Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Oxfam goes SWEDOW

I'm with Kate at Wronging Rights on this: surely an April Fools prank? But no, it appears OxfamGB has joined the send-stuff-you-don't-want-to-Africa brigade. Not just stuff, bras.

Oxfam is careful to point out that there is a market for bras (apparently surprising?). They also happily point out that bras are complicated to make, so surely it's okay to flood markets in the global South/developing countries. Just out of interest, who exactly are we including in the global South these days? Does it includes, say, China? Where are your bras made? I'm pretty sure mine come from China. Or India. Or the Philippines. Or South Africa. So maybe not the strongest argument to make.

Even if the global South wasn't producing most of the bras sold in the global North, imported second-hand clothing sales as a development intervention is an extremely suspect way to go. Several African countries, most notably Zambia and Zimbabwe have watched fairly promising textile industries collapse under massive competition from cheap imported second-hand clothing. Zimbabwe has now banned the import of second-hand undergarments - that's how seriously they take it. Most of those imports have been commercial but given the demonstrable impact on local markets, perhaps it isn't the best idea for development organisations to encourage free second-hand stuff. Creating sustainable livelihood options has to involve supporting industries in the global South, not collapsing markets with cast-offs and hand-me-downs. Particularly because this is Oxfam, who do so much good work advocating for pro-poor value chains in other sectors.

Finally, this, right here, is a problem:
Women with bras feel more empowered and also more protected in certain areas. Indeed, American non-profit FreeTheGirls believe that wearing a bra can reduce the likelihood of rape, as the potential culprit considers bra-wearers to be better connected and savvy. As such, women often spend most of their daily wage on one bra to ensure their safety.

The implication that bras protect women from rape or that that women with status are exempt from rape creates the impression that women are raped because they're too poor to (or choose not to) take the simple precaution of wearing a bra. Rape is not about what the women is wearing and I am sure Oxfam knows that.  Rape is a weapon in many parts of Africa, a weapon of war, a weapon to silence opposition to degrading and oppressive cultural practises, a weapon of violence and power in intimate relationships, a way to punish what is considered to be sexual deviance. Pretending that it is simple to get women to support an already dodgy campaign is unacceptable. Suggesting that donating bras will somehow protecting poor women from sexual violence is irresponsible.

I respect a lot of what Oxfam does but this feels like selling out the people we're meant to be helping.

PS Just in case anyone is still obsessed with fixing the world with bras, here's an approach that combines old bras with empowerment without needing SWEDOW. Just as an example (not necessarily implying endorsement).


  1. They're being sold at the market, not handed out to aid beneficiaries as GIK, ala World Vision tshirts. Presumably jobs are being created in the process. #swedow-lite? I'm not sure.

    Awful inclusion of that freethegirls line though. Yuck.

  2. Interesting, but I'm not actually sure that that doesn't make it worse - vulnerable women are being encouraged to build their livelihoods (jobs) around an unsustainable supply of donated bras while the local industry languishes. #swedow-lite is a great term :)