Australia’s Flotilla of the Damned

Australian navy intercepts asylum seeker boat within 200m of Christmas Island on 20 November.

Today’s headline reads, “Christmas Island asylum seeker boat ‘disappeared’ after being towed by navy.” There was no disappearance but rather a death sentence, pure and simple and ordinary. The only news perhaps would be the “disappearance,” except that it’s not news because it’s so ordinary. Australia has learned to disappear whole boatloads of women, children, and men asylum seekers. This is just one more incidence.

The story, such as it is, is short. “A boat carrying asylum seekers was intercepted close to Christmas Island on Friday, the first to reach Australian waters since June 2014. The boat made it within 200m of Flying Fish Cove before it was boarded by Australian officials, sources on the island told Guardian Australia. It is unclear whether the boat was intercepted by Australian navy or Border Force staff. Those on board were given life jackets. The boat was moved further away from the island and covered in a tarpaulin so the arrivals cannot be counted or identified, the sources said. The boat was towed out to sea by an Australian navy patrol boat. After that, thus far, all is silence. The government won’t discuss “operational matters”, and so the boat has “disappeared.”

In 1939, the MS St. Louis famously traveled the Atlantic and Caribbean, seeking a safe haven for 908 German Jewish refugees fleeing State violence. Having been rejected by Cuba, the United States and Canada, the refugees returned to Europe, where they moved to England, Belgium, France, and the Netherlands. In the ensuing violence, it’s estimated that anywhere from 400 to 700 survived the war. What also survived was the shame of those nation States that refused entry, in particular the United States and Canada. Of course, apologies, both State and personal, have since been extended, but the shame is there. This was the Voyage of the Damned.

But the boat never disappeared, nor was it meant to. There was no policy, on the part of so-called democratic States, of forced mass disappearance of refugees and asylum seekers. Now, in Australia, there is. Disappearance is so much more efficient than detention centers and offshore penal colonies. Someday, someone might apologize, but for now there’s simply Australia’s Flotilla of the Damned: women, children, men seeking asylum, set adrift in the silence and the fog of “operational matters.” Because for the state, #OperationsMatter … not women and children.


(Photo Credit: The Guardian)

Karabo Moseneke: Tell them that I am the mother, I am definitely the mother

Karabo Moseneke

It’s a beautiful day in Mabopane, just outside Pretoria, and Karabo Moseneke is celebrating her ninetieth birthday.” What follows is only a small part of the story of the life and times of Karabo Mabel Moseneke, but even this small part is worth knowing. It’s the story of the grace and beauty of a woman’s endurance.

Karabo Moseneke was raised in a religious family. Her father worked as a chef and her mother worked in a laundry, and they struggled to make sure their daughter would be educated and become a teacher, which she did. She married a man who became a headmaster, and they created a house that cherished the spirit and the substance of freedom, especially freedom that emerges from and within education. They had four sons, the most well known of whom is Dikgang Moseneke, who is currently the Deputy Chief Justice of South Africa, the second most powerful judge in the country. Much of Karabo Moseneke’s story is filtered through the rise of her famous son. Dikgang Moseneke was born in 1947.

In 1960, at the age of 13, Dikgang Moseneke opened the newspaper and was changed forever. Black African children, like himself, had been massacred in Sharpeville: “The inequality was egregious. You could see it out there, jumping at you as a young person … My sense of fairness was inbred and I think it’s inbred in every child.” And so the 13-year-old boy joined the African Student Union, which was intimately linked with the Pan African Congress: “I had caught on to a wonderful phrase from someone called Robert Sobukwe, who said, `You must be your own liberator, in your lifetime.

Three years to the day after the Sharpeville Massacre, Dikgang Moseneke was taken from his home by the police. They wouldn’t tell his parents why nor where he was going. For 90 days, he was tortured and held in solitary confinement. He still bears the scars of those days. His mother searched frantically: “When I got home, I just sat down and started crying.”

