Work hard. Play Harder
The prints. That long Coat on Him would look perfect on Me! Those mules she is wearing! And that blazer.
And hints of tribal.
What’s not to love?
After the investigation of my accusations against my line manager by Oxfam and my dismissal was upheld the only other recourse I had to justice and a fair hearing was the law courts. However, there are considerable challenges to accessing justice not only in Nigeria but also in the U.K. and the EU.
In order to over come these challenges I chose to appeal to the human in the humanitarian agency that I worked for. Since 2010 and I have been asking Oxfam GB to review my case. each appeal has been denied. I have been stone walled and smeared and discredited. recently I found out that my personnel file was incomplete, vital document were missing. All the documents that disproved OGB’s assertion that I was dismissed based on performance. All the documents that may have provided some evidence of my performance are missing in the file that I received in reposes to a subject access request that I made in November 2017.
The EU and DFID should be applauded for their efforts so far but more remains to be done. It is not enough to make aid organisations show that they have systems in place for the prevention and detection of sexual exploitation and abuse. They must put some sort of measures in place to test whether theses systems are effective. Systems have been available and in lace since at least 2002. At the time of my assault and appeal the sexual harassment policy I used was prepared in 2007. Systems need to be tested. Intention needs to be tested.
This is what makes my case unique and important. It provides a unique opportunity to test whether the organisations have committed to change and have changed because when they do they will change their response to me. if they can treat me who is public the way they have how have they treated the people that we do not know anything about? The anonymous ones.
Until my case in particular is dealt with properly there will be no real accountability in the aid industry.
When I went to Martin Knops, Oxfam’s in house counsellor, in 2010 just two days after I was violently attacked by Samuel Musa my line manager I was not thinking about punishing Musa, I wasn’t even thinking of him at all. I went to seek help for the shock and emotional distress the attack caused me. I should have been advised to call an ambulance not the police. I needed first aid. I didn’t get it. Not even when I asked for it.
Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Statesman wrote that like me many of the women she has spoken to didn’t want the men accused punished or even shamed. They told her they wanted acknowledgment and maybe an apology. I wanted more than than that. I wanted treatment. I asked again in 2013. I was completely ignored. My email wasn’t even acknowledged.
The attack and the subsequent dismissal were life changing events. I’m not the same person.
I’m surprised at the lack of response to a growing crisis. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics reveal that last year, an estimated 646,000 people were victims of sexual assault in England and Wales. The Charity Commission said more than 1000 cases of sexual harassment were reported to them last year. Meanwhile, only 2 out of 10 women report.
Studies have long established the negative health effects of sexual assault. Sexual abuse does not only leave psychological scars. It can also have long-lasting health consequences. I recall an insurance ad that said “Its not what they take away its what they leave behind.”
It is not enough for DFID, the Charity Commission, Oxfam and Save the Children to publish reports about how they will prevent SEA and punish abusers. They need to make commitments to provide mandatory psycho-social and legal support to everyone that experiences SEA on the job. The hysteria around sex obfuscates the fact that sexual harassment is a labour rights issue as well as a human rights issue.
The IDC Report was wrong when it said – “Currently, when organisations fail to hold abusers to account, the victims and survivors have no other recourse to justice.” They continue to have recourse to the law courts. The question is why aren’t they taking advantage of those laws? Are they aware of the legal and social reliefs that are available to them? And whose responsibility is it to inform them of those rights? What challenges do they face in exercising those rights? What are the institutional, legal and social obstacles survivors face when reporting and seeking support?
The IDC report was right when they said “that self-regulation has failed.” My question is how did the sector become self regulating? Where are the legal exemptions? Only the UN has legal immunity and if they are to be believed they have waived it for SEA cases. What stands between aid workers and the courts? When and how did the Charity Commission and DFID take their place?
I read that in UK employment law, the problem is not even that legal safeguards don’t exist – it’s that employers don’t understand them. My research suggests otherwise. The Kemp & Merklebach report ‘Can You Be Sued?’ was released in 2010 and very clearly laid out how employment laws affected aid organisations in several jurisdictions including the U.K. I think employees may be the ones who do not understand the employment laws. It would be nice to see the report updated and expanded to include jurisdictions in the global south. South Africa has been especially vibrant in creating case law. So has Nigeria. The National Industrial Court updated its court rules last year and included specific rules for filing a sexual harassment claim under constitutional human rights protections instead of employment law. One might also be able to make a claim under the Employees Compensation Act.
After receiving my invitation for the safe guarding summit I asked DFID to include a thematic event around the summit that would answer some of these questions and specifically consider the legal aspects of sexual harassment of staff, including employee’s and victims rights and employers legal obligations including duty of care. Implicated organisations spend more on lawyers and legal advice than they spend on safe guarding even after #MeToo. Maybe even because of #MeToo. Unfortunately DFID said there was no more room on the agenda.
For years I have been stumbling about unaware of my statutory rights till they expired while struggling with the personal and professional fall out of my experience. How many other women are struggling and being gaslighted at the same time, their credibility and capability constantly put in question?
