When you define a person by their diagnosis

On June 26, on the Iowa radio talk show “Mickelson in the Morning,” presidential candidate Mike Huckabee lashed out at the U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts for the logic of his opposition to marriage equality. While comparing same-sex marriage to polygamy, as Roberts did, begs for condemnation, Huckabee’s argument did more harm than good. In moving from his decision one day for the Affordable Care Act to his decision the next against marriage equality, Huckabee argued, Chief Justice Roberts showed that he “needs medication for schizophrenia.”

By exploiting a sensationalized and incorrect image of schizophrenia on public radio, Huckabee fuelled rampant misconceptions and stigmas that cause many of the estimated 2 million Americans who live with schizophrenia an unimaginable burden of hurt and suffering. Stigma is one of the reasons that nearly 70% of Americans with schizophrenia believe they are able to work and that a job would improve their lives, but only around 15% of them have a job.

Mary Giliberti, Executive Director of the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) called Huckabee out:

As political tactic, Governor Huckabee has exploited the stigma that traditionally has surrounded mental illness in order to attack the competence and credibility of someone with whom he disagrees … Such a remark would never be tolerated about needing chemotherapy for cancer or insulin for diabetes. It represents political ‘stigma-slinging’ at its worst. It doesn’t matter whether a person agrees or disagrees with the Supreme Court. It doesn’t matter whether a person is a Republican, Democrat or independent. To use mental illness as a metaphor to win political advantage does a terrible disservice to those who are diagnosed with this condition and often use medication as part of hard-won journeys to recovery. Stigma, perpetuated by any candidate’s statement, can lead to people’s reluctance to seek mental health care and devastating, even life threatening consequences … NAMI hopes that all the presidential candidates will speak out against stigma during the course of the 2016 election campaigns and will support policies to address the failing mental health system for those with schizophrenia and other serious mental health conditions.”

The media contributes to the stigma that surrounds schizophrenia in myriad ways. Apart from cheap laughs or ill-conceived parallels, as the one Huckabee tried to pull off, the media perpetuates misconceptions about mental illnesses in more subtle ways, for example by defining people who live with mental illness by their condition, as if that’s all they are.

Last August, the members of Fountain House, a New York based organization that works with and supports people with serious mental illnesses, called The New York Times to task for “often refer[ing] to people by outdated phrases such as `the mentally ill’ and `schizophrenics.’ Every time these careless labels are used, this language denies our human dignity and adds to the many challenges that people with mental illness already face. If you live with a mental health condition, or you know and love someone who does, you understand that words matter. When you define a person by their diagnosis, that person goes from being a brother, a writer, a sister, or a painter to being merely `the mentally ill’. It’s hurtful.”


(Maria Hengeveld will have more to say on schizophrenia, stigma and employment in an upcoming article in The Atlantic later in June.)

(Image Credit: http://www.nami.org)

Equality must be more than two white halves in adversarial balance

A few days ago, Bitch Media’s Megan Kearns pointed to the shortcomings of Patricia Arquette’s now infamous take on gender inequality, as she offered them on and behind the stage of the Oscar’s. Arquette’s idea that “It’s time for all the women in America and all the men who love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve fought for, to fight for us now” pissed Kearns off. I share her frustration. The growing online public conversation around gender equality and feminism may have become a more popular media topic the past years (which is a good thing), but since it’s mostly white self-proclaimed feminists who drive the discourse, the media carry the historical flaw of Western academic feminism’s widespread reluctance to take race, class or sexuality seriously right into the public sphere, popularizing a notion of ‘gender equality’ that is relevant to some and seriously harmful to others. As Kearns and others have already noted, not all women are middle class, white or straight. And the fight for real gender inequality, where LGBT people are actually treated as equals, and black women are paid and treated equal to white women, is far from won.

It’s not just the media and white feminists like Arquette who drive the idea that gender inequality is a matter of straight men versus straight women. Development organizations, such as the United Nations, play their own part in turning these un-nuanced notions into popular common sense. That’s a problem, particularly now that the UN mobilizes more and more celebrities, such as Victoria Beckham who believes girls should dress like girls, to get the word out.

