Wheels of the bus go round and round: racism in women’s health organizations


First it was the claims of Women Deliver being a White Faux Feminism agency, now it’s the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC). Recently, the President of IWHC resigned after a report found a work culture of fear and intimidation experienced by junior staff and people of colour.

October is the month dedicated to mental health; looking at the experiences of working in the development space and the fact that mental health issues arise in toxic work environments is shocking. A space that professes to fight for justice, is for some of its workers one of injustice, especially the overt and not-so-overt undercurrents of racism and power.

The IWHC report findings are paradoxical; on the one hand it absolves any claims of racial discrimination against the President and two other senior managers, but on the other hand the report states that people of colour were impacted: “Management demanded often unrealistic levels of perfection, they found, and there was a disproportionate negative impact on staff of colour”.

This raises a list of question we need to ask;

  • How is, and who defines what is racism and what behaviour is racist?
  • Who conducts these investigations?
  • Are the recommendations harsh enough?
  • How do we keep monitoring these situations?
  • What is a just resolution?

We need to set a precedence, otherwise we can forget any long-lasting structural change, or a change of the status quo. The greatest peril could be that these are one-off soft efforts; quick resignations versus what the feminist space really needs is a wide opening of Pandora’s box and restorative justice.

In a year where we all are preaching Beijing +25, Generation Equality, it is most disappointing that at the heart of it all, we are also seeing an exposure of the type of toxic “leadership” in the development space – a space meant to reach women and girls, to tackle gender inequality. On the bright side, perhaps, this is also a blessing in disguise, cleansing our space of global health oppressors – but only if alternatives put forward are mindful of race, gender and power at its most fundamental level.

There is a clear trend emerging and there’s no doubt more to come. In South Africa (SA), an article which went largely unnoticed was authored by the former Head of a Health Media Agency, Sibongile Nkosi, titled “Why is it still so hard for civil society to talk about internal racism”. It discusses her experiences, what it was like to be a “black face” of an organization, but behind the scenes no room to breathe and no real power or authority to actually carry out her job.

The Black Lives Matter movement is an opportunity for the development sector to undergo deep introspection; to ensure that we do not just put a band aid on and move forward as if everything is normal, because it’s not. Nor will we see any immediate change with one resignation. This period is crucial to spark outright condemnation and zero tolerance. It will also be critical to deal with the power which exists, how and where do staff report these experiences to? How will the whistleblowers be protected and what support can we put in place e.g. both legal and mental health support? Women Deliver and IWHC are not the only organisations where power dynamics play out – both internally but also in North-South interactions. We can expect more revelations – and how we deal with these will shape our movement fundamentally.

It is critical to also look at the role of the donors in all this – in many cases they are glaringly silent, sitting on the fence – this is probably not going to change, as they have their own agendas and in many cases staying silent is the most strategic position. Instead it is going to be up to each of us in the space to push this wide open. This “decolonization of global health” we keep seeing punted around – this is what it will take to make it a reality: exposing the racism.

About the authors:

Shakira Choonara, is an award-winning Independent Public Health Practitioner and a Board Member of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation which advances non-racialism in South Africa, tweet @ChoonaraShakira

Vicci Tallis, is a Feminist, Independent Consultant and a Research fellow in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Pretoria, South Africa

Xin Ya Lim, is a medical student and global health advocate

Competing interests: Authors declare no competing interests.

Handling Editor: Neha Faruqui

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