I wasn’t interested in punishing my abuser in 2010 and I’m still not interested in 2017. I wanted attention for the injury his violent attack had on me. It gave me small comfort when first Samuel Musa and later Penny Lawrence resigned. Okay. Maybe I gloated a little. Not too much. Just enough. But I don’t want an acknowledgement or an apology. I want my rights upheld. Don’t you?
As women, as feminists, as activists and as citizens we need to know about our rights and the laws that will protect them. And we need to start using those laws. Janice Turner, a columnist for the Times, asked whether our silence about sexual assault has made us complicit. I think our inaction does especially if there are laws that we can use.
DFID should make a feminist analysis of sexual harassment laws in all recipient countries a requirement for any aid agency seeking public funds in the U.K. and if local laws are found to provide insufficient protection it should automatically void any jurisdictional clause in the employment contract. On the other hand Kemp & Mercklebach have already argued that jurisdictional clauses may be unenforceable anyway.
While I appreciate appeals to a higher consciousness, behavioural change is based on consequences not words. An observation that seemed to be corroborated by a Harvard Business School Study in 2011 or 2012 that showed only one in ten people are honest by default. The other 9 will look around to see if they will be caught or not. And if there was no one watching would pick up the hundred dollar bill they saw lying on the sidewalk. In other words, if people or organisations think they can get away with it they will.
We also need to address the inherent inequalities and power dynamics of the aid sector. Martin Knops was in Oxford at Oxfam HQ providing mental health care support to the people that worked there. In the regions and at country level there were no such resources and requests for them were routinely denied for lack of money just like my suggestions for a safeguarding framework in west Africa in 2010 were obstructed by a lack of money for implementation. Its time for an honest power analysis. We need to change how we do aid.
#AidToo should be about well being, workplace safety and women’s labour rights. What we need now is more resources and more collaborations to take it from theory to practice. Well being in the aid sector is finally beginning to receive the attention that it deserves. The aid sector is not a paramilitary sector. Aid workers and activists shouldn’t be coming back from work shattered and burnt out. And if they do they should be able to access resources to recover. Generosity towards employees after an injury should be the default not the exception especially in the ‘humanitarian sector.’ If employers said ‘we’re going to give you the best care possible, we going to get the best investment out of our assets’ there would be no need for legal interpretation and judicial orders but without them we cannot rely on employers or regulators doing the right thing.
Its time to start taking care of the people that take care of others with the accountability tools that we do have.
If I were one to give in to pessimism I could have predicted the Kavanaugh outcome. Just like I foresaw a Trump victory. Sexual assault is the only traumatic event where aspersions are made against the victim. The immediate concern is less for the victim and more for the accused including organisations.
OGB and pretty much the entire aid sector have known about the extent of sexual exploitation and abuse in the sector for more than a decade. Not doing more to prevent SEA and protect employees that experience it from personal injury looks like gross negligence in light of this years revelations.
Nancy Kachingwe told me that the handling of this scandal by DFID is beginning to look like the handling of historical sexual abuse by the Catholic church. She said attention was focused on reputation and brand protection rather than real change.
Nancy said there were no safe spaces. And no baseline figures for Africa to measure progress. There is no evidence of change and the is no confidence in the things being done. No one is feeling safe. Not enough being done and dissatisfaction with responses from IAO’s.
“What have you done? I will not defend you if you don’t show me that you’re doing something in t his space. After all, anyone can deliver services. You’re no better that anybody else. In fact you’re worse. We need to have our own structures in the south. We’re going to hold you accountable. If you’re going to fail so be it. We have to take all this apart. There was too much blame on the fact that its happening in affected communities anyway. We need to have our own process. We shouldn’t be implementing other people’s plans.” – Nancy Kachingwe
Another African sister told me that the ‘this Safeguarding agenda and compliance is leading us nowhere very fast.’ Why I asked. ‘Box ticking, technicist approach. No power analysis. All about ‘compliance’ and policy assurance.’ Without a power analysis and a shift in power there can be no sustainable solution.
“DFID has reduced development work to a mere box ticking, upward accountability, compliance exercise. What happened to the DFID who thru the PPA supported us to innovate? To deeply engage and shift boundaries? Where is the DFID that stood by us when we challenged power? When we together learnt from women how change happens and how to shift power? Does DFiD see its role as understanding and shifting complexity? Or does it see its role as helping tick boxes on a template? If they are really serious about women’s rights, about VAW, and shifting all that- then they must support processes and ways of working which are beyond mere box ticking… informed by feminist analysis, and practice, as well as values.”
There is a growing disillusionment and disdain for the aid sector in the global south. The donors are not living the values they are preaching and refuse to accept it. I’m hearing this sentiment expressed in different threads across countries and regions. There is a growing perception that western donors cannot be trusted and that they use money to bully the recipients into uncritically accepting biased, flawed and disempowering assumptions and frameworks.
It was difficult reading the IDC report on SEA in the Aid Sector. It took me three attempts to finally finish it. I cried twice.
