Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Africa does not need your (dirty) underwear

Friends of mine notified me about a company in Canada, Nectar Lingerie, which is promoting a campaign to send women's 'gently used' underwear to Zambia. The campaign is advertises its humanitarian motivations as follows:

In many parts of Africa, women go without bras and panties because they cannot afford them. Bras and underwear are considered luxury items. Wearing these items raises the social status of women in their communities, which reduces the instance of rape and helps stop the spread of infectious diseases. 

But this statement does not seem to be evidence-based. This is the first time that I have heard of a widespread African panty and bra shortage. And I have not seen data from the Journal of African Knickers comparing how many women are going commando in low-resource countries as compared to their more affluent counterparts. In any case, it is hard to say how wearing drawers could raise the social status of women, unless they flash them, wear them on the outside of their clothes, or otherwise make their smalls known to the community. And as for the idea of undies as means of combatting rape and infectious diseases in Africa, it is hard to know what to say. It seems analogous to sending (used?) plastic forks to Africa to combat malnutrition. But this is more insulting: with rape and gender violence being such a serious and pervasive structural problem in Africa, the idea of sending drawers -- used drawers for god-sake -- as a response is appalling. In addition, once you remove the 'humanitarian justification', you are left with a company that shamelessly and cynically proclaims itself to be 'helping Africa' in order to raise sales among the developed world ladies. Exploitation anyone?

After a few pointed emails from friends, Nectar Lingerie took down their Undies for Africa webpage. But they cannot take down everything, and you can find remnants of it, for example here and here. But this made me wonder whether there similar campaigns around. And sure enough. How would you like your drawers to have been previously aired on Shildon High Street, by a funeral company no less? The maternity underwear company in New Zealand Hot Milk has its Knickers for Africa campaign, which also trots out the idea that panties are an unbelievably effective barrier against rape, HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, based on the musings of a local priest in Zimbabwe. I am sure there are more of the same.

Bottom line: just like Haiti does not need your Superbowl t-shirt, Africa does not need your Victoria's Secret hand-me-downs.



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I blogged about used underwear once: http://bloodandmilk.org/2010/05/12/a-meditation-on-used-bras/

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