The notion that the world’s main axis of inequality centers around sex is part of a larger and rapidly swelling discourse within the gender and development world, that frames the problem of gender inequality in a particular way: straight-men (and culture and tradition, of course) control and restrain straight women. A gender equal utopia from this point of view will emerge when straight men have been successfully convinced to stop controlling straight women. Essentially, this was the recently expressed position of UN Good Will Ambassador Emma Watson.

The UN is currently working on a new global development agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that sets the standards for development for the next fifteen years. “This is the century of women”, reads the 51st goals of the UN’s current version for the SDGs. “We will not realize our full potential if half of humanity continues to be held back”.

Patriarchy is real, yes. Compared to men, women carry the brunt of violence, yes. Nevertheless, the world isn’t just divided by sex, not all humans are straight and not all men are driven by an essential craving to own or control, or even kiss, a woman. Referring to women as the held-back ‘half of humanity’ in this way echoes Nicholas Kristof. He insists women are the held back half at the same time he wants us to cheer, twice even, for sweatshops and conceive women as unexploited resources. Kristof portrays men and women as simply monolithic, adversarial and heterosexual. He sees men and women, all men and all women, as inevitably divided by patriarchy. They are not. Problematic and oppressive gendered stereotypes are not just perpetuated by possessive heterosexual men, and they don’t just hurt ‘their’ women. Homophobia, Queerphobia, Lesbophobia and Transphobia are acted out by both men and women and need to be part of the conversation. Organizations like the UN have a lot of power to correct the flawed utopias of Kristof, Arquette and the like. The new development agenda can play a huge role here. So let’s watch this space.

(Photo Credit: Zanele Muholi / The Williams College Museum of Art)

But hey! How about boys bragging less?


19-year-old Tal Fortgang’s defensive response to those who reminded him to check his (male, white) privilege stirred quite the ‘dialogue’ this past week. Some chose to unpack Tal’s right-wing wunderkind syndrome, while others seized the opportunity to explain how privilege spawns the type of blindness that produces such letters. Proudly. Unapologetic. Defensive. Hurt.

But Tal’s letter also speaks to another critical social justice issue: the problem of gendered inequalities in adolescent self-esteem. This topic is on the minds of many who work for global youth development and gender equality in D.C and New York based headquarters. It has generated a huge discourse of its own these past years, but for some reason failed to make it into the discussion this past week. Despite the fact that Tal could be a poster child for how gendered inequalities in adolescent self-esteem play out in the U.S. context.

Sadly, this silence is typical. Perhaps it’s due to the breadth of the self-esteem and adolescence discourse that has grown exponentially in the last decade. This is due partly to the idea that adolescence is a crucial phase in which young people develop their identities and partly thanks to Nike’s girls-are-powerhouses-let’s-treat-them-as-data-to-validate-our-theory take on adolescence. Most of those involved with this issue, and eager to equalize the distribution of positive self-concepts, know very well that self-esteem goes hand in hand with gender, class and race. The fact that boys tend to have so much more self-esteem represents, in fact, the essence of the problem.

The silence is probably best explained by the fact that privilege is discussed at one table and global adolescent self-esteem at another. The latter is increasingly driven by Nike and the World Bank’s post-feminist neoliberal discourse that essentializes girls into development machines and reinforces harmful stereotypes.

More crucial to this disconnect is that adolescent self-esteem discourse treats the problem as a girls’ issue. It’s her problem to solve rather than a systemic issue or a problem of patriarchy. The underlying logic is that this form of inequality is best addressed by urging girls to spend time and energy on changing their behavior through ‘empowerment’ programs. Meanwhile, the engine of entitlement keeps spitting out boys like Tal left, right and center.

Boys’ higher levels of self-esteem are thus seen as the norm, from which girls deviate. And rather than the boys or the norm itself, it’s the girls who must be corrected for their difference. For example, a few days back, NBC posted a video about a program that professes that teaching girls to brag builds self-esteem. You can see where they’re coming from, but hey! How about boys bragging less? What about no longer condoning and rewarding entitlement and instilling the individualistic meritocratic illusion of ‘I deserved my place’ into kids who are at a clear advantage and who, from that position, are likely to develop wrong ideas about the merit of those who are not at their ‘level’?