Despite the many reassurances that the proposed Safe Guarding Summit in October 2018 would be victim focused the IDC’s discussions and recommendations seemed to focus on beneficiaries not staff, domestic or foreign, on reporting instead of victims and survivors care and well being and on programs retaining access in beneficiary countries.
A lot of questions arose from my reading –
What is the strategy for being victim focused? What does that mean? Will the summit treat staff and beneficiaries as a single category? Is the duty of care to beneficiaries greater than or less than the duty of care owed to staff? What duty of care do IAO’s owe national staff? If national staff conditions of employment are subject to national laws does that make IAO’s required to find out what laws are applicable and inform the national staff? What if national laws do not protect from SEA specifically? What should IAO’s do? What of international staff who are being told that their only protection may be in the jurisdiction of the country where the offence happened?
When IDC and the IAO’s say they want to involve and focus on victims and survivors, how will they do this? And what? As objects? As subjects? What would be the questions and expectations? How will the victims and survivors be informed about their rights? Will they have legal representation? Because every IAO will have at least ten lawyers on speed dial. Is there tortious liability? Was there negligence? Will they discuss and make commitments to victims legal rights and IAO’s legal obligations?
Who represents the rights of African female workers? What sorts of protection do African female workers want? What sorts of protections and safeguards do international workers want? Whether the women are pink or brown what protection do they want? What does protection mean to them collectively and as diverse groups? At Oxfam national staff had unions? What is their role and relationship of national unions to the U.K. unions?
As I said the IDC report emphasised reporting and not immediate and urgent intervention to victims, both medical and legal. Sexual assault is a traumatic experience. If a worker came in with a mangled hand no one would say ‘Go and tell HR before I treat your hand’ but the first response is usually questioning the complainants story. Sexual exploitation & abuse are the only traumatic events that are addressed with aspersions against the victim. There seems to be less concern for the victim than the abuser.
Its not enough to ask us to report sexual abuse and exploitation, past, present or future. Abusers past, present and future need to be held accountable. Its not enough to write you are doing everything to prevent SEA. Prevention can’t help us now. We want justice. We’re not crying out for sympathy. Telling our stories is not enough. We’re crying out for justice. Telling our stories has to mean something because the telling and retelling of it is also traumatic. You cannot gawk at our humiliation, say ‘sorry’ then walk away with promises it won’t happen again, you must do something.
Because I’m also a lawyer I decided to explore the legal aspects of SEA of staff. During my research I came across two possible grounds for liability – breach of duty of care and vicarious liability for sexual abuse. According to Kemp & Merkelbach in a 2011 policy paper International Aid Organisations (IAO’s) are subject to the same legal rules as other large organisations and owe a duty of care to their employees, breach of which can be actionable and lead to liability.
Excerpts From: Can you get sued? – November 2011 © SMI, Kemp & Merkelbach
The ‘humanitarian enterprise’ is no longer a matter of well-intended philanthropy or charity but must be considered a global multi-billion dollar ‘business’. 9
The corollary is that IAOs are subject to the same basic ground rules as other enterprises – be they commercial, public or associative in nature – and thus subject to scrutiny irrespective of declarations of community-wide principles, standards and guidelines. 9
The premise of the research – developed and confirmed in the legal review – is that:
Non-profit international humanitarian aid agencies are legally responsible for the safety and well-being of their staff, and can be held liable and are thus exposed to litigation on the basis of (national) law. 24
Generally speaking, employees are owed the highest level of responsibility as they have a reduced capacity to act voluntarily 28
IAOs can also be liable for the faults of their employees during the performance of their duties. This is known as vicarious liability. As a point of best practice, IAOs are advised to provide adequate training, instruction and supervision of its staff to minimise the risk of injury.
Further, IAOs may be held liable for negligence at common law if it can be shown that:
a duty of care is owed to the claimant
breach of the duty of care
the organisation’s negligent conduct (including the conduct of its employees or agents under its control) caused actionable damage to the claimant
the damage suffered is not too remote 50
This principle was tested in a legal case heard in Norway in 2012. The claim was for compensation for economic and non-economic loss after a kidnapping and injury, by Steven Patrick Dennis against the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). The Court ruled in favour of Dennis, awarded damages, and found gross negligence on the part of the NRC. (There was, as appears from the judgment, no issue that the Norwegian courts had jurisdiction to hear the claim: Canadian Dennis’s contract of employment was with a Norwegian employer headquartered in Oslo. The parties proceeded on the basis that Norwegian law applied.)
Can this principle apply to cases of sexual assault?
Q. Can the Oxfam employees who claim they were assaulted by their managers in the UK bring cases for compensation?
A: Yes, and they will be conventional personal injury claims.”
So from a legal perspective employees including volunteers who have been sexually assaulted while at Oxfam GB in the past 3 years may have actionable cause against Oxfam and should definitely and immediately see a personal injury lawyer in the U.K. In addition they may be able to apply for compensation under The Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. Because I am not a U.K. citizen or resident I could not take advantage of these laws but there is legal remedy for sexual harassment in the workplace for Nigerian workers under human rights protections and for personal injury under the Employees Compensation Act 2013. Both actions would originate in the National Industrial Court of Nigeria.
