Bridging the Scholar/Activist Divide

Over the course of the semester, my blogs have mostly been a critical interrogation of various “problems.” There hasn’t been much talk about solutions, and I feel as if it has become way easier for me to critique something than offer up a solution. So I’ve decided to dedicate this blog to a solution, so to speak: ACTIVISM. It’s sometimes easy to become overwhelmed in graduate school, especially if you are studying “social problems”—not only because there are so many—but also because its hard to imagine being able to balance your scholarship and activism. I argue that there needs to be a reframing of the notion of “scholarship,” one that includes, but is not limited to, “discovery (pure research), integration (informed connections across disciplines), applications (service that bridges the world inside and outside of academia), and teaching” (Boyer 16). Thus the full scope of academic work should be legitimized and encouraged to be explored. Unfortunately, most people in the academy maintain a very restricted view of scholarship. Because of this view, being an activist scholar may seem daunting. Although this may be the case, I believe that it is imperative that we, as scholars, have a responsibility to work toward and aid in the project of social transformation, and this mostly takes the form of producing scholarship/ knowledge that aids in this project.

Are You an Activist Scholar?

I got the impression in our last class that we have all (before our graduate school career—when we had more time) worked with organizations that are working toward social transformation at a local or global level, and I know that I once had way more time to take a more “hands on” approach to activism/social justice. Although it seems as if we may never learn how to balance scholarship and activism, it is possible. I found this great framework about how to bridge the scholar activist divide on a blog, “geeks & global justice,” that I wanted to share. This framework is guided by a simple statement: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” There are four parts to the framework:

1. Public dissemination of research/ideas: The case of Open access

2. Civic engagement: Walking the walk

3. Subversive Teaching

4. Norms-based research

Breaking it down:

  1. The activist scholar shares her/his/their knowledge production with the broader community—through public lectures, media interviews, and popular and academic articles. According to “geeks & global justice,” “this strategy counteracts monopolies of knowledge, which Innis identifies as biased idea structures that control and legitimate – or authenticate – knowledge. They further promulgate and reinforce power imbalances within society while at the same time concealing such imbalances.”
  2. The activist scholar “walks the walk.” She/he/they must engage in civic life and be involved in local communities, which can take myriad forms: “joining campaigns, attending demos, supporting student-organized events, volunteering for community groups” (“geeks & global justice”).
  3. The activist scholar, if teaching, focuses on a “revisioning” of the practice of teaching. She/they/he must see teaching as an “ongoing process, rather than a finite action repeatedly taken up” and must consider students as another “link to the ‘real world’” (“geeks & global justice). The classroom becomes “a portal on the world and a terrain for the change-making [the scholar activist] want[s] to provoke” (“geeks & global justice).
  4. “Geeks & global justice” does a great job articulating the last point, so I am just going to copy what they have said: This final strategy for teaching survival is fairly self-explanatory. But then again, maybe it isn’t. As critical, radical, activists scholars, we need to:
  1. Dispense thoroughly with the myth of objectivity. There is no such thing as the objective researcher. No research is unbiased, neutral for nothing touched by human hand, heart or brain lacks subjectivity;
  2. Conduct research on subject matters that matter, where outcomes have social value and use. Research should not be commoditized, nor commandeered by the state
  3. Be human: research should be sensitized to the communities being researched; avoid at all costs establishing a dichotomy of the “knowing researcher” and “ignorant research subjects”; this leads to irrelevant, out of touch work.

Barnard Center for Research on Women: Activism and the Academy 

This week in my feminist methodology class, we watched a discussion about activist scholarship that was filmed at the Barnard Center for Research on Women Activism and the Academy conference. I thought I would share it because I found it to be super valuable and interesting.

There are also a ton more videos and podcasts (all about birding activism and scholarship) available from the conference  here.

How do you see yourself bridging the activist/scholar divide?

Works Cited

Boyer, Ernest L. Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1990.

“Geeks & Global Justice.” Web. 17 April 2012.


“Bad Girls” and Gendered Pathways to Delinquency

Meda Chesney-Lind, a feminist criminologist, argues that, “girls in the juvenile justice system were once dubbed the ‘forgotten few’” (19). There has been a large spike in girls’ delinquency, and it is imperative that we understand it in context: “Girls’ capacity for aggression and violence has historically been ignored, trivialized, or denied” (Chesney-Lind 19). Chesney-Lind also argues that in the psychology literature on aggression “shows that boys and men are more likely to be physically aggressive than females, but the differences begin to even out when verbal aggression is considered. Further, adolescent girls may be more likely than boys to use ‘indirect aggression’ such as gossip, telling bad or false stories, or revealing secrets” (19).

It is also imperative to look at girls’ violence within a patriarchal context. Studies of girls’ self-reporting their violence reported higher rates of abuse and victimization, and these girls also reported a greater fear of sexual assault. Specifically, one out of four of these “violent girls” had been sexually abused, and twenty percent said they were physically abused at home (compared with ten percent of violent boys) (Chesney-Lind 20).

