by Sarah Martin
Recently, on a humanitarian mission, I had the pleasure of running into several old and new GBV friends. Some of us got to talking at dinner one night about the way that people who don’t work in the GBV field sometimes talk about our work. One of my biggest pet peeves is when I hear “GBV is so sexy right now”.
Some people say this dismissively and often with a sneer, which implies that, it’s a made-up problem. It’s true that you hear a lot more about GBV nowadays and that the GBV field’s hard work and advocacy has paid off finally and now aid programs are being required to try to work GBV into their projects. I also know that the people that say this are not all cynical and opposed to our work. I think that what some of the good-hearted people might be trying to say is that talking about Gender-based Violence is “trendy” or on the forefront of donors minds and suddenly seems ‘fashionable”. It’s the hottest things – like “micro-credit” programming was in the late 90s.
But it’s deeply painful and upsetting to hear otherwise smart people associate the word “sexy” with “Gender-Based Violence”. Perhaps because we use an acronym to discuss what we do conceals what it actually means to do Gender-Based Violence programming. We use so much jargon in our business- GBV this, VAW, M&E, SOPs, the acronym soup goes on and on and it is sometimes easy to forget what we are actually talking about. The topic itself doesn’t lend itself to easy discussions – so we invent a language to refer to it without having to say what it really is.
In the trainings that I conduct, I sometimes do an exercise where I ask participants to think of every word they know for vagina, every word for penis, every word for sexual intercourse and every word for leg and arm. Of course there are a million slang words for our sex organs and sexual intercourse because society doesn’t like to talk about it directly. It’s not polite to talk about in “good company”. There are fewer slang words to describe legs and arms because we can talk about them explicitly. Just like we invent slang to avoid talking about sex, we use the acronym GBV to cover up what we’re really talking about.
GBV programming is about talking to women who have been physically, emotionally, and socially abused by those that they love and trust. GBV programming is about working with women who have deep dark secrets and fears having been forced to have sex with exploitative aid workers, soldiers, and others who prey on their vulnerabilities. GBV programming is about convincing women whose husbands have raped their daughters, not to abandon their daughter and keep their husband because he’s surely going to rape her other two daughters but she’s afraid if she leaves him then she’ll fall into destitution and no one will survive. GBV programming is about trying to create a bond of trust with vulnerable women who have been hurt and trying to help them move forward in an environment that is hostile to women.
I think of the women who have disclosed their rapes to me. I think of the counselors and service providers who have to listen to stories of incest, abuse, and self-hatred from GBV survivors. I think of the struggle we still have to implement even the most basic and proven interventions. We still have to fight to get aid workers to put lights near toilets or locate women’s toilets away from the men’s to stop rapes at night in IDP camps, evacuation centers, and other places where the vulnerable have to turn for help.
And I think – gender-based violence is not sexy. It’s not sexy at all. So please, for the love of God, please don’t let people around you get away with saying “GBV work is so sexy right now.”