Another question is what effect a suit will have on a claimant? Will she still get to keep her job after filing such a claim for instance? Or could the employer threaten to withhold her reference if she file’s a claim? How will it affect future career prospects at another organisation? So obviously it is not a cut and dried proposition. I spoke to Steve Dennis about his experience.
Why is legal action important? It will make organisations more careful or force them to make speedy restitution/settlement. Nothing impacts organisational behaviour quite like liabilities – whether as settlements or higher insurance premiums. As a matter of fact I’m pretty sure the insurance companies will be the ones that will draft acceptable industry standards for preventing sexual assault eventually. A judgement will set powerful precedent and case law. It would reinforce statutory rights and extend legal rights.
It is not enough to ask victims and survivors to report. Something must happen. Once a formal report is made there must be priority protection and care for the complainant. There also need to be clear guidelines and standards for burden of proof. It should be mandatory for safeguarding staff to give standard legal advice to a complainant and discuss legal options in addition to in-house administrative procedures with the complainant as soon as the complainant is comfortable to do so.
IAO’s probably spend more on legal fees than they invest in safeguarding.
Disturbingly I read several comments in the report saying sexual abuse and exploitation being common within the communities where the IAOs worked as if this somehow excuses the behaviour or the lukewarm attitude towards stopping it. It should not have been mentioned at all. Or if mentioned at all it should have been framed with the same paternalism that drives programming. IAO programs claim the moral high ground except when it involves sexual behaviour towards staff and of staff? What’s that?
Too often, INGOs have adopted a paternalist white saviour posture to VAWG/GBV and SRHR in developing countries, treating them as principally a problem of social norms and attitudes peculiar to the black and brown peoples of the Global South, with “their” harmful traditional practices, backward patriarchal cultures and failed states. By posing sexual violence and abuse in the South as a problem of the racialised other, and by contrast, presenting NGOs as white saviours, the sector has allowed itself to drift down a treacherously slow river of denial and obfuscation about its own sexual abuse problem until it has hit the fierce rapids of reality– Nancy Kachingwe
Nancy makes a compelling case for intersectional feminist activism against SEA in her think piece for the GADN Network. In her piece she lays out the ways in which feminist activism made VAWG/GBV a fundamental violation of women’s rights and the way feminists have been sidelined from decision making around VWAG/GBV. Feminist knowledge has been appropriated and made a cash cow for the industry that actually does little for women’s rights/empowerment. When I spoke to her she told me about women’s dissatisfaction with the response on the ground. She said no one is feeling safe and the power dynamics between NGO’s, donors, staff and consultants is preventing honest conversations. The entire industry is propped up by money from IAOs like Oxfam. No body wants to rock the boat. No body can afford to rock the boat. The aid industry is just that and like I said in a previous post, the aid sector pays really well. You can do good and live well.
If the aid sector has a safeguarding problem, it is firstly because it has amisogyny problem — and a race problem, and a class problem, and an imperialismproblem.– Nancy Kachingwe, Policy & Advocacy Advisor, South Feminist Alternatives
When I left my country shortly after burying my father in 2011 and travelled to the U.K. in the middle of those London riots to document the assault I experienced with the police I hoped it might corroborate any future allegations against Samuel Musa. Instead its one of hundreds of cases that happened at Oxfam and corroborates evidence of rampant sexism in the aid sector. The sector has a problem and not just individual employees that work there. Is it safe for women? According to Nancy, its not. More than 100 cases of assault were reported at Oxfam’s shops and offices in the U.K., some incidents involving minors and we are not witnessing a stampede of claims orchestrated by regulators, lawyers and the public? Imagine if …
If the humanitarian space is to practise what it preaches in terms of gender equality it needs to go further than investigating serious abuse and consider the sexism at the heart of many NGO work cultures.
Megan Rowling also writes the aid sector has a sexism problem . And Shaista Aziz agrees. Sexism and misogyny is preventing the legal resolution of SEA. While I may appreciate that the British public and the British government might not prioritise the just resolution of my case in particular since I am neither a British citizen nor resident, I would have thought they would more concerned about the fate of their own people. Or did someone set up a legal helpline already and I just don’t know about it? In the U.K. that is the response I would have expected. Almost 200 known victims. Nancy’s analysis helped me understand the muted response.
Sexual violence and abuse have been treated as a low-priority issue, something swept under the carpet, almost taboo, because it threatens the imperialist and patriarchal interests of men at the top across the value chain.
While some SEA cases may present jurisdiction challenges apparently not enough to say, exclude an Eritrean working for Oxfam GB in South Sudan from making a legal claim in the U.K. where OGB is based. Again see what Kemp & Merklebach have to say on the matter –
Indeed, employees are presumed to have only limited capacity to negotiate with their employer, so an agreement between the employer and the employee about a choice of law regarding a non- contractual liability made in advance of a potential claim is unlikely to be found to be “freely negotiated” and thus invalid.