Although there has been much recent media sensationalization of girls’ delinquency, girls’ invisibility within the juvenile justice system often leaves them out of the discussion on criminalization and “pipelining.” Meda Chesney-Lind argues that, “what needs to be understood about girls’ delinquency, particularly from a programmatic and policy standpoint, is the clear link between victimization, trauma, and girls’ delinquency” (20). Further, it is important to realize that this trauma hasn’t produced more violent offenses, but it has lead to the increase of traditionally deemed “trivial” or unimportant offenses, such as running away. Relabeling of “status offenses” (running away, needs supervision, etc.) as violent has lead to a dramatic increase in arrests for girls.

One of these relabeling of “status offenses” that Chesney-Lind discusses is girls’ arguments with parents. Arguing with parents has been relabeled “assault,” and Chesney-Lind argues that this is a form of “bootstrapping”: “it facilitates the incarceration of girls, especially African-Americans, in detention facilities and training schools” (20).  Further, the media capitalized on this increase in incarceration of girls in the 1990s, and it aided in the construction of the discourse on “bad girls.” This discourse presents a narrative that does not reflect the lived experiences of those girls who are have been criminalized, and it also does not reflect structural realities that have impacted their criminalization.

Gendered and Raced Differences in Delinquency

Although media attention of girls’ juvenile delinquency has increased over the past couple of decades, the research on policy and programs for “at risk” girls has not. There are gendered differences in girls’ pathways to delinquency and their needs while in the juvenile justice system. For example, research data has consistently pointed to a strong link between “victimization, trauma and girls’ delinquency” (Bloom & Covington 3). Also, running away is the most prevalent risk factor for girls’ involvement in the juvenile justice system (data has pointed to boys and girls running away from home in equal numbers, but girls are arrested more often) (Bloom & Covington 3). Further, recent studies have pointed to running away and drug use as the primary means through which girls cope and survive abusive homes.

As I’ve mentioned before, girls are disproportionately charged with status offenses. They are also more likely to be detained for minor offenses such as “public disorder, probation violation, status offenses, and traffic offenses (29% of girls and 19% of boys)” (Bloom & Covington 4). African American girls make up half of all of those in detention facilities, and only three out of ten cases for African American girls are dismissed (compared to seven out of ten cases for white girls) (Bloom & Covington 5).

Many girls entering the juvenile justice system are placed into programs that were created for delinquent boys (Bloom & Covington 5). There is a need to create effective programs and approaches for addressing specific gendered needs of girls. However, “we must be sure that gender-based services do not become sexist services (e.g. providing less funding for girls because they aren’t as great of a threat as boys, etc.)” (Bloom & Covington 6). According to the Ms. Foundation for Women,

“To be fully effective for girls and boys, the design and operation of a program must consider gender—not in a manner that regards gender differences innate and unchangeable, but in a way that explores the social construction of gender and invites young women and men to challenge gender norms, examine gender privilege, and create balance of power between girls and boys.”

Thus there needs to be a push for the creation of programs that understand the lived realities of girls’ experiences, and are content and context specific. Bloom & Covington argue that programming for girls needs to take place in an environment that is “conducive to a therapeutic change process” and it “needs to deal in a comprehensive and integrated way with the multiple issues that are impacting girls’ lives” (7).

Here’s an example of a facility/program that seems to be doing a better job than most. The Rosa Parks’ Center in Missouri has no guards, no lockdown’s, and it has replaced the prison-like feel of most youth detention centers with dorms. The girls go through intensive therapy, and in the words of one of the girls, they are able to “get to the issues, and get to the core problems.”


What do you think about the push to overhaul youth detention centers/programs? Further, do you think it is just a “band aid” easy fix that doesn’t address the larger structural issues?

In Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys, Victor Rios presents us with a way to conceptualize gender as a “social process that changes based on interactions with specific types of institutions,” that, “in turn allows us to explore how the criminal justice system shapes the development of specific forms of masculinity” (129). Do you think the criminal justice system shapes the development of specific forms of femininity?

Works Cited:

Bloom, Barbara and Stephanie S. Covington. “Effective Gender-Responsive Interventions in Juvenile Justice: Addressing the Lives of Delinquent Girls.” Paper presented at the 2001 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Criminology Atlanta, Georgia, November 7-10, 2001. 6 April 2012.

Chesney-Lind, Meda “Are Girls Closing the Gender Gap in Violence. Criminal Justice. 16.1 (2001): 18-23. Web. 5 April 2012.

Rios, Victor. Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys. New York: New York University Press: 2011.

Girls, Sexual Violence, and Border Politics

Immigration is definitely the theme of my week, and so I thought I would continue the theme with a blog post about a subject that isn’t really written about enough: sexual violence and girls crossing the US/Mexico border. Since this issue is so close to home for those of us who reside in Arizona, it is imperative that we are aware of what’s going on, literally, in our “own backyard.”

Recently, there has been a lot of scholarly work done on sexual violence and woman migrants crossing the US/Mexican border, and there also has been work done on the alarming number of female homicides in Cuidad Juarez. There is a dearth of scholarly research on girls who have crossed the US/Mexican border and have experienced sexual violence. This blog is going to first briefly discuss the militarization of the border and, as a consequence, the increasing sexual violence toward women (and girls), then I will share Yolanda Mendez Torres’ story (one of sexual violence at the borderlands), and I will conclude with talking about the implications of the overwhelming silence surrounding sexual abuse and undocumented girls.