Adolescence seems like a great stage in which to tackle the different dimensions of the self-esteem problem and burst the meritocratic myth that lies at the heart of privilege and was the ink to Tal’s epistle. Since schools are central spaces in which the myth of merit is cultivated, this is where change has to come from.

To begin to understand better how elite boys make sense of themselves and their privilege at one elite school in America, check out Shamus Khan’s book, Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School.


(Photo Credit: Princeton University Press)

Columbia’s Thin Line of Masculinities

Responding to complaints about Columbia University’s failure to take sexual assault seriously, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger recently announced plans to make his campus safer for students and staff. As a member of the Columbia community, I wasn’t surprised to read that the culture of impunity which surrounds sexual violence is alive and well on my campus. Only a few weeks ago, one of my friends experienced this first hand. Someone, the same person, no less than three times in one of our library’s reading rooms, assaulted her. The day of Bollinger’s announcement, she left Columbia’s office for gender-based and sexual misconduct a voicemail message. Three weeks later, she had not heard a word. Nothing. On the other hand, she encounters the perpetrator at least three times a week.

While the topic of sexual violence receives increasing attention in many political and media arenas, many popular misconceptions, inactions and silences haunt this global epidemic. While prime responsibility to bring this violence to an end rests with political and institutional leadership, as public educators, media have a responsibility too. First, they could do a much better job framing sexual violence for what it is, namely a news worthy crime and a grave human rights violation. Second, they should also make perpetrators more visible. All too often we read about sexual violence as something that ‘overcomes’ women, as if this evil keeps happening without any actors.

The simple fact that sexual violence, as perpetrated by men doesn’t spare any class, nation or community, suggests that, rather rooted in culture or social class, the violence is entrenched in dominant meanings of manhood, also known as masculinities.

Masculinities lie at the very core of sexual violence, and yet the concept of masculinities is curiously and disturbingly under discussed in the media. To be sure, masculinities are complex and so not easy to cover. They take various shapes and forms in different contexts, and are embedded in the particular context in which a man makes sense of himself, his role models, his future and how he perceives the worth, role and place of women.  One community’s nerd might be another one’s hero. Hence, the performances and manifestations of masculinities, including treatment of women, take different forms. But what underlies them all is an oppressive relationship to women. That is true everywhere, including the elite Ivy Leagues. That much is clear.

What seems less clear but is in desperate need of attention is how thin is the line between violent performances of masculinity and ostensibly innocent and typical ‘male behavior’. This silence keeps the culture of impunity around sexual violence intact. By affirming stereotypical ideas of dominant men and submissive women, and leaving unchallenged and undiscussed how ‘typical male traits’ relate to devastating violence against women, the media help fuel the violence.

This silence excuses men from critically rethinking their own masculinity and the role they play in condoning problematic masculine performances around them. As a result, the conversation around sexual violence is often reduced to one with ‘bad guys’ and ‘good guys’, in which the good guys are able to distance themselves from the verbal or physical misogyny of the ‘bad ones’, while hailing ‘girl power’ and gender equality.  Such hollow equality rhetoric, however, does little for illuminating, critically examining and challenging how fellow men condone, perform, fuel or normalize the masculine ideas that are rooted in the same patriarchal structure as the physical assaults.

“Typical male behavior” is covered in such a thick guise of “common sense normality”, that it is often defended as innocent, unworthy of serious analytical scrutiny and not related to “serious” power issues nor to misogyny. The innocent little slights and the big physical violence share a foundation of patriarchy and male entitlement. It’s when he gets offended by being called gay; when he gently slaps a colleague on her butt; when he insists on getting her that tequila, even though she declined; when he expects her to clean up; when he assumes he will be the leader in his team of female students; when he laughingly takes her no for a yes in the bedroom; when he tells her to put a smile on her pretty face, even though their passing each other in traffic is the first time they ever met (It’s a compliment entitlement!).

In challenging problematic masculinities, the media have a vital role to play.

