The day that Angelina Jolie was appointed to LSE as a visiting professor at the Centre for Women, Peace and Security, it was all over my social media accounts, and several friends sent me messages asking if I had seen it. Even though I was in the middle of a few days of intense fieldwork, I knew I had things to say about this:
In the few days that have passed, several people on Twitter have given their takes, many of those thoughts well-considered.
I’m truly ambivalent about her appointment. I recognize that LSE has a status and a brand to maintain, and the university’s Centre for Women, Peace and Security and its MSc program will benefit from the exposure that Jolie brings. (I’ve participated in an LSE WPS Centre-sponsored workshop and hope to more in the future, but that is not censoring my thoughts here. I am also not addressing the lack of uproar over relative qualifications of former UK foreign secretary William Hague, a gendered response for sure.) These sorts of appointments happen often, especially from people who have been involved in policy practice. And it could have been worse:
My problems with her appointment come more from what work her celebrity activist position does in the WPS agenda, how it distorts priorities and politics already in the WPS resolutions.
Celebrities reinforce stratification and hierarchy that was present before. When UN Security Council Resolution 2106, which focused on sexual violence, was passed in June 2013, Jolie addressed the Security Council in the debate preceding the resolution. By contrast, the speaker who addressed the Security Council for Resolution 2122—which focuses on including women at all phases of conflict prevention, conflict resolution, and peacebuilding—in October 2013 was Brigitte Balipou, a lawyer and member of the Constitutional Court of Central African Republic. Balipou is prominent in international legal circles but is certainly no celebrity. In October 2015, Resolution 2242 was passed, also a broader discussion of gender in peace and security as well as countering violent extremism; the prior debate saw remarks from high-level policymakers and advocates but no celebrity activists.
The effect of using celebrity activism in urging the Security Council to pass a resolution addressing sexualized violence lends legitimacy to this resolution and its focus on sexualized violence as an issue that those who might not otherwise pay attention to the United Nations should care about, the “fetishization of sexual violence,” as Sara Meger has written. The discrepancy in the advocacy between these resolutions illustrates that enlisting a celebrity for policy work lends legitimacy as well as spurs donors, casual observers who might become involved in advocacy work, and governments to devote attention to the issue. In essence, because of Jolie’s advocacy, there is likely an unintended consequence of attempting to address sexual violence in conflict without addressing the underlying political and economic factors that contribute to it, both during conflict and before and after.
While there is, perhaps, some “academic snobbery” in criticizing Jolie’s new appointment, neither is her presence an unalloyed good. As Lauren Wolfe points out in a defense of Jolie from two years ago, “the attention economy for truly caring about suffering is tiny.” Yet it is this, allowing suffering to become part of an “economy” – making it a political problem to be debated, toward which to allocate resources that can be taken away in the next moment, that addressing suffering of any type is vulnerable to market forces is what is the problem with her attention.
Wolfe goes on: “Now we just need governments to take on the complex problems that lead to rape in war and the needs of survivors after the fact.” Herein lies the problem. This sentence is essentially an afterthought in her post, but it is the crux of remedying gender inequality and gender-based violence in both conflict and peacetime. Having policies on women’s issues (and broader gender issues) rest on activism, whether that is celebrity or grassroots, instead of spurring government action means that these issues will never receive sustained attention.
As one of my research participants told me recently, “Activism is exhausting, but we must keep doing it, or people will stop paying attention.” With policies for women relying on women’s activism, governments and policymakers can continue to use women as a tool when it is politically expedient.
Truly, Jolie’s attention to the rights of women, especially to combatting sexual violence in conflict, is genuine. But universities, especially centers devoted to the WPS agenda (and the career academics that are part of this center, who I know to be invested in women’s security and rights as a holistic endeavor), should be cautious about involving celebrities, even when it brings much-needed attention.
One of my interviewees in Guinea offered me an opportunity to travel to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to conduct research there; she said that the women’s activism there was quite strong compared to Guinea and that I might be interested in seeing what they had to say. So with her facilitation, I left Conakry for a week to Freetown.
What a difference in the two capital cities. While certainly poor, Freetown is swarming with development money – signs for NGOs big and small, international and local are everywhere, and so many white 4x4wd vehicles roam the streets. This is in stark contrast to Conakry, which has a few evident foreigners but not the mass of NGO-as-a-business as Freetown (or business-as-business like Abidjan).
Also remarkable was the number of public-service signs around the city – old billboards and murals educating about Ebola prevention and access to treatment, new posters urging girls to wait until they’re older to have babies, alongside others that calls violence against women a crime against state security. I have never seen such an amount of educational advertising as I did in the one week there. I’m supposing this is a positive thing, but it is just another sign of the amount of money pouring into projects there and makes me wonder to what extent it is having an effect.
I feel like I have so much more to say about Freetown than I do about Conakry, but I think it’s because I’m putting Guinea in context. So many people dislike Conakry that I’m disposed to like the place just to be contrary. But Freetown is seducing me with its cleanliness – not to mention its widespread English.