Gendered Violence: Sexual Violence at the Border 

The increasing militarization of the border has exacerbated structural violence (poverty, racism, nativism, misogyny) that is endemic to the region between Arizona and Mexico. This has led to a zone of lawlessness, or a state of exception, at the border, and this has put millions of individuals in vulnerable situations. This vulnerability at the border has contributed to increased sexual violence against women and children that are trying to make the trek across the desert from Mexico to the US, specifically Arizona. According to some estimates, 80-90% of migrant women have suffered sexual violence while crossing Mexico’s northern border (Marrujo 2009). Further, rape has become so prevalent that, in the words of one of regional director of the UN development fund, some women consider it “the price you pay for crossing the border” (Marrujo 2009).

There is a growing number of women crossing the border, I’ve read various estimations, and it appears that almost 30% of all migrants are women. Thus there needs to be more awareness of sexual violence perpetuated at the border because the number of those who are at risk for victimization is only going to increase. Further, a number of factors, including underreporting, fear, and little to no accountability on behalf of law enforcement on either side of the border, will prevent us from ever having an accurate number of those who have been victimized. Also, since large percentages of migrants are likely to cross the border multiple times throughout their lives, the risk for exploitation for any given woman or girl migrant is likely quite high.

Why Sexual Violence?

Sexual violence is defined as being physical and psychological in nature. Olivia Ruiz Marrujo has outlined 3 specific characteristics of sexual violence in regards to migrant women and girls:

1. Sexual violence refers to a physical and/or symbolic offense, which a migrant women or girl identifies as an offense to her sexuality, and by implication, her physical, psychological, and emotional constitution as a woman

2. It refers to abuses aimed at the body of a female migrant

3. Sexual violence is an aggression that transgresses norms

The literature on sexual violence offers a number of explanations for aggressive behavior toward migrant women, but I am going to go over a few of the most common explanations (We have to remember that there is not one explanation. All of these vectors intersect, interconnect, mutually reinforce and constitute each other). For ease of reading and understanding, I have mapped the explanations out:

  • Structural
    • Culture/legacy of domination and colonization that produced extreme poverty and political disenfranchisement.
      •  Domination also renders undocumented migrant women vulnerable by further “othering” them. This is due to their undocumented status, their gender, their poverty, and their national origins.
    • The militarization of the border brings with it hyper-masculinity, colonialism, and patriarchy through which women’s bodies are targeted for sexual assault and other attacks.
  • Culture/practice of violence
    • Legacy and history at the border of the generalized use of violence as a tool of domination and colonial hegemony.
  • Systematic
    • Coyotes, or migrant traffickers, have almost exclusive control over the people who have paid them, and thus they gain access to the bodies of women migrants by default.
    • INS or border patrol officers detain migrant women and commit abuses. 
      • Systematic crimes—because they are emblematic of a larger system of gendered and structural violence

Yolanda’s Story 

In the summer of 1998, 11 year old Yolanda Méndez Torres was raped for the very first time. She lived with her abuser (a 38 year old cousin on her mother’s side) and his wife in a rural coastal town in Southern Mexico. Yolanda was subject to sexual abuse daily, and rumors began circulating about her involvement with her Juan, her abuser (and mother’s cousin). In early June 2000, Yolanda’s maternal grandmother questioned Yolanda about the rumors. Eventually Yolanda’s grandmother decided to file a judicial complaint with “the Agencia del Ministerio Público in Pochutla, A 30-minute bus ride away […] So authorities can open an investigation, get a doctor to examine Yolanda for signs of rape, and interview Juan. Yolanda will be safe and can move into Juana Alonzo’s home down the road, the grandmother thinks” (Chavez et al. 2006).Within days of the complaint being filed, Juan decided to move the whole family to the city of Oaxaca. Soon after moving, Juan decided to make plans to take Yolanda to the United States.

“Within days, the trip is arranged. In addition to Yolanda and Juan, the traveling group includes a man named Emerson, a young teenager named Amber and his older brother Manuel. They are going to America to work, send money home, maybe help their mother build a new house. Nobody knows about Juan’s relationship with Yolanda. He tells Abel she is his niece. Juan promises to pay the coyote the cost for both of them when they reach the United States and he can get help from relatives”  (Chavez et al. 2006).

Once Yolanda and Juan reached Phoenix, they moved into a halfway house for recent immigrants. Juan was in thousands of dollars of debt, and they were forced into indentured servitude until it was all paid off to the coyotes. Yolanda continued to be sexually abused after her journey to the United States, and she was eventually impregnated by her abuser.

After Yolanda’s harrowing escape from her abuser (I will provide the link so you can read the full story), she went to the Mexican Consulate in Dallas, TX (where she was living at the time) for help. Fortunately the consulate provided Yolanda with the resources to press charges against her abuser, but she still remained an “undocumented immigrant, an exile in a land she never chose” (Chavez et al. 2006).  Yolanda eventually moved in with a woman from the Mexican Consulate that helped her case through the system, and the woman legally adopted her, granting her US citizenship.