In respect of contracts of employment, an agreement on jurisdiction will only be valid if: (i) it is entered into after the dispute has arisen, or; (ii) allows the employee to bring a claim in a court other than that of the member state that would have jurisdiction if the rules described above for employment contracts applied. Therefore, an exclusive jurisdiction clause in a contract of employment that is negotiated prior to, for example, an accident giving rise to a claim is likely to be ineffective.
Although personal injury claims are being made against IAOs it appears that many are settled out of Court and do not go as far as a Court decision because across the countries surveyed, reported Court decisions of such claims against IAOs are rare. The case studies referred to in this section, in the main, involve personal injury claims in the private sector. However, it is unlikely that the basic reasoning that the Courts would apply to IAOs would be substantially different.
Meanwhile, ‘international staff receive priority attention over national staff’ according to Kemp & Merkelbach (2011) –
For a significant proportion of IAOs, the contracting of national staff was decentralized to the field level. As a result, no uniformity exists and headquarters has no overview of the contractual situation of national staff. National staff contracts and inclusion of social welfare benefits as well as insurance depend upon the IAO’s country director/head of mission. Where headquarters guidelines do exist, a country director is expected to implement them. However, it was noted that there is no reporting requirement and that there is no headquarters control system to ensure that contractual guidelines and minimum standards are respected.
The discrepancy between consideration and treatment of international as compared to national/local staff poses fundamental ethical – as well as legal – problems that have only started to be addressed in the past few years. The question of health, safety & security of national staff has thus far remained underdeveloped despite genuine concern within the sector as to staff well-being.
This has far-reaching implications for IAOs and their operations, governance and executive, staff and their dependents, as well as for the sector as a whole. Since safety and security are not only an ethical and moral concern but a legal obligation, due safety and security are not mere personal, subjective matters of choice or conscience but must also answer to objective laws, regulations, standards and norms that can be objectively evaluated and are open to scrutiny – and can be enforced.
The IDC report mentioned but did not firmly condemn unfair employment practices both in the U.K and in Oxfam’s overseas programs including the practice of short term contracts that often leaves workers vulnerable and did not make any SMART recommendations on eliminating the practice. Instead they recommended gender parity in this unfair environment. I’m uncertain how the two correlate or how gender parity will relieve the unfair practice.
As Elizabeth Griffin wrote in “The Ethical Responsibilities of Human Rights NGOs” –
“I find it astonishing that some human rights organisations and academic institutions teaching human rights still manage to avoid providing their employees with basic employment rights.”
Are women safe working for the aid sector? Nancy says they do not feel safe. And a recent poll of aid workers from the north showed that more than 70% do not have confidence in the system.
Do short term contracts protect employers from personal injury claims?
Hi. I’m Persephone, Elizabeth’s favourite archetype. She relates to my experience of kidnap by Hades into the Underworld with her own kidnap to Nigeria, which she describes as Hell on earth. She is of course referring to the poor and oppressed Africa, not the fat cat elite Africa that is its own sort of Elysium.
Elizabeth has had an opportunity to witness some of the poorest living conditions in the world, rampant superstition and the bitter, desperate competition that abject poverty breeds. Sensitive soul that she is the experience has had a traumatic impact on her. The transformation of Kore the Maiden into Persephone the Queen of the Underworld is a metaphor for the journey from naive maiden to powerful woman.
Stories were how Elizabeth survived years of physical and emotional abuse and later on life in a medieval jungle community. She also identifies my mother Demeter’s grief with her mothers grief. Sadly a reunion never happened for Elizabeth and her mother. When Elizabeth finally returned to Moscow after 35 years she really did feel like she had come up from Hades for a breathe of spring air. My story helped her understand her experience.
Elizabeth started getting increasingly gothic after her mothers death. She explored gothic art and imagery, earth religions and witchcraft. At one point she was a rock star, then she was a priestess, a happy go lucky maiden, a ballsy career woman. When she was in her early 30’s Elizabeth, who has always been a voracious reader, started to explore theoretical feminism. The philosopher in Elizabeth enjoys learning through stories, folk lore and the spiritual.
Elizabeth has more fun with a pantheon of imperfect gods and goddesses than one authoritarian god. When she read feminist writers relating feminism through the lens of Greek, African and Inca mythology she did the same and concluded that I was also Ezenwanyi in Igbo mythology, and Africa was Hades. Many of her fathers people believe that Elizabeth is the queen and the goddess Ezenwanyi and on the now rare occasions when she returns to her fathers little village in the Igbo heartland they treat her like one.
Local lore doesn’t say where Ezenwanyi comes from but she is a fair complexioned, beautiful woman with the attitude of a diva. Amiable and generous when happy, she can be vindictive and vicious when unhappy. She was described as a mermaid, half fish and half human and she dwelt in the deepest parts of the rivers where the current was strongest. In the mid 20th century in remote little Igbo villages and towns people still left offerings of sweets, cake, fanta and candy for Ezenwanyi along the forrest paths to the river.