When Karabo Moseneke finally found out where her son was, he was about to stand trial. She and her husband went to court every day, during the six-month trial. Every day, the guards would come and ask her if she was the mother of Number Six. Every day, she would respond, “Tell them that I am the mother, I am definitely the mother.” Then the guards would tell her that her son, Number Six, was sure to hang. Every night, Karabo Moseneke would have terrible nightmares of hangpal hangpal, the gallows the gallows, and every morning she would return to the court and say, “Tell them that I am the mother, I am definitely the mother.”

Dikgang Moseneke was sentenced to ten years prison, and was immediately shackled and chained, shoved into a van and carted off to Robben Island. For ten years, Karabo Moseneke brought food and love, food as love, to her son, and watched him grow, behind bars, from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. During the ten years, Dikgang Moseneke committed himself to studying and moving forward. He completed his matric, Bachelor of Arts degree and a B Juris degree. When Dikgang Moseneke was released, he was placed under house arrest in his parents’ home, for five years. He continued to study, they continued to suffer and support: “My parents never once judged me, they never once blamed me.”

According to both Karabo Moseneke and her son, interviewed separately, the moral of this story is endurance. Karabo Moseneke endured and then some. She never judged nor blamed, and she never gave up and never stopped asking questions. Why should someone hang? Why should her son, who had done nothing, be abused and tortured? Why should people suffer? Where was God in all this? Where is the humanity? And throughout, according to both Karabo Moseneke and her son, they would cry, freely, without collapsing under the heap of sorrow.

It’s a beautiful day in Mabopane, and it is time to celebrate.


(Photo Credit:

In South Africa, a victory for women in and beyond customary marriages

On Wednesday, in the Durban High Court, in South Africa, women in customary marriage won a major victory. Although their names are known, we’ll call the woman SN and the man BM. In 2012, SN and BM were married at Nkandla, Kwa-Zulu Natal, by the Induna of the Cunu Traditional Council. The two were married in accordance with Zulu customary law. SN was 25 at the time of the wedding. The marriage was not registered with the Department of Home Affairs.

The following year, BM took a second wife in another customary ceremony. At the time, SN was “heavily pregnant with their third child.” According to SN, she was forced to attend the ceremony, but never agreed to the second marriage: “I was terribly unhappy with the unfolding events, but felt powerless to do anything about it. I resigned myself to being the first wife, even though I had not given my permission for the marriage.” That was 2013.

Soon after, SN discovered, via social media, that BM had married a third wife, this time in a civil ceremony, and that was the last straw. She sued to nullify both of the later marriages. On Wednesday, the High Court did just that and also ordered that SN be entitled to register her customary marriage.

The Mercury, which has followed this case throughout, called yesterday’s decision a blow to patriarchy: “Our choice of the story, then and now, was … to highlight an ongoing gender injustice that many other women probably suffer in silence and endure in the name of culture and tradition.” They argued that this case is “a matter of human rights and striking a blow against patriarchy and male privilege.”

In 1998, the South African Parliament passed the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act, or RCMA. While many, and especially those organizing for recognition of same-sex customary marriages, have seen too much vagueness in the description of “customary”, the law has been used to protect the rights and status of women in customary marriages. It set minimum age standards, and established formal structures of consent. Much of the early impetus for the law came in response to the non-recognition of customary marriages in the prior apartheid regimes and in the earlier English and Dutch colonial regimes.

According to the Legal Resources Centre, who represented SN in court, the key provisions in this case are Sections 7(2) and 3(2). Section 7(2) of the RCMA states that “a customary marriage … in which a spouse is not a partner in any other existing customary marriage, is a marriage in community of property and of profit and loss between the spouses.” Further, Section 3(2) of the RCMA states that a civil marriage cannot co-exist simultaneously with a customary marriage unless the spouses are married to each other, exclusively. Finally, the Matrimonial Property Act of 1984 gives customary law wives equal stand­ing as civil law wives.

