Defying Mass Violence and Genocide

Many thanks to the Stanley Foundation for publishing my article, Defying Mass Violence and Genocide in their latest issue of Courier and featuring articles by two additional Carl Wilkens Fellows, Anthony Kasongo and Tigranna Zakaryan. Thank you i-ACT for giving us the opportunity!

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Feminist Parenting, Privilege and Ubuntu: Lessons from the Field and Our Own Backyard

The following is my keynote address on March 25, 2015 for the Penn State Global Programs/Global Connections annual International Women’s Day Breakfast. My daughter, Arianna (a PSU senior), received the Spirit of Internationalizaiton Award that morning, too, an honor I received in 2009.

My daughter has a tattoo. It reads, “We find ourselves through selflessness.” While I am not a particular fan of body art – reflecting an obvious mother/daughter generation gap – the words DO reflect a guiding principle that we share.

Arianna broke the news to me carefully, about her tattoo, worried about how I might react, much as she announced that she would not be home for this past Thanksgiving because she was participating on a Penn State research project in The Gambia. As a parent, this is one of those moments when you wonder if somehow you got it all wrong. What was I thinking? Raising an independent child who would one day go off on her own adventures and have her own life– without me!

Well, Arianna is 22-years-old, having worked with me on service or research projects abroad every single year since the age of 10. I’ve always told her that had I been a physics professor, her life might have turned out quite differently, filled with chalkboard calculations and backyard rockets instead of social justice pursuits. I do have small parental guilt over the limited options I presented as a scholar-activist and a single-parent. Kiddo, you never had a chance.

Recently we’ve had opportunities to give joint research presentations of our work, particularly as it relates to lessons learned from indigenous knowledge. This was a proud parent moment for me and I struggled to maintain composure in front of the audience. I’m sure people must have been quite confused as I teared up, and my voice cracked, while explaining the theoretical frameworks that guided our projects.

We’ve actually had a variety of reactions to our travels and work. Most people have expressed support, of course. There is curiosity and sometimes even a little envy of our mother-daughter adventures. But our joint work is a logical outcome of the feminisms that have always informed our daily lives.

Early photos of Ari as a toddler show her bundled up in a stroller as we headed out to a “Take Back the Night” march during my graduate school days. Later photos include picket signs as we participated in women’s rights and peace marches in Washington, DC and there are snapshots of her with my students on field experiences abroad. Now she ventures out on her own, texting me photographs from Kenya of her greenhouse projects with small-scale farmers and pictures of her with village elders discussing water issues for a research project in Senegal.

The first time she traveled as a university student to Africa without me, I was a bit taken aback. As someone who studies child and adult development, this should not have been a surprise, that she was striking out on her own. But I’ve always felt several stages behind and have struggled to keep up. Even when she first started walking, she was still wearing footie pajamas or socks for months. Then one day it dawned on me, “I need to buy her shoes!”

Divorce, in my pursuit of independence and freedom, Ari’s constant exposure to NPR or BBC radio news in our house and car, my critical feminist analysis of everyday life (ad nauseam), and our immersion in university life no doubt impacted Ari’s early development. We had no TV, we boycotted Wal-Mart, McDonald’s and Nike, and bought most of our clothes at thrift shops – all practices that I still engage in today. Now that Ari is an adult living on her own, she has wavered somewhat regarding our boycotts. And I try hard not to take it personally. Ari, in contrast, seizes the opportunity to challenge my social class privilege and hypocrisy with reminders that I can afford not to shop at Wal-Mart and that choosing Target instead, is no solution. Ahh, the proverbial (feminist) chicks have come home to roost! Her quick refrain of, “Mom, that is such a first world problem,” when I dither over trivial concerns, certainly puts our privilege into perspective, as well as makes me groan, albeit with a wee bit of pride.

Understanding privilege is an intentional pursuit for me, personally and professionally, in my research, in my teaching, and as part of a larger social justice pursuit. Consequently, Ari was exposed to this concept at an early age. She was also influenced by colleagues and friends, some of whom are in this room, people who model reflexivity or introspection and critical humility, and have certainly inspired us to new levels of self-awareness.

As a young teenager, during our multiple Penn State service-learning trips to Tanzania, Ari held her own, impressively, in discussions with my students about white and Western privilege. This was challenged, however, during her first trip with me to the Democratic Republic of the Congo when she was 17-years-old.

