YOU’RE NOT HELPING!
How Canadian “Peacekeeping” Interventions Hurt Women
by Robyn Maynard
Shameless Magazine Fall 2011
Canadians often identify the international interventions of their government as a benevolent and peace-keeping presence. When Laura Bush, (wife of George W. Bush), and the Feminist Majority Foundation claimed it was necessary to invade Afghanistan in order to “save the lives of oppressed women and children” in 2001, the Canadian government hopped on board shortly after, in 2002, supposedly out of a good-will towards the lives of Afghans. Similarly, Canada touts itself as a savior of Haitian women and children, as can be seen in the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)’s “Action Plan for Saving the Lives of Mothers and Children in Haiti,” and sees the RCMP’s presence and involvement since 2004 as helping Haitians build sustainability and security. Canada’s role in these two countries is not small: according to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, the Canadian government has spent approximately 18.5 billion dollars on its mission in Afghanistan. Canada also spends hundreds of millions of dollars in Haiti as “aid” every year.
But where is this money going, and how is it affecting the lives of people on the ground? Yyves Engler, author of The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy, states in the conclusion, after examining Canada’s role in the majority of it’s foreign policy interventions, that “While Canada and other rich nations claim to favour democracy, all too often they undermine it by providing funds to groups that fight the popular will.” Engler completes one of the most thorough documentations of the path of the Canadian government’s funding and physical presence abroad and discovers that more often than not, Canadian foreign policy proceeds to further national interests rather than having a positive impact on the population of countries abroad.
In Whose Interest, for the Good of Whom?
While the Canadian government presents itself as “doing good for women abroad,” it’s important to examine how it’s actions do or do not help the important work of grassroots women’s movements organizing within their own countries. There is often an implicit assumption that first world nations have the right to impose their own solutions on the populations of countries facing poverty. This attitude is part of a superiority complex that has its roots in European colonization of the majority world. This imposed control was always justified as “for the good of people who didn’t know any better,” purporting to further the interests of “the people,” but in reality always furthering the interests of the conquering nations. This form of thought is inseparable from the history of male dominance over women, wherein women have always been seen as weaker and in need of strong male guidance. Much of the history of women, people in the global south, indigenous peoples, racialized people and the poor, has been painted in a helpless light to justify their historical exploitation to those who profited so greatly from it. This has been the case despite the strength, creativity, and power that these people have always shown in terms of their own liberation struggles.
It is those struggles that are the focus of this piece: what is often not taken into account when discussing “how to help women a broad” is the fact that women are organizing, and have been organizing, to meet their own needs and to achieve independence in ways that are rarely recognized when “aid” is imposed from outside. Even more importantly, when this “help” comes in the form of troops or police imposed on a population without popular support by those being “aided,” it often goes directly against, and indeed undermines women’s ability to organize themselves. Grassroots feminist initiatives in Afghanistan and Haiti exemplify this situation, as the below interviews with the impressive women in the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) and Haiti’s grassroots feminist project SOPUDEP show. As two of the world’s poorest countries, these strong organizations of women have been organizing on the ground to meet their needs of health care, education and freedom from poverty. In the midst of their struggles, their countries have both faced massive Canadian interventions, purportedly “for their own good.” Shazia from RAWA and Rea Dol from SOPUDEP both outline the increased difficulty in organizing, and even the difficulties surrounding basic survival, that have been the effects of the Canadian government’s interventions.
Survival from Coup d’états to Earthquakes: Women and Mutual Aid in Haiti
Rea Dol is a Haitian feminist and community organizer, and a hero to many women across Haiti. She is also the co-founder and director of grassroots organization SOPUDEP. In this role she directs adult literacy programs, a micro-credit program designed to increase the autonomy of women, an HIV-AIDS prevention and treatment program, and federation of organizations for women struggling for economic survival in Haiti’s difficult economy. Following the devastating earthquake of January 2010, Dol’s organization fed thousands of families for several months, amidst a total lack of response in this region from international aid. In a telephone interview, Rea did not hesitate to offer her opinion on Canadian involvement in Haiti. “We see them as an imperialist force. Women have been working together ourselves for our own education and health- these are crucial elements to women’s freedom,” she says. “Since this intervention, our work has become even more difficult.” The intervention Dol is referring to is the Canadian government’s significant role (alongside the U.S. And France) in plotting and securing the kidnapping of then-democratically elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. Aristide had won the election with massive popular support of the Haitian population. He also opposed the privatization of the remaining state-owned companies in Haiti, wanting the wealth created by Haitians to remain in the country. Following this coup d’état, Canada invested heavily in the new U.S.-supported interim government: the RCMP played a role in training Haiti’s new police force, which has been documented as taking part in arbitrary arrests, shooting protestors, doing little to stop the rape of Haitian women and killing residents in poor neighborhoods.
Dol points out that the living situation of Haitians and their ability to support themselves was drastically reduced after the coup, citing that the price of food has dramatically increased, and that many schools closed immediately following Aristide’s forced removal. SOPUDEP formerly had a government-subsidized hot lunch program that provided upwards of 500 people with what was often their only meal of the day, which was canceled directly after the coup. The organization also states on it’s website that political figures associated with the coup d’état government tried and failed on more than on occasion to close down the this crucial grassroots organization.