SN realized that her husband’s continual marrying in complete violation of both customary and civil law meant he was an unreliable economic partner and that she could be, and most probably would be, out in the cold without a rand to her name. She also realized that she has rights, as a woman in a customary marriage.

None of this is new. In 2005, the Constitutional Court found the customary law rule that women are unfit and incompetent to own and administer property to be unconstitutional and a violation of women’s rights to dignity and equality. In 2009, the same court found that non-recognition of women’s right to ownership, including access to and control of family property, upon dissolution of a customary marriage, was discriminatory and, again, a violation of women’s Constitutionally protected rights. Repeatedly, Courts have protected women’s rights to property. Community is community, and the Constitution is the Constitution.

SN’s victory is both concrete and aspirational. Concretely, she has secured full recognition – as a woman, citizen, human being. She has secured her material well being, as much as that can ever be secured. At the same time, in her own words, she has protected the rule of “custom, customary law and the law of the country.” Aspirationally, the Legal Resource Centre put it best, “The LRC welcomes the order and hopes that it may encourage women in similar situations to register their own customary marriages. This would give effect to the purpose of the RCMA and address the historic gendered inequality within customary marriages.”

Last year, women stopped the Traditional Courts Bill, and that was a victory for all women. Now women have organized to enforce the actual rule of law of the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act, a victory for all women. SN helped turn women’s silence into a women’s thunderclap, and now, patriarchy is falling, every day. #PatriarchyMustFall


(Image Credit: Wikimedia)

Emebet Mono Bezabh, another warrior in women’s struggles for emancipation and power

Emebet Mono Bezabh worked for two years as a live-in maid working for the head of the U.N. World Health Organization (WHO) in Thailand. According to her reports, the diplomat and his wife regularly beat and starved her. They made her sleep with the family dog, and they treated her as “less than an animal”, which is to say they treated her like a slave. On Monday, an out-of-court settlement between Emebet Mono Bezabh and her `employers’ was reached.

Emebet Mono Bezabh was brought to Thailand from Ethiopia. Her employers are Ethiopian. Emebet Mono Bezabh is twenty-five years old. She was orphaned at the age of five. She has little to no formal education, and is deemed illiterate, but she knows something about justice: “This money doesn’t make up for what they’ve done to me.”

A year ago, today, we wrote about Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, an Indonesian domestic worker in Hong Kong who was beaten and starved almost to death. Erwiana Sulistyaningsih explained, “My case was finally exposed because of the unity of the migrant workers’ movement in Hong Kong. I am happy that through my case more such cases of exploitation are being exposed and given more attention. I hope that both—the sending as well as receiving governments– will give more attention to the protection of migrant workers. I hope there is no more exploitation against migrant workers, against women and no more cases like me”.

Emebet Mono Bezabh’s case was finally exposed through the unity of the women’s movements in Thailand, where she was supported by the Foundation for Women, Human Rights and Development Foundation and the Lawyers Council of Thailand. That was the story last year, it’s the story this year, and it most likely will be the story next year, same time: the solidarity of women workers breaking through the chains of domestic hyper-exploitation, violence, oppression, and slavery.

There is no room to be surprised, yet again, by the violence of domestic workers’ employers. It’s time to recognize the histories of struggle by domestic workers, in unions and associations, in courts and on the streets. Women workers’ ongoing and historic struggle for emancipation and power is the story. Pass it on.


(Photo Credit: Bangkok Post)

And she didn’t die: Lauretta Ngcobo and the political economy of women’s `vulnerability’

Lauretta Ngcobo

On Tuesday, November 3, 2015, writer, novelist, essayist, teacher, activist, mentor, fierce and ferocious (and often very funny) feminist South African Lauretta Ngcobo died. In the past few days, many writers, and not only South African, have shared that it was reading Ngcobo’s work that led them to choose writing as a path and career. For what it’s worth, I have always directed those seeking insight into the years of anti-apartheid struggle to Lauretta Ngcobo’s And They Didn’t Die and Govan Mbeki’s The Peasants’ Revolt. In December 2012, in Africa Is a Country, Neelika Jayawardane named Prodigal Daughters: Stories of South African Women in Exile as a favorite book of the year.