I had already been to the country several times to visit Panzi Hospital which is known for its exceptional holistic care of survivors of sexualized violence, led by Dr. Denis Mukwege, a pioneering surgeon, human rights activist, and founder of the hospital. It’s here that I still conduct research with survivors of assault and help support programs for women via Panzi Foundation USA, a non-profit I co-founded in 2010 with Dr. Mukwege and Peter Frantz.

Ari was very much aware of the situation in Congo, the on-going conflict, and the rampant rape that brought women to Panzi for treatment. She was savvy enough to understand the complexities of this failed state, the legacies of it’s brutal colonial history, the resulting poverty despite a wealth of natural resources, and the geo-politics of the Great Lakes region that fueled the conflicts. This reality was unsettling for her and despite my reassurances that I was safe in Congo, she still worried about mom. I knew that if I intended to continue my involvement with Panzi Hospital and the women, I needed to take Ari to the DRC and let her experience the country for herself.

Many people were critical of this decision to visit a country labeled as “the rape capital of the world” on the “dark continent”. Their implied judgment was clear, “What kind of a mother takes her daughter to a such a dangerous place and intentionally puts her child at risk?” While I appreciated the concern, this frequent criticism represented a very superficial understanding of the country’s context, culture, and gender. In turn, I tried to challenge the stereotypes of Africa and Congo, by comparing our level of safety in Congo to that of any major US city, for example. Or I would point out the unearned privileges that come with our white skin, and I’d talk about my personal commitment to collaborating for positive change at home and abroad. For me it’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and.

Ari and I spent two weeks in Congo during our first trip together. As outsiders, there is always much to absorb and process but I knew she was ready to embrace the experience after years of working with me in so many other international contexts. While I attended meetings and conducted research, she spent every day planning and delivering art and educational activities at the daycare for children who came with their injured mothers to the hospital. This was meaningful and great fun for her and the kids. But the daily exposure to people’s pain and suffering, individual’s legitimate pleas for money or food or travel to the US, the constant stares we drew, our constrained movement through masses of people on crammed streets trying to negotiate daily life, eventually took its toll.

There were late night tears and feelings of helplessness to work through, which I tried to counteract with hugs and discussion about the luxury and ineffectualness of white guilt, and our limited outsider “gaze” which sometimes overlooks all that is functional, healthy, and positive in Congo. I explained that if the women we were meeting and serving had hope, then we must have hope, too.

Our evenings spent with local youth her age, sharing meals, learning about each others cultures, and discussing politics in the Congo and US created new friendships and helped all of us better understand individual and global complexities. These interactions gave Ari perspective as these young men and women talked about not just their struggles but successes and pride for their country and people.

While I anticipated the difficulties Ari might have in Congo, I was not prepared for the negative reaction she would receive at home from some teachers and peers. This was actually a trend during her junior high and high school years in rural, central Pennsylvania where over 96% of the county population is white. Given her trips with me out of the country, she was quickly labeled “that Africa girl” and judged harshly for doing work abroad instead of in the US because, as her critics stated, “We have problems here, too, you know.”

Her close friends could not relate to these international experiences and most of her teachers expressed little to no interest or understanding. We were already treated as outsiders because we were not native to the area. I had not grown up here or graduated from the local high school. Our affiliation with the university and travel to non-tourist destinations in the global south further set us apart. As a parent, I never anticipated that giving my child a global perspective would somehow backfire – especially in a space dedicated to education. These were harsh lessons for her at a young age. But when we examined them through the lens of privilege, a larger perspective emerged. Now Ari was herself experiencing, to a certain extent, the outsiders’ gaze of unchecked whiteness, stereotypes, and American exceptionalism.

Navigating this situation and reconciling the tensions that are bound up in privilege, requires a constant introspection about how we, as white Westerners, might be positioned as dominant in a particular circumstance and marginalized in another. My tools for this process are found in feminisms, that help me think critically about the racialized-self and my position and complicitness in the oppression of others. Another tool in my toolbox is the African concept of Ubuntu.