I've recently learned that I have been awarded a Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant from the National Science Foundation. What this means is that I get to do more fieldwork!
I'm headed to Conakry, Guinea, in about two weeks until mid-June and then Bamako, Mali, from September sometime to December sometime. This research will be focused on the same international agenda that I researched in Cote d'Ivoire, but I won't be doing strictly comparative research.
What I'm really excited about (in the research sense, not in the human citizen sense) is learning the differences in context with these three countries. Guinea has reported a number of new Ebola cases in the past week, and the security situation in Mali is somewhat unstable at the moment. My project is not explicitly focused on either of these threats/events, but they of course inform the context that my research partners operate in and impact the response of the international community (and lots of others), which in turn changes women's strategies and the attention given to women's issues in these countries.
I'm not certain I'm able to express how much I'm beginning to love West Africa as a sometime-resident and as a politics-art-society–watcher. But I'm so thrilled to be heading back.
(originally posted on The CIHA Blog, where I am an editorial assistant)
(Just before this post went live, the UN envoy to the Central African Republic was forced to resign because of the sexual abuse allegations.)
Recent reports documenting sexual abuse committed by United Nations peacekeeping troops in Haiti, Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Mali and Central African Republic underscore the long history of sexual misconduct committed by peacekeepers around the world. With the recent spate of such reports and the UN peacekeepers’ obvious abuse of power, it becomes essential to examine critically the manner in which the UN responds to the accusations as well as the way the media presents these events.
In the recent article, “Could Peacekeeping Wives Deter Sexual Abuse in UN Overseas Operations?”, following reports documenting widespread abuses by peacekeepers, Thalif Deen asks, “As a preventive measure, would it help if peacekeepers and U.N. staffers are sent on overseas missions along with their wives, partners and families?” The article explores the notion of allowing spouses to join deployed peacekeepers, specifically male peacekeepers, as a viable solution to halt sexual abuse. Similarly, in a separate article, “Sexual exploitation by UN peacekeepers remains ‘significantly under-reported‘” the author quotes the new UN report, which states, “Staff with long mission experience state that was a ‘general view that people should have romantic rights’ and raised the issue of sexuality as a human right.”
These articles’ failure to mention the United Nations’ efforts to incorporate a gender perspective into all organizational policies – gender mainstreaming – as prevention of sexual abuse and exploitations in the UN’s peace operations highlights the ineffectiveness of UN efforts. Gender mainstreaming has resulted in women making up 13 percent of those deployed in UN peacekeeping missions; however, the first article’s proposed solution does not mention this, perhaps because women are not the ones committing sexual abuse.
Instead, the proposed solution perpetuates the idea that men, to some extent, lack the ability to control their sexual urges. Moreover, it deflects the blame from UN peacekeepers perpetrating these atrocious acts by suggesting the absence of a sexual partner drives men to sexually abuse and exploit the people they are sent to protect. Yet the age of many of the victims undermines the argument for “romantic rights,” with 36 percent of the victims reported to be minors and with evidence that minors were targeted for sexual assault even after previous reports drew public outrage. For the staffers claiming that peacekeepers should have better access to appropriate sexual partners in order to attain their romantic or sexual rights, this objective is at odds with addressing the power imbalances inherent in UN missions, which are tasked with ensuring the basic human right of physical security of the local population.
While certainly the majority of peacekeepers are law-abiding, acts of sexual abuse and exploitation continue to be reported, as peacekeeping troops continue to be deployed. Images of UN peacekeepers raping and abusing the very people they are sent to protect further complicate the neocolonial narrative put forward by opponents of peacekeeping forces, highlighting the UN’s work and response to the allegations as also gendered. Meanwhile, narratives that portray African men as violent and sexually aggressive persist.
A new narrative is needed, one that takes into account the intersecting power relations of sex, nationality and economic position, both in the UN’s work and in the media accounts that cover world affairs.
As part of a UCI workshop for women in academia, couple of women in my program and I developed a guide to survive graduate school (mostly in political/social science), though it is fairly general. This will likely become part of an APSA Women's Caucus resource, but feel free to use for your own resources (with a link or credit).
When entering graduate school, women can face a number of challenges that might not be apparent to men. Many of the suggestions below can benefit grad students in general, both men and women, but they are particularly relevant for people in any number of underrepresented categories – women, LGBTQ, students of color, etc. The key is to recognize the strengths that you bring to your study, even if they are not traditionally valued by your discipline, and seek out avenues of support.
Seek out a mentor
Sexual harassment still happens
Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower
UCI’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity
UCI’s Childbirth Accommodation and Child Care Reimbursement
UC Student Association’s annual Students of Color Conference (SOCC)
UC Office of the President diversity policies and goals
Travel and research notes
Fieldwork and travel in Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Mali, as well as Burkina Faso, Morocco, Tanzania, South Africa, and wherever else I end up. Plus occasional research-related thoughts. And now ... Teaching!