The prime responsibility to tackle sexual violence, however, lies with the institutions and leaders who should prosecute and punish the perpetrators. In the context of college campuses, President Obama recently, and correctly, pointed out that university presidents ought to take responsibility here. With regards to Columbia, it looks like the students will hold their President to account. With placards across campus restrooms, Columbia’s No Red Tape Community is currently calling on Bollinger to follow up on his promises and provide clarity about the town hall meetings. With regards to my friend, not too long after Bollinger’s announcement, the office for gender-based and sexual misconduct finally called her back. Efforts are under way to track the perpetrator. While this is a positive signal, only time will tell whether Columbia will strengthen their work in a structural way.


(Photo Credit: Erin Vaughn / Instagram / ProPublica)

Sexual violence, human rights and the media

Sexual violence is usually not covered as a human rights issue.  As the archetypical normalized, invisible, overlooked and structural human right violation, it is more often treated as an everyday, normal problem rather than a violation of women’s rights to health, life, bodily integrity, education, and more. The culture of impunity that surrounds sexual violence, and the fact that rape is notoriously underreported, can hardly be detached from the media’s failure to communicate to people that they actually can report these as crimes.

It is a missed opportunity, and a troubling one, because the way the media chooses to frame sexual violence influences how people think about rape. They can shape, challenge and perpetuate dominant perceptions or illuminate harmful misconceptions and shed a light on the contestations and anxieties that surround the topic. Moreover, they can channel the outrage and disgust towards, for example, child-rapists into anger and calls for accountability towards our governments.  Making sexual violence newsworthy as a human rights violation, rather than something that happens to happen as long as bad men are around, matters.

Making rape newsworthy is not where the media’s responsibility ends. Exposing power-relations that underlie human rights violations also counts. As feminists have long demonstrated, rape is about power. Coverage of sexual violence shouldn’t end with a narrow description of what has happened to whom and how, but should also contextualize the events with an explanation of gendered power relations. Sexual violence should be seen as a violent performance of patriarchy and an enactment of masculinity; both pervasive and structural forces, but also fluid and therefore changeable. Focusing on the violent masculinities doesn’t mean identifying it as the sole cause; the blame must still be placed on the perpetrator. But not without mentioning the power structures that enabled or encouraged him to commit this crime; and the responsibility of the government to take action and show political will to fix these pervasive social ills. If the media would educate us all a bit better around patriarchy and masculinity, we might actually tell our governments to put political will behind their human rights talk.

The media’s ability to either encourage or discourage rape survivors to report their crimes to the police matters as well. Reading about arrests, trials and convictions and the laws that are violated with an act of nonconsensual sex is more likely to incline women to report rape to the police than grim media narratives that simply describe place, time and brutality.

The media have a responsibility to make sexual violence a human rights issue. Human rights education, then, should also include an education of the educators. Both editors and reporters need to know and understand what human rights are if a ‘rights culture’ is to be built.


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In `the Congo’, the `truth’ takes time, rather than a parachute

In October 2012, The Guardian reported a dramatic rise in sexual violence in the eastern Congo. Five months later, Foreign Policy published, “What happened in Luvungi? On rape and truth in Congo”. What exactly is `the truth’, according to Foreign Policy? It’s a `spectacle’: “When the interviews were over and we were out of earshot, my colleague and I stood in confused silence. I had interviewed survivors of rape in eastern Congo before; a psychological element seemed to be missing in these interactions. Before I managed to articulate the uncomfortable feeling that we had just been lied to, my Congolese colleague spit it out: `Those women have been coached’.”

The FP author supports her suspicion by visiting a local health care professional, who tells her that during the insurgency he only treated six rape survivors. Yet when the UN came in, the numbers soared into the hundreds. This drastic increase seemed odd at best and outright manipulative at worst. One way in which the numbers could have been distorted, he figured, was that the large majority of female patients were listed as rape victims, regardless of the actual cause of their injury or illness.

Was the clinic purposefully cheating in the numbers game, and if so, to what effect? The author suggests that fabricated high numbers will cause aid to flow disproportionately towards sexual violence to the neglect of other urgent needs. She further suggests that over-reporting induces both aid workers and Congolese women to frame their work and suffering as sexual violence, because this increases aid workers’ chances for funding and Congolese women’s access to medical care, credit and housing.