I have been summoned to give testimony of Elizabeth. She wants to be like me when she grows up, to be a woman of substance, of power and of authority accepting her fate as queen of Hades. Hades isn’t a very nice place. It reminds me of the ghettoes and favelas of big Gotham like cities around the world. The dark under belly of the cities, hidden from view like the dark side of the moon.
She thinks because I am a goddess and a queen that my life must have the virtue of Elizabeth I of England, Catherine the Great of Russia. Or even Elizabeth II. Queens that took their role way too seriously if you ask me. Hades is hot. You do not want to exert yourself. And seriously, what disaster could possibly happen in Hades anyway. The disaster has happened.
She’s not going to like reading this (Elizabeth hates it when her characters take on a life of their own) but I’m not like those queens. I’m different. I’ve changed. I’m not Kore anymore. And I’ve gotten over my separation from my mother. I’ve accepted my marriage to Hades and spending the rest of life here. She should too.
Elizabeth is not like that though. She’s a stubborn little fighter. Nothing is impossible to her, a notion that has caused her more than her fair share of frustration. For Elizabeth its only impossible if its not being paid any attention. She is beginning to grudgingly accept that she is only human and not Super Woman. Not even I am Super Woman. And I am a goddess.
Even as she writes this her nature rises to the challenge ready to say “ I AM Super Woman!” We both chuckle. Elizabeth was a fire cracker when she was younger. We’re both pleasantly surprised she made it this far. She lived like a rock star and really believed she was going to crash and burn before 40. Now she is actually planning to stick around till 70. She’s still a little bit of rock and roll but she is also a little bit of country now.
I want Elizabeth to accept me for who I am; an indulged, spoilt, party loving diva who likes to go out among her subjects, The Dead, and spread love where she can. Some of our subjects cannot receive comfort and their cries for solace echo in our ears and in the dark chambers of our heart. The music, the parties, the laughter mute their cries but they are always there, in the background, the White Noise of Hades. Like a ray of sunshine I grace them with my warmth and beauty till I can go back to Olympus, to replenish and renew my self again at my mothers bosom.
I would like to say to Elizabeth now that I have the chance – go ahead and be yourself, be confident and do not be afraid. You can be whoever you want to be and you can be yourself. You don’t need me anymore but you honour me by summoning me to testify for you here and for introducing me to this assembly.
Q: Is it possible to improve the quality of life in Hades?
A: They are only dead men and women in Hades (there are no children here). My husbands job is jail keeper, everyone here is in forced labour. Nobody ever leaves here except me and Hades and once in a while we give a get out of jail free card. Even though my husband and I come and go we have to come back quick quick. Just like Elizabeth can leave Africa when ever she wants and never come back but she choses to come back. She calls it the last bastion of true liberty in the world. Under-regulated markets, pure laissez-faire capitalism, growing consumerism, endemic tax evasion, poor gun control, habitual corruption, pervasive nepotism, rabid opportunism, deadly competition and lots of wide open spaces. (Does that not sound like Hades?)
In Africa paupers become kings as quickly as kings become paupers. Elizabeth the social entrepreneur cannot ignore the opportunities. And after living more than 3 decades in Africa the plethora of rules and regulations in London, Moscow and New York make Elizabeth feel like she’s in a straight jacket. Besides, there are just as many risks living in the northern hemisphere as there are in the global south. At least in Hades the weather is always warm, about as close to paradise as you can get.
I spend my time and money on my appearance – my subjects like glamour, pomp and circumstance. It distracts them from their daily misery. Most nights will find me wining, dining and dancing with my playmates. And the days see me hearing petitions from my subjects. All I can offer are cool drops of solace. I cannot forgive sins. The only people that have ever received a get out of jail free card weren’t supposed to be here in the first place. I can give wealth to my subjects but I cannot give them life, health or children. There are no children in Hades. When people insist that I give them fruit of the womb I can only give them Dead spirits, mysterious, mischievous and impish spawn.
There is no sunshine in Hades. No growth and no growing. Endless stagnation, no aspiration and eternal screams from the tormented. We have ruthless court intrigues. In Olympus if you’re banished from court you could retire to the comfort of your country estate. In Hades banishment from court means a sad, harsh, dog eat dog existence in Tantalus. The courtiers, not having the solace of death to look forward to (you know, because they’re dead already) fight viciously for a position in the royal court. It is hard to live surrounded daily by suffering and pain. It is a trauma to the soul. It is brutal to live surrounded by the Dead, tragic desperate souls that have no hope.
My husband is often away so I do not see him as often as I would like to. The flow of souls into Hades is unending. He is constantly opening up new territory and mining new gold fields. He takes his job seriously. He is not a womaniser like Zeus. (I do not know how Hera puts up with Father.) Hades is a bit sombre and he needs to be firm to run Hades. He has to manage countless souls – the good, the bad and the ugly. He can’t afford to be complacent. He comes to me for light and for love. I am the only life and love in Hades. I am what gives Death Hope. God’s own queen that dwells beside the cool pool of water.
Who else could have given me words to speak to the nations, if not Elizabeth – defender of the underdog, rescuer of the dysfunctional and the wounded, the voice of the maligned and misunderstood. The elders and me love her because she always remembers us and tells our stories.
