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Our Language, Their Voices: The Transfer of Power

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It started on the plane. On the shaky descent into London, his cheery British voice interrupts my movie. "Please do consider supporting our charity, which only supports the most vulnerable, the most needy." (my emphasis not added). Women in the jungles of Sri Lanka often envied those who made it into this category. Their trauma had been not quite terrible enough to make the cut off.

It continued on the ground. I sit down on the tube. Across from this girl. A clever double meaning -- the worst period of her life. Even en route to a conference on sexual violations the forced entry into such a private space is disturbing. Her distraught face is used alongside the words exposing an intensely intimate experience. The catch phrase implores me to allow her some dignity.

Finally at the hotel, BBC offers a primetime space to the stars of this conversation on rape, interviewing a Nobel Laureate and local reporter. Gesturing emphatically with her hands she creates two categories. She raises her voice, "We must stop BLAMING victims and prosecute perpetrators!!" Now, in most conversations I've had this week, they are careful to sidestep this land mine. Even when the word "victim" is used, most people catch themselves. "I mean, 'survivor.'" Nevertheless, her sentiment was correct. Perpetrators should be prosecuted. But as we divide them up, zero in on the one that is more powerful than the other -- have we looked over the heads of the survivors, ignored their politics, their power?

Before I had even arrived at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence, I already had an earful of problematic language from voices I hear often. Walking through the marketplace of the exhibition floor (perhaps the purchase of a bright African handicraft will lighten the dark tales you've just heard?), I stopped in each stall to ask various mega-NGOs what they did. Empower. Meaning to invest, or supply, with power. Also, would I like a rubber bracelet that would contribute to this transfer of power? I wandered over to the mock trial, a Ugandan woman is asked what her community-based organization does. "We empower our women. Oh. And children too, of course."

Not long ago, I was sitting around with community organizers in Northern Sri Lanka, women recently resettled after months and years of a life inside tents. They knew I came from the west, and might be able to access funds. I asked what they wanted to do. "To empower the women and also build their capacity." I see. Never mind that in the current context expressions of power would likely come in unrecognizable forms, hidden far from the military's omnipresent eye -- they would have to find a way to measure power in a progress report. Number of sewing machines given? Risking the life of one woman by pushing her into the public eye?

In Discussion Room X, one survivor hears the words of his own testimony re-verberate throughout the massive hall. He starts to shake. He has to leave, now. Moving slowly through the excited crowds at the Hack to End Sexual Violence-a-thon, he cannot even stop to draw his handprint of solidarity. He has to be outside, far away from this place meant to ease his suffering. Only sitting on the edges of the Thames can he breathe again. He doesn't want his name used, but maybe he also doesn't want his whole self to be labelled by the worst moment in his life? He doesn't speak for a long time.

Another favorite by the more analytical types is a goal to include, raise and privilege their voices. Victims, survivors, civilians and (rarely) fighters. But more important than any single voice is the conversations we are missing. The one where the women's rights activist politely asks the High Commissioner from the UK to NOT visit her office please on their local visit, for fear of increased monitoring. The one where a few women agree to tie the abusive husband of one woman to a tree. The ones where men no longer speak to women from a distance, but with an empathy born of having felt violence in the very same ways.

These conversations in themselves present new ways of thinking, of acting and a new language. One that is by the people, for the people. There may not be a buzzword, but the words mean something. One activist from Sri Lanka comments, "I don't see how this meeting will be able to allow victims in repressive places access to the justice system. Or reparations." These are intensely political questions entrenched in the battle between a powerful state and the resistance that (always, and already) exists. In that conversation which defines the lives of most activists, the ones already in possession of personal, and political, power.

In its novelty, this convention did manage to convene. Even the conflicted and the critical came out. And muted their own conversations to privilege those that didn't really have to consider the politics behind their words. As the pressure mounted, William Hague and Angelina promise to look into the issue of deportation for Tamil Sri Lankan asylum seekers. Maybe they will. And maybe they will use a representative quote in the revered hall reserved for Ministers Only. But that isn't a voice. And it certainly isn't a conversation that matters -- to anyone but them.

This was first posted at deviarchy.com on June 13 at: http://www.deviarchy.com/language-voices-power/