Have ‘we’, donors, sympathizers, aid workers and readers all been fooled? According to the UN and the service provider at the clinic, no, we have not. The sudden rise in reporting is neither manufactured nor difficult to understand. The numbers soared because it took a while for most women to feel safe enough to leave their homes.

Whereas the various drivers of sexualized violence in conflict areas are complicated and riddled with contextually specific complexities, the reason that in any society rape is underreported is fairly straightforward. It’s not difficult to imagine why rape survivors hesitate to report their suffering. Sexual assaults are extremely personal and heavily sensitive types of violations, which render them difficult to discuss with authorities, especially with men. Additionally, often the women are not taken seriously or are blamed for the crimes. Thus, the rapes that actually get reported most likely only cover the tip of the iceberg. In the context of a war-torn eastern DRC, stigma and social shame can lead to social exclusion and rejection from their partners. And when soldiers are still around, incentives to venture out to a clinic or authority to report on the abuse can be crushed by fear.

Nonetheless, the sensitive and horrendous nature of rape shouldn’t stand in the way of critically examining the efficacy and side effects of support, be it media attention or monetary aid. And if experiences and conversations in one location (Luvungi), in a particular point in time (after a recent armed invasion), reveal problems around the role and impact of the media, politicians and international organizations alike, critical questions must be raised.

As an outsider, you should have to ask such questions with great caution. Especially in the context of a highly complex conflict in a nation as vast as the DRC, you may want to ask the question “is it really that bad?” carefully. Caution means not generalizing from micro-contextual findings about one insurgency to a national rape epidemic that has been going on for many years. Every district and town is different. No matter, the FP author moves seamlessly from the particular context of what happened in Luvungi to make broader assumptions about the scale of current and past rape exaggeration in the country as a whole: “Even in Luvungi, ground zero of Congo’s rape epidemic, things aren’t exactly what they’ve been made out to be”.

Does lifting out one allegedly staged group interview to make such claims actually arrive at and reflect the truth? According to former journalist and UN official Iain Guest, who works with and for sexual violence survivors in the DRC, the truth lies not only elsewhere but anywhere but. In November 2012, he sought to counter exaggeration claims by the UN and others. Guest argued that rape is systematically underreported. For example, he noted, the UN doesn’t visit areas such as Fizi, in south Kivu, for the simple reason that it’s too dangerous: “This may explain why the UN’s January report only confirmed 167 cases in the whole of south Kivu last year- a ridiculously low figure”.

So, the UN pressures the Congolese government to suspend some senior army officials for having been involved in mass rape, but the Congolese government can’t be expected to be on top of things when its own troops are key players. According to Guest, the world was more or less forced to pay attention for two years, 2009 and 2010: “That sort of publicity is impossible to sustain”. The attention diminishes, the violence continues. According to some reports, the UN’s suggested rape rate in the DRC might have been 26 times too low.

The point is that the `truth’ takes time, rather than a parachute. Reporters, researchers, and readers alike must resist the temptation to hop from observation to generalization and (jump) from conversation to conclusion.

Many women in Eastern DRC are facing, and have faced, horrible levels of sexualized violence, and that’s the truth.

(Photo Credit: Peter Muller / Open Society Foundation)

How not to study sexualized violence in the DRC

“Soldiers and militiamen have raped women around Bukavu.” New York Times

Judging by the volumes of media productions and the increasing attention devoted to the topic by various organizations, interest in and awareness of sexualized violence that rages armed conflicts have amplified these past few years. The narrative of sexualized violence has also evolved. At first, ‘rape as a weapon of war’ used to dominate popular understandings of sexualized violence in conflict. That was later criticized for being reductionist in emphasizing the assumed psychological strategy of humiliating the enemy. Understanding rapes that occur in war zones as exclusively underpinned by a particular combatant motive now seems to offer little. However, thanks to many studies and reports, we know that armed conflicts alter and intensify a society’s patterns of rape. The civil wars in Spain and Sri Lanka, Second World War Japan, Afghanistan, Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, Nazi Germany: the list goes on and on and on….

