Cultural relativity

09 September 2008 Comments

I think there are two things to point out before this post makes sense.

the first is that i spent a lot of my undergrad reading, debating and flat out arguing about the role of 'western' women in the struggles of women abroad. a lot of words like privilege, oppression, colonialism, and values would get thrown around. this didn't just happen in the classroom but also in community groups i was working with, and political debates with friends.

the second is that, what i always appreciate about msf, is that we look at suffering and medical needs first. then our actions are based on addressing medical needs, and when warranted, speaking out about the situations that cause those needs. it's not about coming in and thinking we know all the answers, but providing services to people who aren't receiving them. and the simple act of providing medical care to someone who has been denied, is an act of solidarity in itself. my old boss said once 'we may not be able to do much, but just being there, saying 'i think you are worth it' can be a huge act of solidarity all on its own'.

when i decided to come to png, i wondered what a lot of people would think about this program. amazing to say, but i know people who will look at this program and see it as 'interference' and 'importing western beliefs about gender'. gender based violence is normal there, they'd tell me. it's a violent culture so why go in with your namby-pamby western 'feminist' beliefs and mess about.

and i knew this was wrong before i came... but it became that much more obvious the moment i got to the centre and started talking to my colleagues who are from png. it usually started with, yes, there's a lot of violence, this is reality, this is normal. but then it also became 'i can't believe the case i heard about today, i can't believe someone would actually do this, it is horrible. it is wrong. this is not what i believe in. when she told me her story, it broke my heart.' (to paraphrase).

just because something is normalised, or frequent or common, does not mean that people want or accept it. just because the newspaper has an article every day about a rape that occurred in Lae, does not mean that survivors come in and say 'yup, give me medical treatment but i'm cool with this and don't mind it happened'. just because many women and girls (and young boys) grow up with the constant threat of violence, doesn't mean that it doesn't affect them on a psychological level. just because our staff have also grown up in these situations, doesn't mean their stomach won't drop when they listen to a woman's story.

normalised violence does not equal desired violence. not having the tools to medically treat rape does not mean people think it is acceptable to acquire an sti after an assault. this is not about importing western values or humanitarian colonialism, it's about sharing the skills, knowledge and resources of an emergency medical organisation. it's doing what we can.