is selling women selling justice?

I have spent a lot of time this week thinking about the ways in which social justice organisations continue to use women and our bodies to raise money and awareness.

Polly Tomney ‘raises awareness’ about autism

Readers in the UK may remember Polly Tomney posing in her bra on advertising hoardings before the May 2010 general elections with the message ‘Hello Boys. Autism is worth over 6 million votes. It’s time to talk…’ in a bid to get party leaders to take autism seriously.

Eva Mendes shows her ‘commitment’ to fur-free clothing

PETA has a long history of using women’s bodies to promote animals’ rights from I’d rather go naked than wear fur to boyfriend went vegan and knocked the bottom out of me (with its lovely overtones of domestic violence) and milk gone wild (too hot for the Superbowl – YouTube directs you to porn videos after it’s done).

‘Animal testing’ at Lush, Regent Street

Lush has also joined in. Their latest publicity stunt where a performance artist undergoes ‘animal testing’ in the window of is Regent Street shop is one of the most triggering things I have ever seen. Tamsin Omond, Lush campaign manager, writes that it was thought important that the test subject was a woman (and the oppressor is a man) given the performance was ‘a public art intervention about the nature of power and abuse…  It would have been disingenuous at best to pretend that a male subject could represent such systemic abuse.’ As Laura Woodhouse writes, ‘Like PETA, Lush have capitalised on the fact that women’s bodies garner attention and, like PETA, they don’t seem to be particularly bothered about any collateral damage.’

Nuts supports Oxfam’s big bra campaign

Then you have Oxfam and its big bra hunt where women are urged to dig out their old bras and donate them to Oxfam shops after which they will be sold or sent to Senegal where they are sorted and sold by Frip Ethique and profits invested in Oxfam’s work fighting poverty in Senegal.  Great, more stuff we don’t want going to those poor people in Africa. It’s good to know women in Senegal are there to buy bras that aren’t good enough for UK women! This campaign has been taken up by Nuts magazine no less, which next to pictures of women topless holding their bras, ready to take them to a Oxfam shop, (I’m not showing those images!) has the following text: ‘Over here at Nuts, we’re big fans of ladies taking off their bras. But it’s rare that we can genuinely claim it helps people. Well this week we can… So toplessness can help people in Africa.’

Want 100% genuine girls?

Think it can’t get worse? The one I find most troubling is The Girl Store. Its website intro promises ’100% genuine girls – young, innocent and available’ with the text overlaying shots of a girl of around 4 or 5. It invites you to ‘experience the sensation of buying a girl… her life back.’ Just when you think you have stumbled across a website you need to report to the police, it turns out to be ‘the first e-commerce sure where purchasing schools supplies helps girls avoid being sold into marriage or sex slavery’ which urges you to ‘buy a girl before somebody else does.’ The website then redirects you to its shop where Leena, age 5, Binny, age 7, Vimla, age 4, Kavita, age 7, Padma, age 7 and Vajra, age 5, are joined by 3 girls stamped ‘new’: Divya, age 6, Chandini, age 13 and Gita, age 5. The girls are standing on auction, looking young, distressed, and vulnerable, with school supplies (pencils, maths box, workbooks and uniform) and their prices next to them and orange stamps indicated which items have been ‘purchased’ and which girls are ‘off to school.’  The Girl Store promises that if you buy these items for Divya, Chandini and Gita, you will make sure that they attend school and are not sold into marriage or sex slavery.

The Girl Store auction

I agree that lack of ability to buy pencils, books and uniforms is one factor that leads to girls leaving school. However, girls are forced into marriage from all socio-economic backgrounds and there is no simple link between levels of education and ability to choose your future. Furthermore, the deliberate equating of your experience (in buying a girl a maths set) with that of those who do buy girls (for marriage and slavery) is deeply troubling. It is surely no accident that the youngest of girls are in the majority of those being featured. I also would like to know from where they are buying these school items? The pencils cost $3. As someone who loves and buys Nataraj pencils whenever I am home, I know that a box does not cost Rs 160. I can’t remember how much it costs in the shops but online I can find a box for Rs 30. Does the Mahindra Foundation, set up by a $12.5bn multinational group, really require over 80% of the money raised by American people buying pencils to save Indian girls to over their administrative costs? As Ms magazine asks, why does the sale of notebooks and pencils warrant the clear and deliberate eroticisation of small children?

I hope people speaking out about all the above campaigns as well as the Stop Kony controversy encourages charities to think twice about the messaging in their campaigning and fundraising. Although Invisible Children may well think it was a great success in terms of raising the profile of their organisation, the video has provoked much criticism and anger, especially among those living and working in Uganda. Just because something in a certain way raises money (The Girl Store was phenomenally successful in getting Americans to donate and sold out in its first day) or gets people to know of your organisation, should not mean using the bodies of women and girls in sexualised and gendered ways is justified; dodgy messages along the way be damned.

Charities can raise money and awareness while retaining credibility and steering clear of the sensationalism that links your cause to sex and the simplistic nature of asking Western (white) people to save brown girls from their brown families by buying them pencils.

This was first posted on Black Feminists on 29th April 2012.