The South African Sunday Times titled its obituary for Lauretta Ngcobo, “Lauretta Ngcobo: Writer and activist who gave vulnerable women a voice.” Lauretta Ngcobo knew better. She knew that women weren’t and aren’t vulnerable. Women are made vulnerable, by many forces. In Ngcobo’s works, State policy and patriarchal comrades colluded to oppress women, and then blame, telling them their weakness and vulnerability had caused the oppression. Lauretta Ngcobo knew better.

Lauretta Ngcobo knew that vulnerability is neither status nor class nor caste nor rank nor state of being. Lauretta Ngcobo taught that vulnerability is never inevitable. Vulnerability is always a political and economic power relationship. Individuals and populations are designated and then produced, and reproduced, as vulnerable.

Ngcobo is often described as having opposed “both apartheid and Zulu traditions that limited women’s freedom and reinforced their oppression under apartheid”. While accurate as far as it goes, Ngcobo’s writing make it clear that she was a warrior for women’s emancipation and power as key to the emancipation of all of humanity. And that meant all women. Born in 1931 in Ixopo, in the sugarlands of KwaZulu-Natal, Ngcobo was well aware of the struggles taking place each second of each and every day. She knew of the struggles in the households and in the fields. She knew of the struggles among comrades, including the propensity to discount the worth of rural organizations, especially among the ANC and PAC in exile. She knew the difference between word and deed, and she knew the ravages of white supremacist patriarchy and of homegrown patriarchy, and she rejected both and each.

And she knew she was not alone. Lauretta Ngcobo’s writings and life history teach, and she was always teaching, that women’s solidarity is a tangible, material good, and that it is deep and powerful. She was not sanguine about the past or the future. In 2005, Ngcobo noted, “No matter what African women have done to fight side by side with African men in the liberation struggle, the tension between men and women remains the same, if not worse.” In her non-fiction prose as in her novels, Lauretta Ngcobo showed how “Black women’s associations made … collective rebellion possible.”

Writing of the Women’s March of 9 August 1956, Ngcobo recalled, “We, who were standing in the crowds, felt the waves of the voices in front and carried in another wave further down. (At the time, I was carrying my six-month-old son.) It was the most moving demonstration of dignity, unity and determination and has come to represent the courage and strength of South African women.”

Reflecting on the meaning of the life and life work of Lauretta Ngcobo, Angelo Fick concluded, “Lauretta Ngcobo’s passing has left a gap in South Africa’s culture of letters. It may take us some time to come to terms with the importance of her work and her life. Ngcobo’s work is indispensable for anyone interested to know how we were, and how we resisted, and how in that resistance, the lives and struggles of Black women cannot be forgotten or discounted.”

While her passing has left a gap, Lauretta Ngcobo’s life work has left a home for writers, activists, women, feminists, dreamers and builders.


(Photo Credit 1: The Sunday Times) (Image Credit 2: Publishers Weekly)

In the California Institution for Women, women are still dropping like flies

Stephanie Feliz

We received a letter this week from someone at the California Institution for Women (CIW), which reads, in part: “I am … at CIW and I was told tonight that there were two more women who attempted suicide at CIW this past week. Three weeks ago, a woman … broke into tears because she walked into her room and her roommate was hanging from her sheets, but she was able to intervene. That is 3 more attempts in the past 3 weeks alone, and I wonder how many more attempts have occurred. The number 4 is an official tally, but attempts happen much more frequently. It is November…things don’t seem to be slowing down.”