Because Yolanda was granted citizenship, she had access to resources that would help her deal with the poly-victimization she experienced over the years (each abuse having a cumulative effect on her physical and mental health). She could now access resources for her mental health, and she did not have to live in a constant state of fear (of being deported). Yolanda experienced many benefits once she was granted citizenship, but her story is exceptional. Watch Yolanda recount her story (5 years later) here! That’s a picture of Yolanda and her daughter, Aidelin.

What about those girls who have experienced abuse that are not as lucky as Yolanda? Those girls who are undocumented do not have the same access to services, and many are forced to live in silence and continue to endure their abuse. The idea that many girls (and women) do not have access to resources (and justice) because of their undocumented status is extremely disturbing. It also begs the question, whose lives matter? Does citizenship status take precedence over an abuse free life? Shouldn’t this issue be about human rights?

There is one organization that is doing their part to help undocumented women and girls who are victims of sexual violence.

“The Southern Arizona Battered Immigrant Women Project (BIWP) helps to identify and develop resources and provide outreach and training to organizations that interact with immigrant women who may be victims of domestic violence or sexual violence. The project has established six task forces in Arizona’s seven southern counties: Graham, Greenlee, Cochise, Pinal, Pima, Santa Cruz and Yuma.

Undocumented immigrant women who are survivors of domestic violence face challenges beyond those experienced by other women in the US such as isolation in a foreign country, constant fear of deportation, and believing they are at the mercy of their spouse to gain legal status. In rural areas, limited programs and resources exacerbate these challenges.

The goal of the BIWP is to improve the access to culturally appropriate services for battered immigrant women, thereby ensuring their rights under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and its mission of safety and empowerment for immigrant women and children victims of sexual and domestic violence” (Center for Rural Health). You can check out more information about the organization here.

One more thing: As I was researching sexual violence on the border, I saw that this issue was being examined through the lens of an anti-immigration and “secure our borders” discourse. I believe that that is grossly misrepresenting the problem. The militarization and hyper-securing of the border is CONTRIBUTING to the increase in sexual violence. Don’t be fooled! Here is a video that is an example of what I am talking about.


Battered Immigrant Women Project. University of Arizona, 2012. 1 April 2012.

Chavez, Stella and Paul Meyer. “Yolanda’s Crossing.” Dallas News, 2006. 1 April 2012.

Marrujo, Olivia T. Ruiz. “Women, Migration, and Sexual Violence.” Human Rights Along the U.S.-Mexican Border: Gendered Violence and Insecurity. Ed. Kathleen A. Staudt, Tony Payan, Z. Anthony Kruszewski. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2009: 31-47.

Where are the Lost Girls?

This is Aduei Riak. In 1999, UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), the U.S. State Department, and other advocate organizations established a program that resettled over 4,000 Sudanese refugees. Of those Sudanese refugees, 89 of them were girls. Riak was one of the 89. There has been numerous press about the Lost Boys of Sudan, but where are the Lost Girls?

Aduei Riak was three years old when a civil war broke out in Sudan, and she was forced to flee from her village of Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan. Riak, her mother, and several relatives escaped to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, and her father  joined the rebel forces. In 1991, when war broke out in Ethiopia, Riak and her family were forced to flee the refugee camp, and they were separated on the trek back to Sudan. Riak recalls that, “except for a 7-year old cousin, ‘I was pretty much on my own.'” She goes on to remember, “There was bombing, shooting everywhere. No food, and a lot of walking day and night” (Jones).

According to Mapendo International, “As many as 2,000 children are believed to have drowned, were shot or eaten by crocodiles as they tried to cross the Gilo River back to Sudan” (Jones). Because Sudan was still war ravaged, the children, including Riak, were forced to flee once more. Around 10,000 children survived the journey to Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Below is a map to help you visualize Riak’s journey. Although this map’s starting point is different than Juba, Juba is featured on the map, and the other points of reference are correct. I also like how the map has the actual time that it took to get from point a to point b. It really makes you think.

Once at Kakuma refugee camp, Riak resumed her schooling. Unfortunately, the camp provided limited schooling for the children. Riak lamented the fact that, “in Sudan, her education was in a classroom, but ‘All that was taken away,'” because of the war. “We went from sitting in a classroom … and coming home and having a nice meal, to being under a tree” (Jones). Riak won a scholarship upon completion of fourth grade, and it allowed her to attend a boarding school in Kenya. She only came back to Kakuma for the holidays. Years later, her cousin, who was still living in the camp, was identified as a “lost boy,” and their “shared food ration card brought her to the attention of resettlement officials. The two came to Massachusetts in 2000” (Jones).

Riak was resettled in a suburb of Boston when she was 16, and she lived with various families. She moved in with Helen Peters and Garrett Parker in 2002,  foster parents with whom she “remains close to” (Jones). She is now a graduate of Brandeis University, is a paralegal at the law firm of Ropes & Gray, and is applying to law school. She wants to go back to Sudan “for good” once she has her law degree and experience she feels is necessary to “help build her people up” (Jones).

