A few years ago I found myself being interviewed for a job in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was struggling back then. I literally lived from pay-cheque to pay-cheque chasing after the next gig to keep myself going. My savings had been depleted. I moved around like a nomad not only within the city I lived in but country to country as I looked for work. I had consistently been getting jobs that under-paid me while I put in double the value in work. My relationships and health suffered because I was stressed. My emotional well-being was precarious because I had not begun to process my experiences overseas which included discrimination, sexual harassment and the daily, real fear of, a violent death or violent sexual abuse. I had also not begun to process the effect having my voice consistently minimized and dismissed had on my self-esteem.
So here I was interviewing for a job as Gender Advisor to address sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). They described the conditions I had come to expect:
• At any moment there could be an outbreak of violence;
• The stakeholders I would be working with, in general, did not take gender and women’s issues seriously or understand the issues. Consequently, I would have challenges implementing my mandate;
• And of course, this work was considered important because so many women and girls were impacted by SGBV.
As the interviewer asked me questions I felt an anger rise up in me.
I realized what they were saying:
Not only would this be a tough sell – respecting and reinforcing women’s rights – but it would be dangerous.
I wouldn’t necessarily be listened to and in the event of an outbreak of violence I’d have to be responsible for getting myself out and to an area where I could be evacuated. This wasn’t news to me. It’s what you learn to expect working in this field and yet, at that moment, I felt a shift inside of me. My inner voice cried out: If you don’t take care of yourself first how will you be able to help and support others?!
Now here’s where the story differs from those enlightened individuals that get the clue and start taking care of themselves because, my friend, I fought it. I tried to create some stability and pull it together but life had to knock me down a few more times before I listened to my inner voice and inner wisdom.
What it said was crazy and didn’t compute with my world. It asked me to pause.
How the hell could I do that when I needed to hustle for a job to support me?
How was that going to help me get the insane amount of work that needed to be done in order to fulfill contracts by the deadlines?
How was pausing going to help the women experiencing sexual violence and discrimination at this very moment?!
It also asked me to get curious – why was I doing what I was doing?
I reacted with incredulity. What the hell did it mean by that?
I wanted to work on women’s rights implementation and that meant I needed to go after the jobs, take the opportunities I got and the low wages that came with them and/or work extra unpaid hours, not get recognition for my work, have my opinions dismissed, and have negative impacts to my health and well-being – all because it was my desire to fight the fight for women’s rights.
My inner voice said: Uh huh. How’s that approach going for you?
We all deal with conflict. Not only with the world but within ourselves.
The conflict arises because we work in a patriarchal system which dismisses and ridicules actions considered feminine. The actions associated with femininity are equated to being weak. That’s why our work is so damn tough!
While we work hard to eliminate SGBV and bring perpetrators to justice it escapes our notice that we are stripped of the tools we need the most:
Little value is given to these actions in the world of humanitarian aid, international development or international relations.
What we are used to is:
There’s no time to think. Act now!
Be aggressive to get the job done.
Push yourself to do the extra hours!
Drink alcohol/smoke (insert any unhealthy habit) excessively to come down from the stress of the day.
Stop yourself from feeling because you might break.
This is what we do. We stifle our feelings and our voice because the system does not allow us or ridicules us when we choose to do something outside the norm. It doesn’t recognize the strength and value in doing things differently.
And this is where the conflict lies – when you know there is something wrong and you are screaming from within but everything around you supports the existing paradigm.
If you want to have a lasting peace you need to start with yourself first.
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You can do this.
We can do this.
You are not alone.