Four months ago, California Department of Corrections officials “discovered” a crisis. In the previous eighteen months, four women prisoners at the California Institution for Women, or CIW, in Chino killed themselves … or were killed by willful neglect: 73-year-old Gui Fei Zhang, 34-year-old Stephanie Feliz, 31-year-old Alicia Thompson, and 23-year-old Margarita Murguia.

April Harris, a sister prisoner in CIW, explained Margarita Murguia’s death, “She was there for her own protection, not because she did something. Apparently her mom was dying of cancer and they refused to let her see her mom. She tried to kill herself with every denied request. She finally did it.” She finally did it. A woman hanged herself that night? No, a woman was hanged.

After Stephanie Feliz’s death, April Harris, a CIW prisoner, wrote, “We have women dropping like flies, and not one person has been questioned as to why … I have been down almost 20 years and I have never seen anything like this. Ever.” Why are so many women committing suicide in California’s women’s prisons, and in particular in the California Institution for Women? How the State count women prisoner suicide? What is California’s policy? When, if ever, does the State listen to women prisoners’ accounts of death in prison?

According to the California Department of Corrections most recent tally, from September 2014 to September 2015, at CIW, twenty women have attempted suicide and two have succeeded. Since the “great discovery” of the crisis in late July, four women have attempted suicide. Indeed, things don’t seem to be slowing down, and, apart from the usual suspects, nobody cares.

There are so many explanations for these suicides, and you know them all: mental illness, overcrowding, lack of resources, and poor staff training. The academy is as guilty as the prison house. How many times must we read a research article that begins “To date, there have been few studies of suicidal behaviour among female prisoners” before we finally understand? How often can one claim to be surprised by “Evidence shows that women prisoners are more likely to self-harm and commit suicide than male prisoners, while this is the opposite in the community” or “Alarmingly high rates of mental health problems are reported, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and a tendency to self-harm and suicide”?

Women are dropping like flies in the California Institution for Women because dropping like flies is more convenient than treating women as full human beings, more convenient than treating prisoners as full human beings, and a whole more convenient than treating women prisoners at all.

Women prisoners and supporters, such as the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, know how to count, and they have been doing so out loud. They have continually and loudly denounced the conditions and called for a thorough overhaul, beginning with releasing most of the prisoners. When women in the California Institution for Women participated in last July’s statewide hunger strike, they called attention to the State assault on their bodies, minds and souls. They identified a crisis, and the State looked away, and instructed all good citizens to do the same. It is November and the assembly line of women prisoner deaths is not slowing down. It’s time to smash the machinery once and for all.


(Photo Credit: Al Jazeera / California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation / AP)

In the United States, women farm workers bear the brunt

Jovita Alfau (left) with her daughter Yuriana

Jovita Alfau was poisoned by her boss, and, when she pushed back, sued and won, all she got was a lousy t-shirt … more or less. The story of the willful poisoning of women farm workers across the United States is too often told as if the assault were somehow accidental. It isn’t and has never been accidental.

Jovita Alfau worked for Power Bloom Farms and Growers nursery in Homestead, Florida. In November 2009, her bosses told her to transplant hibiscus to a particular section. She soon began to feel dizziness, weakness, and numbness in her mouth. Then she vomited. What caused this crisis? On one hand, endosulfan, a super toxic pesticide, which had been sprayed on the hibiscus less than 24 hours before. While endosulfan is highly toxic, the killers here are Jovita Alfau’s employers, and with them the entire agricultural economy.

That November day was just another boring day in hell. According to Jovita Alfau, it was common practice to spray the nursery while she and her co-workers were tending the plants. On the day she was poisoned, Jovita Alfau was given neither warning nor protective gear. This is the essence of farming and growing in the United States.

The treatment of Jovita Alfau is typical of the industry. Mily Treviño-Sauceda, Tania Banda-Rodriguez, Yolanda Gomez, Marta Cruz, Elvira Carvajal, and countless other women workers, across the United States, have experienced the same situation. In New Mexico, for example, almost half the workers have suffered at least one pesticide-related health problem after working in a field that had been sprayed with pesticides. In the fields and farmlands of America, poison is the not-so-new black.