“‘If I went back today, I’d be useless,’ she says, adding she wants to use her legal skills to help women and children. ‘When the time is appropriate, I will definitely go back and be part of the community. [… ] There’s nothing special about us. We just got lucky to get to the U.S. We owe it to those who are still there'” (Jones).

So now that you’ve heard Riak’s story, you are probably wondering why there were only 89 girls relocated to the United States. So, where are these Lost Girls?

Listen to Riak’s opinion in an interview with NPR on Lost Girls and her journey to America.

“The way that the camp was structured has a lot to do with why there were so few girls in the group. […] In Sudanese culture, women are not allowed to live on their own, so girls were sort of like merged into community, which was basically families with little kids. Boys were grouped into what was called “minor groups.” When the resettlement agencies were in the camp identifying people for resettlement, they saw these organized groups that were particularly men. They could go through a rooster and identify their names, age, and what year they arrived in the camp. Guys were more organized compared to women. Because once they [women] went to the communities, their records were lost. Since we marry young compared to young men, a lot of girls were mothers. The resettlement wasn’t designed to assist mothers.”

So as Riak articulated, there are several reasons why there are so few Lost Girls, and it all (mostly) has to do with one thing: gender. First, it is important to note that many more boys escaped than girls. Tara McKelvey, a journalist, points out,”The children who escaped were usually herding cattle in the fields when their villages were plundered—when the children saw the villages burning, they fled into the bush. As a result, most of the escapees were boys; the girls were usually in the villages, cooking and cleaning their homes, and they were killed or kidnapped by the enemy.” So, girls were already more likely to be kidnapped or killed than boys before they even had a chance to try and escape their villages.

Of the girls that did survive the village attacks and survived the journey to Kakuma, almost all of them that did not have arrive with family were placed with “foster families.” Many of these foster families exploited (and are still exploiting) these girls as domestic servants. Some of these girls were also sold by their foster families for a bridal fee. Like Riak explained, because Sudanese culture dictates that women are not supposed to live alone, these girls were forced to live with families. In contrast, boys were allowed to form groups that were only loosely supervised by adults. There are a couple of reasons why boys were more likely to be a part of the resettlement effort than girls.

First,  the UNHCR began a pyscho-social counseling program for boys, and their list of counseled boys was one of the lists used for the resettlement program. Because girls were placed in (or were  already a part of) “nurturing” families, it was believed that they did not need counseling. I just want to point out that this is totally incorrect. Michael Wessells argues, “Inside camps for refugees […], where men drink excessively, girls and women are in as much danger from rape, sexual harassment, and family violence as they are from armed conflict” (86). Further, “The emphasis on sexual violence can also obscure other forms of violence that damages these girls. Much of the violence, however, is silent because it is structural, that is, a product of institutionalized patterns of social inequality and gender discrimination” (Wessells 87). So, basically, girls needed counseling just as much as boys did.Second, many of these girl’s “files” were lost once they were placed into foster families, so they didn’t have the requisite paper trail that would have allowed them to be part of the resettlement process. Third, many of these girls were already mothers by the time that the resettlement program began, and like Riak stated, “the resettlement wasn’t designed to assist mothers.”

Even more heartbreaking–many of these girls, now women, are still stuck in UNHCR purgatory.

McKelvey argues that the UNHCR is to blame:

In December 2000, Julianne Duncan, an anthropologist specializing in refugee children filed a report explaining in heartbreaking detail how the girls were being shafted. But UNHCR officials were distracted. In April 2001, several employees in the UNHCR office in Nairobi, Kenya, were arrested and charged with extorting money from refugees. More than 20 workers were dismissed. “The girls were back-burnered again,” said a humanitarian worker who spent four years in Kakuma.”

Now What? 

RefugePoint was founded to “protect and care for at-risk refugees in Africa. RefugePoint’s rescue resettlement efforts, health clinic, and advocacy campaigns address the needs of the most vulnerable refugees in Africa, ensuring that forgotten victims of persecution, massacre and atrocities are brought from danger to safety.” 

“Spending time in Kakuma camp, RefugePoint’s founders saw that these girls faced the most severe forms of danger and persecution. They were seen as commodities and sold into marriage as early as twelve years old. They were prevented from school and used as servants in some households. They faced rape, violence, and discrimination. While nearly 4,000 Sudanese boys resettled to the US, only 89 girls came through the same resettlement process. RefugePoint was founded to address the needs of these and other girls who fall through the cracks of humanitarian programs and are in danger” (Refugepoint).

RefugePoint is focused on serving individuals, families, and communities that have “fallen through the cracks” and are in extreme danger. They have rescue operations in east and west Africa, and a medical clinic in Nairobi that serves people that are AIDS/HIV positive. Read a NY Times article that documents their urban food program, here.

What do you think about Riak’s story? Do you think the UNHCR should have done anything different in regards to placing the girls in “foster families”? Do you think that their resettlement plan was sexist?  Or do you think they did everything they could to help? 

