Global Development Institute Blog

Edward Ademolu, PhD Researcher, Global Development Institute

The torrent of recent (and on-going) revelations of sexual exploitation by representatives of British humanitarian aid organisations in Haiti and South Sudan, has imbued an almost irreconcilable sensation – an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance – within the public consciousness: that seemingly reputable charities like Oxfam are implicated and woefully complicit in the maltreatment of the very communities they are meant to help.

Muddied are our already-warped romanticisms of said organisations as institutional deities, as some kind of holy-oil-anointed lamp bearers of Florence Nightingale’s approbation – illuminating the darkened and often shameful transgressions of the world. Further perplexing, is why it has taken until now for reporting of this abuse and those inculpated, like Oxfam’s Haiti director Roland Van Hauwermeiren to submit to public and parliamentary scrutiny. 

As a researcher, I focus on the historical materialism and continuities of colonialism in the present, particularly within international development and humanitarianism. What sat heavy, lodged in my stomach and which furrowed my brow, was the language used in the whistleblowing of the sexual abuse allegations: how a number of publications described the supposed child victims as “underage prostitutes” and “local women” – most of whom are most probably poor and black. When in fact, adults who engage in sexual activity with children below consenting age are sexual predators – and unreservedly so.

While Oxfam’s newly released 2011 internal investigation into accusations of misconduct by Haiti programme aid workers, for example, acknowledged “a culture of impunity” among staff, it could not sufficiently discount that any of the children subjected to sex-trafficking were in fact, as it describes, “under-aged prostitutes”. Similarly, Save the Children’s 2008 report, revealed that Haitian “children as young as six” were “trading sex with aid workers and peacekeepers in exchange for food, money, soap and, in very few cases, luxury items such as mobile phones”.

To say that this is problematic is an understatement, given that such descriptions and inferences of young black Haitian girls as prostitutes are necessarily implicated in, summon and reify colonial-era racist and racial-sexualised discourses about female black-and-brown-ness. Where historically – and to a large extent today – darkened bodies are seldom the definitive structuring, nor the deliberate configuration of the “Self”. Rather inanimate trivialities that are always-already “defined” by others and which occupy space within the semiosis of white and non-black beings. Black female bodies, their sexualities and femininity, have always been tethered to the immediate, the kinaesthetic and the sensuous, whose unmanaged excesses, stoicism and assumed licentiousness, suggest their availability for white male-induced trauma, consumption and sexual-hedonism.

Similarly, prostitution claims by Oxfam staff assume an “adultification” of young black girls whose bodies are ideologically criminalised and unfairly-trialled as adult-like and mature, with a certain “too-muchness” that inevitably deny them the luxury of remaining in states of suspended youth as enjoyed by their white peers. A 2017 study from the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, highlighted for instance, that black girls as young as five are viewed as “older and less innocent” than white children, and “more likely to be perceived as knowing more about adult topics, such as sex, and were more likely to be perceived as needing less protection and nurturing”. Not only does this extend colonial discourses of hyper-sexualisation among young black girls, but – much like the “Deserving/Underserving” poverty criterion of Elizabethan England – it feeds into racialised-hierarchical eligibility criteria, upon which evaluations are made about who has claim to victimhood or “blameless misfortune”. With black children on the lowest rung.

You see language is powerful especially when it intersects, informs and is framed by our perceptions of “Others” that are deeply-entangled in often painful colonial histories. Suggesting that these vulnerable black children – victims of sexual abuse – were sex workers, consign them to an unpossessed and immaterial blackness that-is-but-mere-body. A blackness that is simply a curiosity, an auctionable-commodity of the flesh, with little or no instinctual confrontation against the white male gaze. This compared to more puritanical and “virginal” assumptions of and approaches to young white female bodies and sexualities that are often deemed in-valuable, full of unarticulated potentiality, and which demand caution and fragility.

As such, the Oxfam scandal – with its abhorrent language in tow –  implores a rethinking, a repositioning of female black bodies and sexualities, towards a worthy-full centre. Anything outside of this precludes critical engagement for how these victims of sexual abuse are afforded the same right of protection and guilty-free-ness that we readily extend to non-black-and-brown girls.

Note:  This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.