Some, like Yolanda Gomez and Elvira Carvajal, have become organizers, formally, but all have become organizers in one form or another. But here’s the thing. Jovita Alfau sued her employers. They balked, but ultimately settled out of court. Jovita Alfau has never been able to return to work, nor will she. That means her daughter, Yuriana, must take care of her mother. And so Yuriana quit college and, predictably, will spend the rest of Jovita Alfau’s life caring for her mother. In the United States, women farm workers bear the brunt, and, when their bodies come home, their daughters take on the debt. From sea to shining sea, the extraction continues.


(Photo Credit: New America Media)

The feminist future of #FeesMustFall is now! Viva!

The #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall and #EndOutsourcing movements are noteworthy for having “a fairly well-defined ideology and view of history, which could be described as Black Consciousness combined with anti-imperialism, feminism and, to a lesser degree, socialism.” Of particular interest to many is the feminist leadership and core of these movements. When Africa Is a Country compiled an eleven minute video on #FeesMustFall, whom did they interview? Women: Malaika wa Azania, Khanyisa Nomoyi, Ntombikizhona Valela, Julie Nxadi, Siyamthanda Nyulu, Lithle Asante Ngcobozi. For the entire film, the discussion of #FeesMustFall and of the national shut down is conducted and led by women. This has been a feminist uprising, from leadership personnel to strategy to implementation.

One sign of this feminist impulse is the insistence of women within the movement to challenge the decision making and discursive practices of the movement itself, and to do so openly, publically and positively. Daily Vox reporter Pontsho Pilane wrote about what she saw at Wits, “The way female student leaders were systematically ignored, sidelined and silenced during the #FeesMustFall movement suggests that once fees have fallen, the next big issue that needs attention is our attitude towards women … I don’t know what is worse, experiencing overt sexism or just being systematically sidelined by the already patriarchal political environment. Either way, I think it is time that we seriously talk about the erasure and silencing of black women in this student movement and many others like it. Those who believe that black women will put their womanhood at the altar of sacrifice in the name of the “collective struggle” are blinded by their male privilege and will indeed feel like this is an attack on their person. Black women calling out the patriarchy and misogyny within the movement is not an attack, it is a protection of their humanity – including their blackness and womanhood – in its entirety.”

Kagure Mugo, a recent UCT alum, saw the same: “We are living in a South Africa that tried to build itself without young people, without women and too a large extent without the so-called `previously disadvantaged people’, because of the nature of hierarchy within the struggle system, and now we are here. This grading of the suitability of leaders based on age and gender within movements is what has landed us in this position where #FeesMustFall is a national issue, #Marikana is a part of reality, and we still desperately need #16DaysOfAcitvism all year round. We forgot about young people, the worker and women once certain men reached the top. Intersectionality is not an expensive word, it is integral to building up a people because no-one is simply one thing.”

The names of women leaders in this movement keep on keeping on: student leaders like Shaeera Kalla, Nompendulo Mkatshwa, Jodi Williams, Alex Hotz; outsourced workers like Moedie Motlanke, Cathy Sepahela, Zelda Mohamed; and reporters like Pontsho Pilani and Ra’eesa Pather all attest to the centrality of intersectionality in this movement.

As Camalita Naicker, a student at the University called Rhodes, wrote, “There has been an insistence from the beginning that any struggle for decolonisation must be intersectional and recognise not only the role played by women, but that transformation must have gender relations as central tenet. The constant feminist backlash has kept many movements from collapsing into reliance on patriarchal or misogynist leaders and leadership styles even if this is an on-going battle. Perhaps even more inspiring has been the fidelity to principles and values that foreground the collective spirit and decision-making practices of these movements. Rejecting and resisting co-optation or the tendency of management to divide and rule by attempting to single out student leaders and have private meetings, while remaining disciplined has proved their maturity and intellect time and time again.”