Works Cited:

Wessells, Michael. Child Soldiers: From Violence to Protection. Harvard University Press: 2006.

McKelvey, Tara, Where are the “Lost Girls”?, 3 October, 2003, available at: [accessed 29 February


Jones, Charisse, ‘Lost’ in Sudan’s Violence, She’s Found Hope in USA, 23 July 2007, available at: [accessed 29 February 2012].

 RefugePoint. Available at: [accessed 29 February 2012].

Sex Trafficking, etc.

For this week, I am going to focus on sex trafficking. Specifically I am going to discuss sex tourism, Cambodia, and girlhood. (Photographs are by Colin Summers, “Cambodia Taxi Girls.”)

Some definitions to get you started:

Human trafficking: A form of modern day slavery, in which women, men, & children are targeted for sexual or other forms of economic exploitation.

Sex trafficking: A business venture in which traffickers trade the sexualized bodies of others for money. These sexualized bodies are commodified and sold from one party to another (Farr 2).

Kathryn Farr, in her book Sex Trafficking: The Global Market in Women and Children, points out that, “Sex trafficking is one of a number of structured forms of violence against women and girls that is systematic and universal” (xvii).  She goes on to argue that, “because the sources of sex trafficking are economic and patriarchal, and are rooted in traditions that legitimate the exploitation and sexual use of women, the demise of the industry will require social change at many levels” (xviii). Thus, the practice of sex trafficking is imbued with questions of power. Furthermore, Farr demonstrates that globalization and capitalism have allowed sex trafficking to “expand and take on new dimensions” (139).

Sex trafficking (and child sex trafficking) is thus linked to: oppressive and unequal power structures, which produce poverty for certain (mostly Global South or CEE/NIS) populations; an overarching patriarchal system where women and girls are denied agency and justifiably objectified; a racist and ethnocentric worldview and society, where (especially) children and women of the Global South are portrayed as “sexual beings” and less than human; and globalization/capitalism, where the ease of travel and commodification of services/people is normalized and encouraged.  (Note: These are not all of the things that are linked to sex trafficking, but I just thought these were some of the key things that I think of when I think about sex trafficking. If you have any more ideas, let me know!).

Here is a video where a Cambodian young woman, Chantha, discusses the horrible abuses that she suffered as a prostitute and sex trafficking victim. While I do believe that the ending of this short video uses some problematic rhetoric, and it was produced by a Christian organization, the beginning is really powerful:

So now that I’ve talked a little bit about sex trafficking, I want to focus in on a specific practice and place: Sex Tourism & Cambodia.

Some more definitions:

Sex Tourism: Tourism where the main purpose or motivation of at least part of the trip is to consummate sexual relations.

Femmigration: The increasing migration of women/girls through trafficking and prostitution.

The definition of sex tourism implies a premeditated plan to travel and have sex, but it is misleading. Unplanned and opportunistic sex also falls into “sex tourism.” The biggest problem is the definition suggests a consensual encounter between adults, and this is usually not the case. Serious exploitation can occur as a result of sex tourism, and many encounters are between adult men from the Global North, and young girls from the Global South.

(Click this picture to view a larger version. Same goes for the remaining pictures in my post.)

Sex tourism is nothing new, but it has emerged as an important type of economic activity. The globalization of sex tourism as an important type of economic activity is due to the ease and scale of foreign travel, migration, and patterns of consumption where there is demand for ‘new’ commodities such as sexual services. Many websites cater to the sex tourist, advising (mostly) men on how much to pay and how to engage in sexual activities without using a condom.

Specifically in Cambodia, sex trafficking, and the market for sexual services in general, grew with the arrival of UN peacekeepers after the fall of Pol Pot. Currently, Cambodia, and the capital Phnom Penh, is portrayed in the media as a destination for sex tourists, especially pedophiles.

In Feburary of 2008, “the Cambodian government began enforcing the new ‘Law on the Suppression of Human-Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation” after years of U.S. pressure to crack down on sex trafficking” (Radio Free Asia). However, this law has penalized the women and girls that it purports to help. Now prostitutes that are caught in police raids are fined up to $200 (US) for their release. According to an interview with one of the girls that has been arrested in a raid: “They take us to district police headquarters and take our money. If we don’t have the money, we will be kept in custody for two or three days. So we have to run for our lives when we see police approaching us. Police arrest us in the hope that the brothel owners will pay, but if we don’t have anyone to pay for our release we will be sent to one of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). It’s o.k. to live at the NGOs, but then our families have nothing to eat,” she said. If [the NGOs] want to help me, they should also help my family. Otherwise I can’t quit” (Radio Free Asia). Thus this law is essentially ineffective and detrimental to the prostitutes that are being “helped.”

In 2009, Operation Twisted Traveler was introduced by the US. This is an effort by US immigration and customs enforcement to identify and prosecute American sex tourists in Cambodia. One of the more publicized “sting” operations in 2009 resulted in three arrests: “The suspects — Jack Sporich, 74, Erik Peeters, 41, and Ronald “John” Boyajian, 59 — are all convicted child sex offenders who have served time in U.S. prisons” (Lajeunesse). These three men face charges under the “Protect Act,” which is a 2003 law that “provides life terms for child sex offenders with prior convictions, a much longer sentence than offenders would get abroad” (Lajeunesse). Although this is an actual attempt made by the US to prosecute some of its citizens that take part in this system—is it enough? This effort was only publicized in 2009, and I haven’t been able to find any information about how effective it was/is.