Arianna was born in 1993, the same year South Africa ratified an Interim Constitution, which was followed in 1994 by the country’s first democratic elections and the historic selection of Nelson Mandela as president. As her mother, it is my prerogative to symbolically link these two very historic events in the narrative of her life. In the last quotation of the Constitution it states, “There is a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for Ubuntu but not for victimization”. The philosophy and tradition of Ubuntu is about our connected humanity. It was popularized by Desmond Tutu in his 1999 book, No Future without Forgiveness.

“A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

When I think about various forms of privilege and my position as dominant or marginalized, Ubuntu gives me an added depth of understanding. It reminds me that in the pursuit for human rights and freedoms, for social justice through the dismantling of oppression, we must always be guided and inspired by human dignity and the preservation of our collective humanness. My daughter and I try to realize this in our work with, for, and in service to, others. It helps us stay grounded, centered, humbled and with our own privilege in check.

As a parent, I’ve tried to model a consistent life ethic that draws from feminism and Ubuntu to inform all aspects of our personal and professional, public and private lives. It’s fraught with tensions, contradictions, generation gaps, and hypocrisies as well as great meaning and joy. So I will close not with answers but a question, inspired by Arianna’s tattoo, “How can each of us find ourselves through selflessness?”

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MLK Words to Inspire beyond a Single Day

It’s easy to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. once a year on his birthday in January. The sad reality is that most of us in the U.S. don’t really understand his mission for justice and associate him with the struggle for racial equality only. Even fewer of us know about, let alone follow his example to dismantle what he called “the triple evils”: racism, extreme materialism, and militarism. The recent deaths of unarmed black youth by white police officers represent the tragic legacy that we have created for ourselves.

His last book, written in 1967, “Where Do We Go from Here, Chaos or Community?”* is now the urgent and critical question of our time. We must unite to change systems and institutions built on and sustained by white supremacy.

“Let us be those creative dissenters who will call our beloved nation to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humanness.”                          – Martin Luther King, Jr.

* My 17-year-old nephew gave me a copy of this book for Christmas. That’s remarkable in-and-of-itself. He was on a Civil Rights service-learning trip in Alabama with a youth group from Milwaukee when he bought it for his activist Auntie. This speaks to his character, and the positive influence of his parents and a very cool older sister. Thanks, David!

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Watch My France 24 TV Interview on Rape as a Weapon of War in Congo

It was a pleasure to participate in this France 24 discussion yesterday in honor of Dr. Mukwege’s receipt of The Sakharov Prize. The host was Francois Picard.  Panelists included Bineta Diop, Founder of Femmes Afrique Solidaritie; Julie Owono of Internet Without Borders; and Natasha Henry, Gender Specialist and Writer.

Watch Part 2 Here:

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“G.I. Joes & Army Hoes” College Parties Miss the Mark

gi-joe-saturdayJackson Katz, an educator and leader in gender violence prevention (, spoke at our campus last week to a full auditorium. Like many faculty, I use his videos on media portrayals of masculinity to help students consider what it means to “be a man” in this culture. His examples from hip-hop, recent events in the NFL, and popular film depict glorified images of hyper-masculine men characterized by aggressive, demeaning, often violent behavior, especially towards women.

His message hit close to home when after the lecture a student explained to me that a fraternity was planning to host a “G.I. Joes and Army Hoes” party. Yes, that’s right – dressing up like a testosterone-crazed Rambo and a “whore” in camouflage is considered entertainment. So much for 200,000 years of human evolution. This is fraught with so many layers of gender stereotypes, exploitation, sexual and personal insecurities, dysfunctional notions of intimate relationships, and heteronormativity, it’s hard to know where to begin.

A quick search on the internet turned up 74,100 results Bar-Rumba-GI-Joe-212x300for “G.I. Joes and Army Hoes Costume Ideas” including endless party pics and posters for events at bars (see above), indicating a popularity beyond campuses. At it states,

“Most people have the utmost respect for military personnel and like to do what they can to show their respect. Others simply like the clothing they  wear and the thought of being able to carry a fully automatic rifle without any legal repercussions. With the GI Joe and Army Hoes party, you’ll get the chance to both honor the country’s military forces and dress yourself up in the military attire of your choice.”

“Hoe” is slang for “whore.” But what exactly does that mean? According to, she is,

A woman that sleeps with everyone but YOU!!!!!” Followed by, “SEE: SLUT – A woman that sleeps with everyone.”

