We sat down with our course coordinator, Dr. Meg Davis, an expert in global health and human rights, to talk about the course “Sexual Violence in Conflict Settings and Emergencies” she is teaching, how she started working in the humanitarian sector, and today’s challenges for humanitarians. The next session of her course starts on 16 March 2020.
At CERAH you are the coordinator of the short course “Sexual Violence in Conflict Settings and Emergencies”, can you tell us more about the course programme?
The course is tailored to humanitarian programme managers, both people who are directly managing programmes that serve survivors and those managing multiple programmes or regional responses. It is multidisciplinary, multi-sectoral, and aims to walk the line between academic research and practical experience by bringing in seasoned practitioners and scholars to share their expertise on medical care, mental health and psychosocial support, access to justice (legal aid), and prevention. We put survivors at the center of the response, and encourage participants to think critically about statistics, to attend carefully to ethics and risks of data-gathering, and to be alive to the diverse nature of survivors – male, female, transgender, persons with disabilities, sex workers, and others. The course is supervised by a steering committee that continually revises the course content based on participant feedback and the latest evidence. We offer it three times a year, one in Uganda and twice in Geneva. There is a waiting list for the course, and we hope to begin scaling up courses soon.
In your opinion, what are the key challenges today for humanitarians?
There are many, but one overarching challenge is the need for organisations based in the global North to shift from “white savior” mode to supporting the leadership – including thought leadership – of organisations in the global South. Humanitarians often call this “localisation”, but I think of it as just good solidarity work. Humanitarians need to move away from absorbing resources and personnel from local institutions. Where we can, we should be a bridge to get leaders who speak for affected populations a seat at the tables where decisions are made, and support them when they are at those tables.
You are an anthropologist with a vast experience on global health and human rights. You have also worked for a number of organisations including The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria and Human Rights Watch. Tell us about your background studies and how your started your career.
I did my doctoral research with the Tai Lüe (Shan) ethnic minority on China’s borders with Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, and have two postdoctoral fellowships that I used to revise my Ph.D. into a book, Song and Silence: Ethnic Revival on China’s Southwest Borders (Columbia University Press, 2005). While I was doing my second postdoc, at the University of California, Los Angeles, the 9/11 attacks happened. I felt immediately that I wanted to join in defending the values that were under attack both by the terrorists and by aspects of the counterrorism response in the United States. That led me to go back to my hometown, New York, and take a job as a researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW). That is how I got drawn into a global human rights movement that has been nourishing and sustaining me professionally and personally ever since.
Why did you choose to work in this field?
I’m not sure I did choose human rights, to tell the truth. I come from a big family of several generations of social justice and civil rights activists, teachers and journalists. In fact, my Czech refugee grandfather was a lifelong member of Amnesty International. I tried to resist this field for a while by immersing myself in Chinese literature and theatre, but eventually my activist DNA won out.
Can you tell us a bit more about your work in Asia? How did you start working in that part of the world?
At HRW I did some of their first field research in mainland China, working with the first generation of AIDS activists who emerged in response to the Henan blood disaster in 2002. The disaster happened when government officials promoted a for-profit blood sales industry that accidentally spread HIV to thousands of villagers, and then tried to cover it up by threatening doctors, journalists and whistleblowers.
When I eventually left HRW, the Chinese AIDS activists I had bonded with decided to follow me. Eventually, I was doing so much work in my evenings to support Chinese NGOs (from helping write grant proposals to having people sleeping on my sofa) that my sister-in-law pointed out that I could start an NGO. The result was Asia Catalyst, an NGO which provides support to start-up community-based NGOs and civil society networks in Asia.
Beside your activity as course coordinator on sexual violence, what are the research projects you are working on?
My forthcoming book, The Uncounted: Politics of Data in Global Health (Cambridge University Press, 2020) explores why the world is falling off track in the race to reach the end of HIV. The answer has to do with politics, data and stigma – the hidden populations and human rights realities that are left uncounted by countries when they decide how to target their funds for health programs, and that are not quantified in mathematical models, cost-effectiveness software, and all the other mathematical tools of global health governance. It draws on ethnographic fieldwork, interviews with global health leaders and activists, and policy analysis. I’m excited to launch it this coming summer.
I am also working on a new project on digital health and human rights, in partnership with a group of leading AIDS and TB activists. We plan to do community consultations to explore the potential risks as well as the opportunities new tools, like “mobile health” and biometrics, offer to communities living with and affected by epidemics.