Sex tourism has a multitude of implications, and I am going to go over several:

The commodification and subsequent exploitation of female bodies. In Colleen E. Vasconcellos’ piece, “From Chattel to “Breeding Wenches”: Abolition, Girlhood, and Jamaican Slavery,”  she explores the interplay of the institutions of slavery and girlhood. During the time of abolition of the slave trade on the island of Jamaica, the practice of purchasing young African slaves for the purpose of “breeding wenches” was increasingly common. Because the plantation owners would not be able to purchase any “new” slaves in the near future, they began to only purchase African girls for the purpose of “breeding.” Thus they were commodified and purchased by virtue of their girlhood. Although this example isn’t totally the same as these Cambodian girl prostitutes, in both cases these girls’ bodies are being consumed and purchased by the virtue of their girlhood.

Instrumentalizing Girls/Children. Although there is a need for awareness in regards to sex tourism, sex trafficking, and child prostitution, there is a line that is often crossed by the media dividing “awareness” and “sensationalism.” For example, there are often “specials” on the news that briefly address the problem of sex trafficking, or there is a 60 minutes occasionally that addresses the problem. The way that child sex trafficking/prostitution/tourism is portrayed in the media almost verges on “poverty porn,” which verges on voyeuristic and exploitative. This “poverty porn” portrays girls as victims without agency. Furthermore, many NGO’s such as UNICEF and Save the Children, and Not-for-profits such as “Ethical Traveler” use rhetoric that instrumentalists these girls. Language such as “they are a threat to a developing nation” and “welcome responsible tourists,” frame the whole problem as just a threat to a growing economy. There is no mention of the idea that these girls should be “helped” (I don’t like using that word, but I am making an exception), and that there are larger structural issues that can’t be fixed with a monetary band-aid.

Capitalism/Neocolonialism (post UN peacekeeping). This implication follows nicely from the second one that I was just discussing. Because of the burgeoning capitalist system in Cambodia, it is much easier to have a “front” and many more people can open a business (without having governmental permission). So we see a lot more “indirect” prostitution in the form of massage parlors, karaoke bars, etc. So it becomes even harder to figure out how many girls are being exploited. On another note, because many girls and their families don’t have the economic means to “make it,” they search for other methods to become economically sustainable. Families do not have enough money–>girls go to “work”–>there are not enough jobs, so girls either get tricked into prostitution, or chose to prostitute themselves–>girls are then making a menial wage–>girls must prostitute for a long time–>families still don’t have enough money because the system hasn’t changed at all. 

How can we change this system? Did the US finally get something right with their attempt, “Operation Twisted Traveler”? Or could we have done/do something more effective? What do you think about the pictures that I posted, do you think they deny the girls agency?

Farr, Kathyrn. Sex Trafficking: The Global Market in Women and Children. Worth Publishing: 2004.

Lajeunesse, William, Pedophiles Nabbed in Cambodia Sex Tourist Sting, 1 September 2009, available at: [accessed 14 February 2012]

Radio Free Asia, Cambodian girls driven to prostitution, 27 January 2009, available at: %5Baccessed 14 February 2012]

Vasconcellos, Colleen E. “From Chattel to “Breeding Wenches”: Abolition, Girlhood, and Slavery.”  Girlhood: A Global History. Rutgers University Press: 2009.

The Girl Effect: A Product of the “Paradox of Care”

“The Girl Effect, n. The unique potential of 600 million adolescent girls to end poverty for themselves and the world” (

The Girl Effect is an umbrella organization that seeks to give girls in development contexts the “opportunity” to live a “successful” life unencumbered by “early” pregnancy and disease by providing them the opportunity to receive an education. The Girl Effect’s main vehicle of communication is the Internet, where the website invites its audience to watch a short, succinct video documenting the plight of the Third World girl:

Although The Girl Effect has positive intentions, it presents a narrative that is representative of the “paradox of care.” The Girl Effect effectively strips Third World girls of their agency, and it instrumentalizes them in order to further neocolonial capitalist interests.

The Girl Effect is an example of Western Feminism’s “paradox of care” dilemma. Although this organization has feminist aspirations, which intend to be anti-oppressive, it relies on a masculinist, paternalistic approach as a way to “save” these Third World girls. The Girl Effect website presents a call to action for its audience: “You can be part of that change. In fact without you it won’t happen. Join the conversation and let the world know what the Girl Effect is capable of” ( The organization’s call to action relies on traditional “Western Feminist as savior” discourse. Chandra Mohanty in her classic essay, “Under Western Eyes,” writes about feminists who are “committed to improving the lives of women [and girls]  in ‘developing’ countries,” and how development “becomes the all-time equalizer.” Thus, girls are seen as being “affected positively or negatively by economic development policies, and this is the basis for cross-cultural comparison” (Mohanty 30). Although the feminists that Mohanty writes about have positive intentions, comparable to The Girl Effect, the inherent hegemonic connection between the First and Third World is ignored. The “paradox of care” is analogous to the “‘missionary position’ [which] constructs Third World women as the ‘objects of rescue’ of mainstream Western men or women” (Narayan 133). The “missionary position”/“paradox of care” is surrounded by misleading rhetoric—“help,” “responsibility,” “resources,” “rescue,” “need.” This effectively augments the paternalism inherent in these First/Third World interactions. This “western as savior” discourse effectively places third world girls as objects of their victim status rather than subjects with agency.

