Protection: when the powerful offer protection, women know

The day after Obama won the Presidential election, The New York Times wrote that Obama won a decisive victory because “he saw what is wrong with this country: the utter failure of government to protect its citizens”. At the time, I wrote that protection was the wrong goal, that from India to Haiti to Zimbabwe to the Democratic Republic of Congo to Ciudad Juárez, and the Mexico-US borderlands more generally, the powerful offer protection to those they call citizens, and ignore women’s demands for democratic, full and mutual engagement, for the right and capacity to dream and love in public as well as in private. The powerful offer protection as a means to ignore women.

That was November 2009. It’s January 2010, time to consider, again, protection. Not the protection that follows mass devastation, such as in Haiti. Nor the protection that follows extreme violence, as with the massacre near Jos, Nigeria. Nor the protection of legislative and other forms of hate campaigns, as in the current anti-gay Bill in Uganda, where we are all being protected from the threat and scourge of same-sex love and sexuality.

Instead, consider two linked national – global moments in which the powerful few claim to offer the gift of protection to the citizens of the nation.

The World Cup is coming to South Africa. Across the country, “the question of how to deal with sex workers grows louder”. What exactly is the problem, the to-deal-with, with sex workers? Because sex work is illegal, the issues of health and safety for both clientele and workers remain insoluble, and the rights and well being of the sex workers remain distant: “Sex work is illegal in South Africa. Cape Town-based Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), has been campaigning to decriminalize sex work for the past 12 years, said spokeswoman Vivienne Lalu. 

Rights activists say legalizing sex work would protect the workers and their clients from HIV and abuse; there are moves afoot to review the Sexual Offences Act. But, Lalu says, `We are still some years away.’”

Legalizing sex work would protect the workers, not because the law, given by the powerful, would afford protection, but because the entire issue would move from the realm of sexuality to that of workers. Once sex work in South Africa, as anywhere, is legalized, sex workers can unionize, can create their own formal, autonomous, sanctioned spaces, alliances, affiliations. Workers, and especially women workers, don’t seek protection. They demand the right to association. They demand respect for the dignity of their individual and collective labor. That is the reason that the lead up to the World Cup in South Africa has been marked by so many protests. Across South Africa, the poors, largely women, have rejected the promise and offer of protection, in the form of forced removals for their own good, and instead have called for housing, public services, education, and health care.

The Olympics are coming to Canada, and so Canada, British Columbia in particular,  anticipates an increase in sexual assaults during the 2010 Olympics, and, of course, all the money has been spent on `security’. The buildings and international `visitors’ must be protected.

But British Columbia had enough money recently to outsource welfare-to-work to a company called WCG International HR Solution. WCG is a subsidiary of Providence Service Corporation, based in Tucson, Arizona. WCG billed the government for `no-shows’. This is business as usual. When you outsource `helping’, women and children are the first casualties. This is not new information. It’s been available to British Columbians since at least 2005, when Policies of Exclusion, Poverty & Health appeared, sharing stories of 21 women who did not seek protection but rather struggled and organized for change. Instead of change, they got the Olympics and the gift of protection: evictions, clinic closures, increased police presence.

When the promise of protection comes from the powerful, it is always fatal, first to women and children, then to everyone and every thing else. Women know the pitfalls of powerful protection. Women know, in their bodies, the economies of extraction, theft, exploitation and abuse. Change from below seeks material equality, space, time, and it begins and ends with women. Protection from the powerful is what it always has been, an insurance policy forced upon people by extortionists.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com