#FeesMustFall #FeesHaveFallen #RhodesMustFall #RhodesHasFallen #PatriarchyMustFall The feminist future of #PatriarchyMustFall is now! Viva!


(Photo Credits:

Pennsylvania built a special hell for women living with mental illness

Pennsylvania has a special treatment for those living with severe mental illness: torture. If someone who’s been arrested cannot assist in his or her own defense, the judge orders competency restoration treatment. If the defendant’s competency is restored, the case goes forward. If it is not restored, the case is dismissed and the person either is released or “civilly committed.” That’s what is supposed to happen. In Pennsylvania, there’s a third way, a purgatory of uncivil commitments. In Pennsylvania, people sit in county jails, more often than not in solitary, for months and years, waiting for a bed. In recent years, at least two people have died while waiting. They may have been the lucky ones.

Last week, the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed suit on behalf of eleven plaintiffs, whom they describe as part of “hundreds of people with severe mental illness who have been languishing in Pennsylvania’s county jails.” The lead plaintiff, J.H., is a homeless African-American man in his late 50s from Philadelphia who suffers from schizophrenia. J.H. was arrested for having stolen three Peppermint Pattie candies. For that crime, he has been sitting in the Philadelphia Detention Center for over 340 days, waiting for treatment. What becomes a dream deferred? “J.H.’s mental state has visibly deteriorated over the past eleven months in jail. Prior to his most recent detention, J.H. never displayed hostility, was relatively engaged during conversations, and was willing and able to answer simple questions. Now, he is visibly agitated, hostile, and unable or unwilling to engage in conversation.” The rest is silence.

Federal courts have decided that any delay longer than seven days between a court’s commitment order and hospitalization for treatment is unconstitutional. In Philadelphia, the average wait is 397 days. From January to September 2015, 23 individuals arrested in Philadelphia entered into restoration treatment. Of that group, three waited more than 500 days, one of whom waited 589 days. What do you think happens to someone living with severe mental illness who “awaits transfer” for 400 and more days?

Of the eleven plaintiffs, seven are African American. Two are women, both of whom are African American.

L.C. is a Black woman in her mid-20s “who suffers a mental impairment.” She’s been in and out of the criminal justice system. On November 13, 2014, L.C. was found incompetent to stand trial. After not becoming competent at the Philadelphia Detention Center, the court committed L.C. to competency restoration treatment on February 12, 2015. “L.C. has been detained for more than eight months (over 250 days) in the Philadelphia Detention Center since the order, awaiting an opening for treatment.”

What is like to await an opening? “L.C.’s mental state has deteriorated substantially during her stay at the Philadelphia Detention Center. In November 2014, L.C. was not competent but she was conversant with her public defender. In December, L.C. was screaming answers to questions, seemingly trying to talk over whatever she was hearing. By February 2015, L.C. had declined severely. She still screamed answers to her lawyer’s questions, but now the answers did not make sense. She also could not remain seated. In early June, she refused to see her lawyer at all. By late June, she sat through an interview sucking her thumb, refusing to make eye contact, and staring blankly. In late August, L.C. would not respond to any questions from her lawyer.”

On June 26, 2014, Jane Doe, in her early 40s, was found incompetent to stand trial. 480 days later, nearly 16 months, Jane Doe is still awaiting transfer: “Jane Doe’s mental and physical health has deteriorated in the nearly 16 months she has been waiting. She has lost noticeable weight. Prior to her most recent confinement at the Philadelphia Detention Center, Jane Doe would have discussions with her lawyer about her case. For the past year or more, she has refused to discuss the case and instead talks about having aliens and space ships in her body, and about being married to Jesus Christ. She has become much more delusional.”

According to ACLU of Pennsylvania Legal Director Witold Walcak, “Our clients in this case are the forgotten among the forgotten. Most of these people have no family, friends or champions in their lives, and no one listens or understands them; they truly are voiceless and defenseless, unable to challenge their unjust and blatantly illegal imprisonment.”