The Girl Effect relies on a totalizing discourse that presents Third World girls as a monolithic group that experiences identical oppressions and deniesthem of their agency. The Girl Effect website presents the notion that Third World girls “are at a crossroads,” and it effectively dichotomizes girlhood ( These girls are also presented as having no other option but to fail in light of these oppressions unless they are able to receive assistance (in the form of “opportunity”). The Girl Effect “colonize[s] the material and historical heterogeneities of the lives of women in the Third World, thereby producing/representing a composite, singular ‘Third World [Girl]’—an image that appears arbitrarily constructed but nevertheless carries with it the authorizing signature of Western humanist discourse” (Mohanty 19). The creation of this “composite, singular ‘Third World [Girl]’” effectively silences the individual voices of Third World girls and retells their story through the voice of the colonizer. This act effectively re-colonizes the Third World girls and denies them of any agency.

The Girl Effect instrumentalizes Third World girls, and it presents them as a tool to further neocolonial capitalist interests. The website presents two polar outcomes for a Third World girl, one being the “opportunity to raise the standard of living for herself and her family,” the other being stuck in the cycle of poverty with her family ( The Girl Effect not only positions the Third World girl as a vital tool to raise her family out of poverty, but it also presents the Third World girl as a tool for development of the Third World. The website informs the audience that, “ If [they] want to end poverty and help the developing world, the best thing [they] can do is invest time, energy, and funding into adolescent girls. It’s called the Girl Effect, because girls are uniquely capable of investing in their communities and making the world better” ( Not only does this call to action reinforce the “paradox of care,” it also presents these girls as the answer to development. Girls are then seen as part of an economic and social agenda—which rests on Western, neo-liberal, linear considerations of progress. This progress, or “modernity,” resides in globalized notions of consumption. These notions of consumption function in two ways: the first way considers the ability to consume as a beacon of development; the second way underscores consumption as a hallmark of the “paradox of care.” The “privileged” have the opportunity to aid these Third World girls through consumption (i.e. “text girleffect to a certain phone number and donate ten dollars, etc…”). Thus, the instrumentalization of these Third World girls furthers the neo-liberal notion of equating development with consumption.

The Girl Effect presents education as panacea. Education is seen as what prevents pregnancy, keeps girls safe from early marriage and contraction of HIV. Although education is important, the reasons that The Girl Effect presents create a noble façade—the real push for education is found within the neo-liberal view of progress and development. The Girl Effect data found on the website informs the viewer that, “An extra year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent. An extra year of secondary school: 15 to 25 percent” ( The Girl Effect presents education as a way to prime Third World girls to become a part of the global consumerist economy. Mohanty writes,  “the increasing division of the world into consumers and producers has a profound effect on Third World women workers who are drawn into the international division of labor as workers” (176). Thus, most likely, these Third World girls will help build and grow the new globalizing economy through their own exploitation as low-wage workers. These girls will aid in the restructuring—the new world order—which can be characterized by “the hegemony of neo-liberalism, alongside the naturalization of capitalist values” (Mohanty 229). Not only does The Girl Effect present education as the opportunity for the girls themselves to participate in the new global economy, but it also presents Third World girls as a tool to a stronger economy for Third World countries. Thus, Third World countries have the opportunity to become part of the global capitalist economy but through the effective re-colonization of their economies.


The Girl Effect presents Third World girls as a monolithic group, devoid of agency, and it presents a narrative that is representative of the “paradox of care.” The organization also effectively instrumentalizes Third World girls in order to further neocolonial capitalist interests, consequently re-colonizing Third World girls. The re-colonization can be decoded as a push for low-wage workers and the inculcation of capitalist values. Although The Girl Effect has positive intentions, the effects are nonetheless harmful and can be read as a flawed product of Western Feminism.


Although my critique of the Girl Effect may be super harsh, I do believe it is important to note that this organization is recognizing girls as their own demographic that have the capacity to change things…So I give them that.

Here is another girl effect video:

Although I believe the Girl Effect and its rhetoric are problematic, do you think the message they are trying to communicate is important? Do we, as Americans, have a responsibility to “help” these third world girls? If you think so, is there a better way to get this message across? Is there a way to “help” without denying these girls their agency?


Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. United States of America: Duke University Press, 2003. Print.

Narayan, Uma. Dislocating Cultures. New York: Routledge, 1997. Print. The Girl Effect. n.p. n.d. Web. 6 Feb. 2012.