What They Have to Tell Us

This week at Media Voices, we have a wonderful film, I Have Something to Tell You, produced, directed and shot by Loch Phillipps for Unicef and UNFPA. Ten extraordinary young women, girls really, most of them orphaned in Liberia’s recently concluded civil wars, several of them living with no family support whatsoever, write down their experiences and their hopes for their future and the future of their country. “Girls get stopped,” says 19-year-old Janice. Sexual harassment and assault is pervasive – on the street, in the classroom, even in the family. Many girls react by shutting down. This is a real loss – not just a personal loss, but a national loss as well. “The president [Ellen Johnson Sirleaf] is one of my role models,” says Janice, because she persevered despite early marriage and four children. Janice would like to be president of Liberia one day, “because there are so many things about my country I would love to change.”

Producer-Director Loch Phillipps has written a viewpoint blog for us, Shooting ‘I Have Something to Tell You’ about the experience of getting to know Janice and her friends, trying to get past the barriers of equipment, money, different culture, gender and skin color to create a safe space where the girls could tell their stories.

The aftermath of trauma is a theme of the next offering as well. Struggling to Survive is a report issued jointly by a number of women’s and social justice organizations, including KOFAVIV (Komisyon Fanm Viktim pou Viktim), an NGO based in Haiti that provides medical treatment and support for victims of rape. Two years since the massive earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince, large numbers of displaced people still live in tent cities. Two percent of the general population will suffer a sexual assault – among the displaced women and girls in the tent cities, the rate of violent rape and sexual assault is more than ten times higher. Food insecurity drives many women to survival sex. Struggling to Survive combines recommendations for meeting the immediate needs of tent city dwellers, with support for a new law, still in draft stage, to protect the rights of women, along with job training, better shelter and better opportunities to ameliorate their lives in the long run.

The obstacles are daunting, though. One of the more chilling moments in the truly excellent Al Jazeera documentary Child Slaves, on restavek children in Haiti, comes when the child welfare patrol makes the rounds through the tent city to make sure that no children are being held as domestic slaves. Rageh Omaar asks what they do, if they find such exploited children, where do they take them? “There’s really nowhere to take them,” responds the social worker. “We just talk to the families.” Ah.

But then you have people like Gertrude Séjour, a vibrant forthright woman, who works for the Maurice A. Sixto Foundation. Séjour is clear-eyed about the historical ironies inherent in the restavek system, the fact that in the only nation in which slaves overthrew slaveholders and expelled the colonizers, yet the mental taint of slavery remained and was transmuted into this system of child domestic slavery, a system that causes Haitians mutual shame, both for those who are enslaved and those who hold slaves. Séjour concentrates her efforts on high school kids, the children of (mostly) privileged classes, whose families may be keeping a child of poor relations as a domestic slave. “This is a problem that is eroding our country,” says Séjour, and the answer is education, both for restavek children and for the families who exploit them for unpaid labor.

As we see from the DOL country profile for Haiti, the earthquake two years ago was just the cherry on top of a long, perplexing history of endemic poverty, long ignored. Even when there are attempts to help, the prosperous countries just can’t seem to put aside the reflexive impulse to help themselves as well. Donovan Webster has written a breathtaking article for Global Post, Two Years After the Earthquake, Where Did the Money Go?, in which the various professionals in the aid industry swan around in $61,000.00 Toyota Land Cruisers, like a Victorian lady pulling her skirts away from the dirt as she comes in with a basket for the poor. More next time on the wiggle room between pledges, commitments and…actual money.

[Erratum: An earlier version of this post misinterpreted the 2012 figure from the Financial Tracking Service to mean that the global response to Haiti's needs this year totaled 1.8% of the requested funds. Instead, the funds donated are 1.8% of total donations worldwide.]

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Petra Lent McCarron is an experienced television and film producer and editor. She co-produced Stolen Childhoods and Rescuing Emmanuel for Galen Films. She began her career at WNET (PBS) in New York City as an associate producer for Heritage: Civilization and the Jews. She also worked as an associate producer and stock footage researcher on Robert Moses, for WNET and JFK: A Time Remembered for Obenhaus Films and The Susskind Company.

As a film editor, Petra has worked for the New York Times Oral History Project on their film, Taste Ladies and Ink-Stained Wretches. She was a contributing editor to Stolen Childhoods, Rescuing Emmanuel and Big Guns Talk – all for Galen Films.

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