Jane Doe, L.C., J.H. and all the others are now voiceless and defenseless. They weren’t when they were arrested. They were all at varying levels of discursive competence. Each could talk with his or her attorney. They simply needed help, treatment, and the embrace of the human. Instead, they were cast to the Commonwealth rung of hell, a factory that crushes bones, souls and minds in order to produce anguish, delusion, silence, after which all is blank.


(Photo Credit: Stephanie Aaronson /

Sarah Pierce and Megan Nobert rejected “humanitarian rape”

The Bentiu camp in South Sudan where Megan Nobert worked

Sarah Pierce was an aid worker working in South Sudan for the Carter Center when she was raped by a co-worker. Megan Nobert was also in South Sudan, working as a humanitarian aid worker, when she was drugged and raped by another aid worker. The world of sexual violence is so distorted and distorting that Nobert’s initial account, in The Guardian, bears the headline, “Aid worker: I was drugged and raped by another humanitarian in South Sudan.” In what world do the words “humanitarian” and “rape” inhabit the same sentence? In our world.

Both Sarah Pierce and Megan Nobert have argued, to paraphrase Lara McLeod, “My rape was awful. But the way the police handled it was even worse.” In these two cases, and so many others involving sexual violence within the humanitarian aid community, the police never handled it. The Carter Center did less than nothing to help Sarah Pierce, other than ultimately firing her for her outspoken criticism of the organisation’s failure to help her. The United Nations never really investigated or did anything. Both organizations claim the incidents were tragic and the organizations did the best they could.

Up to now, there is practically no real research on sexual violence within the humanitarian aid community, despite the “issue” simmering just under the surface for decades. Only now has one organization, the Headington Institute, which provides psychological support for aid workers, begun a research project that hopes to assess the scale of the problem: “This is massively underreported: no one has an accurate read on this at the moment. Most agencies are hearing about these events internally, but survivors are choosing not to report for a variety of reasons. We think it’s likely that 1% or more (between 5,000-10,000 people) experience this during their humanitarian career. But male or female, this is an issue everyone fears, even if they are not naming it. It’s a worst-case scenario that everyone is thinking about.”

Megan Norbert joined forces with the International Women’s Rights Project and launched a campaign called Report the Abuse: Breaking the Silence on Sexual Violence Within the Humanitarian Community. They’ve gathered testimonies and are conducting a survey and are organizing for real change and real accountability. As Megan Norbert explains, “Today I want to talk to you about bravery, and that fact that it is considered to be brave to talk about being victimised by a crime like sexual violence. I don’t consider myself to be brave. In fact, I abhor the word, at least as it applies to myself and what I have done so far. Admitting to being the victim of a crime is not brave. Or, rather, it should not be. It should not be extraordinary to be able to say out loud, write or express in some way the following words: `I am a rape survivor.’ It should not be amazing that someone is able to discuss having been a victim of a violent crime because that is all that sexual violence, rape, is; it is a violent crime … Change will occur, work environments will adapt, perpetrators will be punished. We will no longer need to be afraid. It will no longer be considered brave for a humanitarian to stand up and say they were sexually harassed, abused or assaulted in the course of their work. This is my story and that is the day I’m working towards.”

The silence around sexual violence in the humanitarian aid community is linked to other forms of institutional silence of internal sexual violence. Each time, women are told in so many ways that they are collateral damage of a righteous and noble cause, and that, as Megan Norbert put it, they must just “suck it up.” They should have known to expect something like this. That’s humanitarian logic.

When Sarah Pierce and Megan Nobert were told to shut up, they replied, “NO!” Instead they opted to put an end to survivor “bravery” and work to create spaces in which “humanitarian” and “rape” can never again be conjoined, for any reason.


(Photo Credit: JC McIlwaine/ United Nations)