Alexia Pepper de Caires and Shaista Aziz of NGO Safe Space respond to Amnesty International Netherlands’ recent refugee campaign with an open letter.
As a global leader on human rights, women, gender-queer/ non-binary people and men around the world support your work.
They join you to act in solidarity with oppressed people in the most overlooked places in the international media spotlight.
You have a strong track record of standing up for women’s rights as human rights and we commend you for it. However, as women in political and public life, intersectional feminists, and the co-founders of NGO Safe Space – a feminist collective here to disrupt and challenge the patriarchal, racist and neo colonial structures of the western aid and NGO sector – we write this open letter to state our disgust at Amnesty Netherlands’ grotesque refugee advert campaign.
We gather this campaign was created in the name of white western NGO “do-gooding” to urge people to engage with the global human rights crisis known to the western world as “Europe’s refugee crisis”, and to not “look away” from people fleeing for their lives as refugees.
A woman of colour, lying alluring on a bed of life jackets, gazing into the camera as if ready for sex, semi nude and hair spread out around her head. “I’m here for you, ready and waiting” the image whispers, mirroring American Beauty’sproblematic depiction of Mena Suvari.
Your new marketing campaign has chosen to depict a woman of colour in a hyper sexualised, fetishised and eroticised manner. She is, we are told, in real life, an Arab woman, a model, who herself was once a refugee. The woman’s only function in this photograph is to look like a passive sexualised object – she exists only to please all those who gaze at her.
“The simple and inconvenient fact that has been erased by Amnesty Netherlands is that many of the black women and women and girls of colour who constitute the majority of the world’s refugees exist in contexts where their bodies do not belong to them.”
By looking at the way this image has been constructed we are taking a punt and suggesting that women of colour and refugee women (other than the model) were not involved in the construction of this campaign and instead a predominantly white, male and a sprinkling of white women leadership team presented this narrative of toxic patriarchal and sexual “empowerment” dressed up as a desire to “help” refugees. The “humanising refugees” industry is the gift that keeps on giving. “How can we find new ways to tell the refugee story?” “How do we raise more funds for ourselves to do this work?”.
The simple and inconvenient fact that has been erased by Amnesty Netherlands is that many of the black women and women and girls of colour who constitute the majority of the world’s refugees exist in contexts where their bodies do not belong to them.
Their bodies have been used and abused as weapons of war and sexual degradation, abuse, and pleasure by the men and boys who wage war and conflict and turn women and girls into refugees. Their bodies are bartered over, traded over and trafficked and when a tiny minority of these women eventually do arrive on the shores of fortress Europe, their racialised bodies are denied dignity and deemed “illegal” by a racist and dehumanised asylum and immigration system primarily focused on locking refugees out.
“We also call on NGOs to challenge their harmful, racist and sexist portrayals of women from the Global South as a matter of urgency.”
The Mediterranean has become a graveyard for black women, men, children and people of colour. It’s incomprehensible that one of the world’s richest and powerful human rights NGO has turned it into a backdrop for a fashion shoot. Women have given birth in life jackets, miscarried in life jackets and died in life jackets.
This is the context behind this disgraceful and shameful advert campaign. How a global human rights organisation can gloss over these realities is breathtaking to us. It shows us once again how casual racism and sexism in the NGO sector and how under the guise of “doing good” so much patriarchal harm and damage is being done to women from the Global South. Refugee women and refugees are not seeking white western pity – like all human beings refugee women and refugees are seeking their human rights and the right to live a life where they are valued, where their agency and dignity is retained and where they can thrive and live as human beings.
We call on Amnesty Netherlands to remove this advert immediately and along with the wider Amnesty International movement to take responsibility for the damage that has been done and to issue a statement acknowledging what has taken place.
We also call on NGOs to challenge their harmful, racist and sexist portrayals of women from the Global South as a matter of urgency.
Alexia Pepper de Caires, Shaista Aziz and a small group of women founded NGO Safe Space a platform for intersectional feminists in response to #AidToo to gather testimonies on sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse in the humanitarian aid and international development sector.
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