In other definitions, whore is equated with prostitute. It is beyond the scope of this blog but both of these terms deserve, and have received, much critical scrutiny as they are offensive and derogatory to people who are in fact, sex workers. There is a difference.

According to, this is what the Army Hoe should wear.

2fcf52f9-ec6b-4161-b1fa-5835f3ae5f70_resize-1Let’s start with the Army hoes, since they can have all the fun they want with this. Costume shops all over the internet sell variations on all walks of military uniforms. From two-piece camo-designed skirt and tops to a more dress-like variation on any military uniform (complete with plenty of cleavage), the possibilities seem endless…. Since you want to honor your military in the best way, you may want to go with something as slutty and as revealing as possible.”

I wondered what the US Army would have to say, especially given recent revelations about the extent of sexual assault in the military and their own disconnect between stated values and actual behavior. According to their Sexual Harassment, Assault Response and Prevention website ( and their I. A.M. Strong campaign, a soldier must do the following:

“When I recognize a threat to my fellow Soldiers, I will have the personal courage to INTERVENE and prevent sexual assault. I will condemn acts of sexual harassment. I will not abide obscene gestures, language, or behavior. I am a Warrior and a member of a team. I will INTERVENE.

You are my brother, my sister, my fellow Soldier. It is my duty to stand up for you, no matter the time or place. I will take ACTION. I will do what’s right. I will prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault. I will not tolerate sexually  offensive behavior. I will ACT.

We are American Soldiers, MOTIVATED to keep our fellow Soldiers safe. It is our mission to prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault. We will denounce sexual misconduct. As Soldiers, we are all MOTIVATED to take action. We are strongest…together.”

So much for G.I. Joes and Army Hoes as an honorable and respectful tribute to the US military.

What’s going on here? Why this theme? How is this fun? I posed these questions to my 300-level Human Development and Family Studies class the next day. Here’s what came out of our discussion:

1) The concept of G.I. Joes and Whores represents heterosexual gender norm extremes that feel edgy and risqué (maybe rebellious?) but are exploitative and objectify both men and women.

2) Men and women are socially awkward and need gimmicks such as themed parties with alcohol in order to interact. Dressing up will potentially draw desired attention from the opposite and same sex but drunkenness increases the likelihood of sexual harassment and assault.

3) Performing the “whore” provides women with a false sense of power over men if her attractiveness enables her to refuse or accept the advances of males.

4) Dressing like GI Joe is an excuse to take on a physically aggressive (perhaps homoerotic?), tough-guy stance toward other men and a sexually aggressive persona towards women.

5) In a culture of repressed sexuality (i.e., sex is everywhere, sex sells, be sexy, but don’t have casual and/or premarital sex), performing the stereotypical whore enables young women to rebel against the “good girl” gender script and exert some other aspect of her sexual self.

This analysis is not exhaustive. Our class was only 75 minutes. But it provides a window into quite dysfunctional cultural attitudes regarding sexuality and gender as represented here by hyper-masculine men and overtly sexualized women, both ironically devoid of anything honorable. Our class discussion, however, is proof that engaging students on these topics leads to critical analysis and perhaps introspection. In fact, campus administrators spoke with greek-life student leaders about the upcoming party, drawing on the messages of Jackson Katz. After that meeting, and on their own accord, the students cancelled the event.

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Teaching about Rape as a Weapon of War and Genocide

The following are my comments, meant to serve as a prompt, to a group of 14 international scholars invited to Oxford University March 8-12 to discuss how we teach about rape as a weapon of war and genocide. We were convened by Drs. Carol Rittner and John Roth, both esteemed and prolific scholars of Holocaust and Genocide Studies.   

When I considered, for the purposes of this seminar, which histories and experiences, places and contexts of sexualized violence should be taught, my first thought was, “Perhaps teach what you know best.” But when I consider what I know best, which is DR Congo, I recognize that I have privileged one location, people, and violence over others. Sharing such pedagogical dilemmas with students, in my experience, provides a platform for briefly acknowledging other global contexts, the complexities of this topic, and limitations of the classroom.  Adding to this an admission of my fallibility as an instructor provides an opportunity to position myself relative to the students and communicate my expectation for bi-directional learning. I can then problematize my understanding of sexualized violence as an advantaged, white, “outsider” to the experience and the country. Modeling this reflexivity and critical humility seems to earn students’ trust and helps shape positive classroom dynamics and individual receptiveness to difficult subject matter.