Being queer is empowering me to step away from hyper sexualised gender narratives. Narratives that normalise or problematise hyper sexual relationship between the men and women. When I am neither a man or woman I can look at myself like a Person demand to be treated like a Person. After the feminist republik, the accountability summit and naming myself queer I began to see my personal situation in a whole different light.
Hitherto I’ve been focusing on my unfair dismissal from Oxfam. I neglected to pursue that Oxfam might be liable in tortious negligence or under personal injury law or even human rights law. Like a deer caught in headlights I stared straight ahead. The first time I learnt that I may have had a personal injury claim was in July 2013 and I was told at the time it was two weeks away from the statute of limitation. It still did not click.
The legal issue between me and Oxfam should have been for personal injury and breach of duty of care. Not unfair dismissal. I didn’t want the job back anyway and I didn’t want another job in the sector. I admit I was seduced by the comfort of a generous salary. In low wage nations employment is not attractive to people like me. We innovate and entrepreneur. IAO’s changed all that. They compete for the best and brightest. And in the local context pay outrageous salaries. Its easy to be seduced. (But what they pay us is nothing compared to what they pay Old White Men that come to Africa claiming to be experts. I met one who received EUR10,000 per month. Late sixties. Asian wife in mid 20s. Or African wife late teens. They ARE a catch. But I digress. More later.)
It was fortuitous I attended the accountability meeting. I don’t go out much anymore. I’ve become reclusive. I almost didn’t notice how much I’ve changed. I’ve been struggling with insomnia, flashbacks, depression, self doubt, anxiety, loss of confidence, guilt and shame. Atrocities are being committed across Nigeria and no one is being held accountable. Because there are no consequences for bad behaviour. People do not learn from words they learn from experience. Killings are not the only atrocities. Sexual assault and rape are atrocities too.
As the revelations against Oxfam and the Aid sector piled up, culminating in the IDC Report released on 31 July 2018, the scale, the audacity and the sheer disregard for women’s well being including my own overwhelmed me. IAOs were scrambling to cover their ass, regulators were scrambling to show that they are alive, state departments were scrambling to show they were taking care of tax payers money. Winnie grovelled. Goldring obfuscated. Dame Stocking dithered. The media scrambled to eke out the news cycle. Reporters and producers called me from all over the world.
Even the Daily Mail got in touch and offered to ghost write my story. Back in October after The Times article came out and Oxfam reacted so blandly I joked they would react more vigorously when The Sun or The Daily Mail carried their story of misdeeds. Little did I know. I turned the Daily Mail down. I read The Daily Mail about once a month to catch up on the social life of the rich and famous. I call it My Guilty Pleasure. I could immediately imagine what the headlines might be.
The Times headline was difficult enough. “Lesley Agams: Oxfam official pushed me on to hotel bed and grabbed my belt.” I was mortified when I read that. This is after all a global publication. I know its what happened and what I said but it still came as a shock. In my wildest dreams I did not expect that the first time my name appears in global headlines it would be like that. The thought that I could go down in history as Lesley Agams the woman who an Oxfam official tried to rape was distressing. And it would’ve been on the front-page if not for Catalonia. Thank goddess for Catalonia!
I pushed my feelings aside and focused on my desire for justice and accountability. This was an opportunity for justice, I told myself. This was an opportunity to hold Oxfam GB accountable. This was an opportunity for me and for the other women I was sure were silently and passively experiencing the same thing to get justice. This was an opportunity to change how the entire sector treats its female employees.
Before I agreed to work with The Times on the October story I did my research. I studied their audience. When the media requests came pouring in after the Haiti scandal broke I adopted a similar strategy. What audience did I want to reach? I settled for BBC’s Newsnight but was rather disappointed to be asked at the end of my interview whether people should still give aid. Its not about Aid. Its about People. Like me. See us.
A couple people noticed the strain I was obviously under during the interview and reached out to support and sympathise with me. (Thank you for caring. You know who you are. I love you.) The Newsnight story ended with a statement from Samuel Musa insisting my dismissal was for ‘other reasons’. Does that mean I deserve to get raped?Does it even matter why I was dismissed?
You can see the full Newsnight segment here. Trigger warning. It triggers me watching it.
Meanwhile I was being asked to retell my story again and again. Being more self aware of my well being I decided to tell it one time last time and gave a 30 min interview to Mercy Abang a Nigerian journalist. You may have seen it or not. It got 172 views on YouTube. Ask me. What was my target audience? I met Mercy when Amy Costello at Tiny Sparks interviewed me for a podcast on sexual harassment on the sector in October 2017. The interview with Mercy was for the record. I wanted to tell my own story, my own way. She was the only one that promised not to cut it for soundbites.
After the October 2017 Times publication Mark Goldring, Winnie Byanyima and Penny Lawrence continued to defend Oxfam’s 2010 decision to dismiss me and insisted that due care had been taken in the investigation of the sexual assault after they were made aware of it. Their own records did not support this assertion and members of their own staff pointed this out to them. My personnel file which I obtained through a subject access request in December 2017 had vital records missing.