Canadian “aid” continues, but the use of these resources is questionable: Canada has recently announced $44 million in new spending on this same police force, as well as massively expanding Haiti’s prison system. Dol dismisses this investment as against the interests of most Haitians. “This money is not for peace! It’s not to sustain our movements – it helps to maintain foreign control over Haiti but women and the poor never see this money,” she says. Dol adds that the same can be said for much of the “humanitarian aid” that is sent to Haiti: “After the earthquake a lot of people collected money from their populations, but until then we don’t see anything positive that they’ve done. We are just waiting to see what might happen, until then it is just us.”
Rea Dol exemplifies the heroic nature of grassroots women’s organizing in Haiti, yet this inspiring work, that directly empowers women, is making inroads for women’s empowerment and education despite, rather than as a result of the Canadian government’s involvement in Haiti.
Fighting Imperialism, Poverty, and Lack of Education – Radical Feminism in Afghanistan
Women’s activist groups in Afghanistan have a very different historical context than in Haiti, but their history of continuous foreign intervention has some parallels. Canada’s presence in Afghanistan is finally coming to a close after nearly a decade of military occupation, which was always portrayed largely as a moral opposition to the Taliban’s misogyny and sexist treatment of women. Drastically increasing the number of troops in 2006, Canada, as part of NATO, took part in airstrikes, nighttime raids and other forms of “peace-making” in Afghanistan. Canada continues to represent this occupation as both necessary and helpful: Foreign Affairs Canada has stated its purpose as being for security and reconstruction. As this massive U.S.-led invasion occurred, inspiring women-led grassroots organizing continued to struggle for women’s liberation amidst hostility from many fronts: the Taliban, warlords and an increasingly violent military occupation.
The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), has been working since 1977 with women and girls around issues of basic survival: providing education, helping child refugees and helping women and children access health care. Shazia*, of RAWA disagrees vehemently with the justification for the invasion of her country. “Afghanistan is occupied, but we have not seen women be ‘liberated.’ The occupiers have bombed so many homes, killed ordinary people, women and children, who were living in poverty,” she says. “Women’s situation is the same, or even worse than under the Taliban.” Shazia’s statements are supported by numbers: Civilian casualties in Afghanistan have continued to rise. The Guardian reported that over 8000 civilians have been killed in the last four years, internal displacements number at nearly 800,000, and the Red Cross has stated that current conditions are the worst they’ve been in 30 years. The situation for women trying to take control over their lives was made increasingly challenging. Shazia explains that under military siege, grassroots education and health projects are nearly impossible to sustain, as is any homegrown challenge to misogynistic leadership. “This occupation has set our movements backwards. The Taliban, the fundamentalists: it will take years of sacrifice and struggle by the Afghan people to overcome this, but we need to be given the freedom to solve our own problems – in this way the occupation has been as much an enemy as them,” she says.
Despite having to struggle againstso many destructive forces, RAWA has classes for women, educating them around ways to earn money for their families. They also have projects helping women find shelter for their children. Many of their activities, Shazia notes, must be discreet and off the radar, as the government does not support them, however their continued existence amidst such repression is a feat in and of itself.
War is a massive profit-maker for the arms industry, an ever-increasing pillar of the American economy. Having control over a country’s sovereignty helps profitable private investments, like mining, one of Canada’s largest industries. (Both Haiti and Afghanistan are rich in minerals and metals). Geopolitical control, and strategic bases of support also continue to drive first world nations to become involved in foreign interventions. Shazia astutely demonstrates that it is this conflict of interest, or rather the lack of genuine interest in women’s liberation, that make these forms of interventions so flawed. Using Afghanistan as an example, she says: “[Canadians] are failing in their mission to free us because it is not actually their mission. They are not fighting to free women or to stop terrorists, they have their own interests for Afghanistan, they want to build their bases, to stay here for longer, they have economic interests for Afghanistan, and Afghanistan is an important strategic position for them.”
Self-Determination, Bringing About Positive Change
Shazia and Rea Dol are able to bring positive change to their communities because they are grounded in them, they are fighting for their own rights, and they point out, rightly, that it is those who are fighting for their survival and freedom who should be the ones determining the direction that their struggle takes. It is those who experience oppression who are the best equipped to make inroads in terms of their self-determination. Those of us who inhabit relatively rich post-industrial nations such as Canada, who’s governments have the ability to enforce their policies on the lives of peoples across the globe, need to remain informed about what kinds of actions and policies “our” nations are undertaking. This is especially true in terms of policies and actions done in our name that work against women and girls’ ability to live their lives as they choose. It’s also crucial to have a strong understanding of the women who organize themselves across the world, running projects that directly benefit them, in order to better support initiatives that have positive impacts on women’s lives outside of Canada.
As Rea Dol and Shazia’s grassroots efforts help demonstrate, women everywhere are capable of building movements based on their own needs. Women are fighting for their lives, against sexism in their own countries, against poverty, for health and education, and against foreign intervention. All of these should be the measures by which we evaluate what is, and what is not “helping” women abroad.
*not her real name, for reasons of safety