Before launching into the realities of the DR Congo, I first try to meet students “where they are” by asking them how sexualized violence, real or feared, has shaped their lives. I ask  students, for example, how they navigate physical spaces. Do they avoid walking alone after dark to their apartments or cars? Are there safe and unsafe places they occupy or travel through in the community?  How does skin tone or sexual orientation or gender or other social classifications and markers make them more or less accepted or safe in these spaces?  This is an opportunity to remind students of Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory (1979) and its utility for helping us understand the complexities of human phenomena by considering micro- to macro-level factors.  At this micro-level, I might also consider the place and context of “the body” as the physical location for violence, instead of nation, for example, and pose, “Why are women’s and men’s bodies the targets of sexual assault in the US military? Why are women’s bodies the battlefield in DR Congo?”

As someone who studies human development, I am also inclined to think about stages of maturity and cognition of those we teach and what child development can tell us about 18-year-olds and what we can expect of them at this point in their young lives. As a feminist, I also think critically about individual development in a neoliberal societal and university context and wonder how this has shaped students’ attitudes toward learning.  If I teach about sexualized violence, will I encounter resistance? What’s at the source of individual openness or rigidity to these gendered issues?

At the macro-level, I contextualize Congo by considering its historical context and drawing parallels between this and what’s happening in our own backyard with sexualized violence in the US military or against Native American women living on reservations. By bringing it home, I can better avoid misconstruing atrocity as something that only happens “over there” and perpetuating the stereotype of a “dark continent.” When considering which histories and experiences, places and contexts, I must also problematize conceptualizations such as “rape as a weapon of war,” and include discussion of conflicts when rape was not present. In my own teaching, I need to better connect the dots between global warming, sexualized violence, and the battle for natural resources – think firewood, conflict minerals, and water.  We should probably all prioritize climate change in our work for obvious reasons.

I feel as if I’m just fantasizing now about the ideal teaching scenario but let’s keep going… in the spirit of Chandra Mohanty (2006), Patricia Hill Collins (1990), and Naomi Klein (2007), in the future I will include questions about sexualized violence that draw links to neoliberalism, matrices of oppression, the re-creation of empire and disaster capitalism.  More than a fantasy, how about we, those of us seated around this seminar table, start asking the most radical of questions which subvert, resist, and disrupt the discourse on genocide and rape?

My version of feminism and feminist pedagogy requires an ethic of care, reflexivity, and critical humility both in and out of the classroom. When considering which histories, experiences, places and contexts of sexualized violence to teach, it will always be part of a larger anti-genocide and human rights project ultimately framed by 2 words: “Never again.”





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Understanding the Experiences of Congolese Women with Children Born from Rape: Data Analysis – Day 3

I was fortunate to have some time yesterday and today with Nita Evele (Director of Congo Global Action) at the Hear Her Voice advocacy event in Washington, DC. It was an honor to speak on a panel about Women in Conflict with her and Niemat Ahmadi, the Director of the Darfur Women Action Group. They are both tireless crusaders for peace in their countries. 

Nita and I have served on panels together before but have not had much time to talk. We were able to carve out a few minutes to chat about my research project and get her insights about some of the findings. 

I wanted to know WHY the women linked economic independence to ending stigma. And I wanted to know why people stigmatize others to begin with (more on her response later). Here’s what I learned. While this is new to me, I understand that perhaps this is not new information for some readers. My apologies if I have missed some latest research. I appreciate people’s patience with my learning curve. 

Nita explained that when a woman doesn’t have to beg or rely on the generosity of others for housing and food, she will be respected, to some degree, by people around her. Having means translates into a higher status – a pretty universal human experience. But interestingly enough, ending stigma is more about the woman taking back her own power and finding pride in her ability to provide for herself and her children. This enables her to care less about what other people think. Rather than expecting others to change their attitudes about her, she changes her attitude about herself. Brilliant! 

In my mind, then, there are direct policy and practice implications. Want to lessen the devastating stigmatization of rape survivors? Facilitate a woman’s path to economic empowerment. Or, approached a bit differently….Want to reduce poverty? Terrific. An added benefit will be a woman’s improved self-image and a little less sting in public insults or intentional shaming.  

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