When in November 2017 Mark Goldring first wrote to me, I asked for an independent review of my case and to be allowed to exercise of my right to select an investigator. He wrote back to me sometime after 6 December 2017 denying my request and claiming he had personally reviewed my case and stood by both the dismissal and the investigation of the sexual assault. His apology was buried somewhere at the end of the email. It was so nonchalant and dismissive I was deeply offended.
I managed to get through the holidays. I experienced depression and anxiety attacks. I lost appetite. I lost weight. I had difficulty sleeping. I had difficulty with focus and concentration. Then in February 2018 the story about Oxfam in Haiti broke. Sean O’Neill sent me a message to alert me. Oxfam responded robustly this time. It was like watching your bully get bullied. But there were more insinuations about my performance and further justification of my dismissal in 2010. They made no more mention of the attempted rape. Then Dame Barbara came on television and tried to excuse her terrible handling of the Haiti scandal. Her sanctimonious chirping about respect for women and women’s rights after her handling of my 2012 appeal made me livid. I was angry. I had a meltdown on Twitter.
Then I fell really sick. I had to contact my therapist in the U.K. Soon after that l emailed the wonderful supportive people that I met since October 2017 telling them I had to step back for my health. It was taking its toll. I don’t know if they understood. I heard some disappointment here and there but I had to prioritise my self care. At that point nothing else mattered. I just knew I needed to step away and soothe myself back to health.
Well I feel stronger now. Clearer. More focused. Angrier. But my anger is white hot and like Leslie Jamison’s and Audre Lordes’ a tool now. Things are different. I’m not alone. We are many, staff and beneficiaries. Oxfam knew what was going on and deliberately, cynically and opportunistically chose to ignore our safety and well being.
We spoke about it at the feminist republik; the dangers of this epithet of strong woman we so readily accept and use to dismiss and let others use to dismiss our pain and need for attention and healing. Till it becomes a epitaph. Because you know. We’re women. We’re African women. We can’t afford to have a breakdown. Life as we know it will collapse. The very fibre of community and society will disintegrate. Families will unravel. And all hell will break loose. Look around. All hell is breaking loose already. And not just in Africa. Look at what’s happening in America and Europe. We are witnessing the systematic dismantling of a liberal democracy and a rise in fascism.
The strong woman trope is a scam. Once you accept it you let people off the hook. You absorb their abuse, their thoughtlessness, their patronising rhetoric and melodramatic promises of reform instead holding them accountable.
I’m not doing strong woman anymore. My well being and health are too precious. I manage my stress levels very carefully now. I could relate with the experience described in Hope’s Letter. It made me ask how did it happen? Oxfam sent me for a mandatory health test before making me a job offer. All was well. Less than two months later I was diagnosed with a stress related auto-immune condition. That’s how toxic the working environment was. First of all there was way too much sexism. The few women there were support staff. Not program staff and not decision makers. I wanted to quit after just two weeks. But you know what they say – winners don’t quit. Don’t believe cliches.
I was deeply resented at the Nigeria office and I wrote to Samuel Musa on numerous occasions about the gendered problems I was having with staff. We held several mediation meetings. It was a war. On so many levels. One day I found a huge mangled rat on the threshold of my office. It meant nothing to me till I mentioned it to a religious Nigerian colleague. I remember thinking to myself – seriously? Could it be that bad? By the time I was dismissed I decided to resolve the problem myself or leave and informed the regional management team. I didn’t expect to be dismissed. I thought there were rules. The Oxfam rules which I had been introduced to as soon as I signed the doted line on my employment contract. Anyway, I did achieve something I’m really proud of before I was dismissed. I cleaned up the accounts department. The acting CD before me had systematically dismantled it. The new accounts staff were proud to work with me and still came to me for advice on handling ethical situations long after I left Oxfam.
My dismissal does not matter as much as my well being. I feel better already acknowledging it. Its a big step for me to acknowledge my need for self care. It feels revolutionary to be prioritising my well being. It’s my right. Its my responsibility. It is my duty. It can be hard for a ‘strong African woman’ to admit to injury and a need for support. In a dog eat dog world, physical or mental injury can make one feel very vulnerable. As an social rights activist it can also make one feel very guilty.
“Honour your anger,” Martin Knops said to me. He could have helped me deal with my injury first. When I went to him in August 2010 after the assault I was looking for help to recover from the trauma of my experience not a push to go to Human Resources.
Like John Oliver the host of ‘last Week Tonight’ said on his segment on sexual harassment in the workplace.
“HR exists to protect the Organisation from liability not necessarily to seek justice on an employees behalf.”
I wrote to Martin Knops again in July 2013 literally begging him for help –
“I have been struggling since the incident physically and emotionally. I am confused, I am still angry and I need help. I would like appeal to you as a doctor, I appeal to your humanity, I appeal to your conscience and to your compassion. Please help me.”
He did not respond. There was no human in the humanitarian.
Honour your loss, Tony Robbins would say. And then tell yourself a different story.
So I did you know.