Despite the overabundance of examples, many today associate wartime rape primarily or exclusively with the DRC. Depending on international media to shape our grasp of worldwide human rights violations, many of us have learned to identify wartime sexualized violence with women in the DRC’s North Kivu region.

Two women who played a major role in bringing the systematic rape of Congolese women by soldiers into the world’s conscience are the former U.S Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who pushed the topic on the US’s foreign policy agenda in 2009, and Margaret Wallström, who, during her term as the UN’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, coined the now famous term ‘Rape Capital of the World’ in reference to the DRC in April 2010. Former UN Special Envoy and current co-director of AIDS-Free World Stephen Lewis also argued that “there is no precedent for the intense brutality of the war on women in Congo” and that “the world has never dealt with such a twisted and blistering phenomenon”.

War, sadistic gang rape, vicious killing, violence deserve prioritization across the social, political and legislative agendas. Two spaces in which these issues are focused on are development and postgraduate gender and development programs, both of which are largely occupied by those privileged with access to universities, travel grants, research positions, international development jobs. In reality, we’re talking about white middle-class European and American women with a strong sense of idealism and a soft spot for difference and `the other’. Not surprisingly, when the realities of sexualized rape in eastern DRC began to emerge, more than a few were drawn to the topic.

In a world where violations of women’s rights continue to be marginalized, normalized and invisibilized, demanding attention for the brutalities women face is a good thing. After all, it takes exposure, shock, outrage, solidarity and a sense of urgency to mobilize resources and political will to investigate the crisis and take action. However, when one particular group of Western women comes to study and define the `truth’ of a less privileged group of `other’ women, how does their positionality and their inevitably chalenged grasp of context `on the ground’ affect the subject women, the women are being studied, `empowered’, `supported

In what ways ways is their interest connected to the longstanding colonial fascination with subaltern brutalities and Black rapists? Such questions might seem like a futile, even galling exercise in the face of the high rape estimates and the urgency with which the crisis must be addressed. Surely the fear for racially stereotyping certain groups by researching their perpetration shouldn’t lead to a neglect of massive human suffering? That’s right; it shouldn’t.

However, not all research carried out is actually helpful or constructive in reducing the violence, as Marsha Henry, points out, in her piece, `Ten Reasons not To Write your Masters Dissertation on Sexual Violence in War’: “Here’s another important reason not to write a dissertation on sexual violence as a weapon of war in the DRC. It’s been done already! Students continually ask me ‘can you suggest a couple of books on the subject?’. Where to start? There is so much to be said about gender and violence in militarised contexts more generally, but there has also been a great deal written about by a number of scholars. And it is precisely this body of knowledge that has sometimes been misanalysed by students. That is, although much of this writing has politically exposed the issue, students often read it as a holistic canon on the subject, interpreting the text as they wish. Dissertations often become regurgitated and simplistic snapshots of other work, reinforcing particular perspectives and portrayals and therefore contributing to the reification of the subject (missing a cogent assessment of narrative forms). A rhetorical stasis is created, where certain material and citations are circulated and re-circulated, with little new insight or critical perspective provided”.

One explanation for the disproportionately large interest in the DRC, compared to other conflicts, is the horror at the brutalities women have faced. If indeed this horror plays a key role in igniting students’ interest, how does that shape the findings and value of the final work? According to Henry, it does so in a troubling way: “Honing in on the bodily experience of rape, for example, can remove rape in war from the wider social, cultural, economic and political context in which it always takes place. It can be an abstraction of the total experience. The affective impact is that readers of these dissertations distance themselves from subjects in the studies”.

Is the topic compelling because of the opportunity to contribute towards understanding and ending the violence? At what point is this opportunity compromised by sensationalizing thick descriptions? If this type of research adds neither value nor insight, what might be its negative effects? For example, imagine a future generation of students googling ‘rape and war in the early 2000s’ and being bombarded by references to the DRC, while reading little about all the other conflicts where similar violence occurred. Wouldn’t that tell them rape-and-war was unique to the DRC? To Africa? Wouldn’t that particular type of disproportional interest inevitably lead to a distorted, and racist, version of the truth? The point is not for students to ignore the topic, but to critically check the roots, aim and fruitfulness of its appeal and to consider the effects it may have.


(Image Credit: The New York Times)