of three reflection pieces from African women in the development sector. Read the introduction to the series here.
A few years ago, I had a conversation with some colleagues, who happened to be white men. The topic was about whether safe spaces for women to talk about sexual harassment was a form of exclusion. In this case, excluding men. Around this time, a well known tech entrepreneur in the open-source community was outed for sexual harassment by several women. It was all that anyone was talking about. I listened carefully, as they made their case. While I stood there, I kept asking myself, why is it that these white men feel so offended? If women feel safe talking about sexual harassment around men, there would be no need for them to create separate, safe spaces. Instead of critically reflecting on the situation and wondering what made women feel unsafe or threatened, they immediately jump to claim their space in the conversation. My theory behind this is that men themselves feel threatened when they cannot dominate the narrative. Now I don’t want to generalize here, as there are many men who don’t fit this profile, who are emotionally intelligent and sensitive to people’s experiences.
Too often women who have been victims of sexual harassment take centre stage while the perpetrators are left out of the story almost as a passive actor. A male friend of mine recently said something that stuck with me: “The man is always guilty until proven innocent, because no woman would come out and claim sexual harassment if it didn’t really happen.” It made me think of all the times I have heard people tear apart the stories of brave women who speak up – questioning and interrogating every statement for its authenticity. For many women, this experience can be a moment of healing, of solidarity with other victims.
As a woman of colour, I have had my share of experiences both with racism, gender discrimination and sexual harassment across different countries and cultures. I have worked in international development for the past ten years and in this time I have traveled to over thirty countries – mostly by myself. You tend to develop a thick skin when micro-aggressive attacks are the norm for you. The combination of patriarchy and sexism one finds themselves in no matter where in the world you go, has kept me alert and always aware that I need to constantly fight for my space. But, this can be tiring. You are unwillingly assigned labels; race, gender, personality, that you have to defend every day of your life.
The international development sector touts itself as the moral high ground preaching to the rest of the world how others should act, while not always upholding the same standards. For instance, when it comes to issues of diversity and inclusion, development organizations are far behind. It is astonishing to think that in my ten years in the sector I have always been the minority in the workplace. Less than 1% of people where I have worked have been people of colour. The female ratio has been much higher – which I believe is due to high numbers of women working in the aid and development sector. Nevertheless, a culture of fear still remains that forces many to remain silent.
The hypocrisy is rooted in a field with deep roots in colonialism, patriarchy and led by the white-saviour complex. It took me some time to realize this – to understand what it was that bothered me about this whole system. I also realized how much I internalized the micro-aggressions that others or I had to endure because a conversation was not taking place. The development space does not give room to talk about these issues. Even worse, I was guilty of my own unconscious bias that I ignored at times because it was “easier” or more accessible.
Diversity and Inclusion have become buzzwords as organizations try to address these issues under the umbrella of these terms that have become somewhat tokenized. What many don’t see is that these terms require a change of the whole system and cannot be addressed in isolation. It requires confronting yourselves and the choices you make as individuals and as whole organizations.
Once you have your wake up call and get over you guilt, you will start to see the world without the rose coloured glasses. Your position and the position of everyone around you in this world becomes apparent and you can begin to use your privilege to advance what is right in everything you do. When you begin to do this, the racial illiteracy, cultural incompetence and inequity becomes clear.
I have met too many women of colour who have left their jobs and are fed up of the development sector, because they are tired of working in a system that refuses to confront its own identity and practices while it preaches to others – and I don’t necessarily want to be one of them.
Here are a few things that I have found useful in overcoming these challenges:
Find allies – It’s important to find people who share your views and understand the issues in the same way you do. They are critical for support as well as for being heard. There is power in numbers.
Talk about it – Share your experiences and feelings with others – ideally your allies who will not judge you. Keeping it in is unhealthy and can lead to anger and depression.
Do not get sucked into your unconscious bias – It is hard when you are part of the system to remember that every act you take matters and we continuously question our choices against our morally high principles.
Fight for a holistic approach to diversity and inclusion – Find ways to raise issues of diversity and inclusion within your organization and suggest ways its can be improved. It many cases hiring an external expert can be done to provide an organizational assessment and trainings to sensitize staff.
Take little steps – You will not be able to change the hearts and minds of people and institutions overnight. Be realistic and understand the context which you are working in. This will take TIME!
Bethel Tsegaye is a human rights advocate with over ten years of experience working in the development sector. Her focus is freedom of expression, freedom of speech and access to information. Bethel works with independent journalists, media houses and civil society organizations in Africa and the Middle East to improve quality of journalism, improve access to information and organizational capacity. She works to advance gender equality and promote female leadership across her work. Bethel is currently conducting research on human rights compliance of EU migration cooperation agreements under the Forced Migration and Refugee Protection Law program at the University of London alongside her work as a Program Coordinator at Free Press Unlimited.