Tag Archives: human rights

Tall Poppies and Birds of Paradise: addressing sexual harassment in Australian culture

Back in Toronto, I was friends with an Australian man. While he was a supportive and emotionally expressive friend, much of our daily banter consisted of ribbing each other, and much of that ribbing was of a sexual nature. If I went on a good date, he’d mock my “game.” If I got dressed up and put makeup on, he’d tease me about my looks. At the time, I thought this was strange – it reminded me of middle school gender dynamics, where the boys and girls who are crushing on one another tease each other relentlessly.

While I’ve only been in Sydney for a little over a month, I’m now able to put that relationship into a cultural context. It wasn’t about us – it’s the culture here. Australia suffers en masse from Tall Poppy Syndrome, a compulsion – possibly stemming from jealousy or from a desire to promote equality or camaraderie between different social strata – to put down successful or distinguished people.

We haven’t quite reached a Harry Bergeron dystopia, but I feel that this culture of put-downs and teasing limits all Australians – the mockers and the mockees. In fact, as I write this post, I can hear the critiques, “Don’t be so Canadian, mate…” and see the empathetic but resigned shrugs, “Get used to it, Aussie guys are assholes.” It limits discourse and makes authentic emotional connections difficult to achieve. It also promotes a culture of sexism and negativity. A weaker blogger might scrap the post in the face of this projected criticism but hey, if they want to call me a prudish or overly PC Canadian, so be it. I was raised to be proud of my cultural sensitivity and able to speak out when offended. And here, I am offended on an almost daily basis. I don’t want to be an average poppy or a wallflower. I want to be a bird of paradise!

I’ve been thinking about this phenomenon since I arrived, but today a friend’s facebook page featured a reaction to Sunday’s NY Times op-ed by Katie Roiphe, “In Favor of Dirty Jokes and Risqué Remarks.” Down under, the whole Herman Cain story was not on my radar, so I had some catching up to do. The American feminist blogosphere is outraged by Roiphe’s claim that a “smart, competent young professional woman” should laugh and shrug off unwanted sexual advances or inappropriate comments about her appearance, and that a workplace free of the risk of sexual harassment would be drab and quiet (because of course, there’s nothing else to laugh or chat about but your cubicle buddy’s boobs).

Roiphe criticizes the “weakness or blurriness” of the language that defines sexual harassment (uncomfortable, hostile, inappropriate) and prefers to euphemize sexual harassment by calling it “colourful.” As a high school English teacher, the issue of semantics was interesting, and indeed, addressing the “slippery” definition could be a productive exercise in a high school English or Law class. But this quote also piqued my interest:

A study recently released by the American Association of University Women shows that nearly half of students in grades 7 through 12 have experienced sexual harassment. Their definition is “unwelcome sexual behavior that takes place in person or electronically.” Which would seem to include anyone who has been called a “whore” or “so hot” on Facebook, or is jokingly or not jokingly propositioned. (In other words, it’s surprising it’s only half.)

So the problem is the overly broad definition of “unwelcome sexual behavior that takes place in person or electronically,” not the prevalence of sexual harassment among teenage girls? Roiphe suspects that by this definition, the percentage should be much higher but immediately moves on, failing to address that even though every girl in the class might have been called flat, easy, or doable, the ubiquity of these comments does not make them excusable. Imagine telling my grade nine student whose friend jokingly called her a slut in the middle of English class, “What’s the problem? Just laugh it off. Now back to Merchant of Venice…hey, maybe you should read for Portia – that shallow ho-bag. Lol.”

I wonder what kind of language and behaviour Australian high school teachers allow. Does the ‘boys will be boys’ attitude apply in the classroom? The relentless sexual jokes in professional settings, and the general acceptance of them, seems to indicate that this is something Aussies have tolerated all their lives.

Frankly, I have been shocked by the way male and female colleagues treat one another here. It’s not just the comments about men being “distracted” by short skirts and cleavage. It’s not just the HR woman telling my senior manager friend that his Canadian accent is sexy.  It’s not just the office party binge drinking that often results in messy inter-office hook ups, sometimes with married bosses. It’s not just the female employees playing ‘who would you rather do?’ about their male colleagues over happy hour cocktails.

It’s the fact that, according to an Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade primer on the status of women, despite a relatively equal rate of education and 58% labour force participation, women hold only 12% of private sector management jobs and a mere 9% of board directorships. The Australian Human Rights Commission breaks it down:

Every year, sexual harassment in the workplace is one of the most common types of complaints received by the Commission under the Sex Discrimination Act. In 2009 – 2010, 21% of all complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission were under the Sex Discrimination Act, and 88% of those complaints related to sex discrimination in the workplace. The wide use of new technologies such as mobile phones, email and social networking websites creates new spaces where sexual harassment may occur.

Sexual harassment at work is against the law. Sexual harassment can be committed by an employer, workmate or other people in a working relationship with the victim.

Sexual harassment can be a barrier to women participating fully in paid work. It can undermine their equal participation in organisations or business, reduce the quality of their working life and impose costs on organisations[2].

For my part, I will not “get used to it.” I will continue to let people know that I am uncomfortable with inappropriate comments. Last week I filed a complaint against a course facilitator who made derogatory remarks about women, Asians and Eskimos (sic). I will continue to tell my female Aussie friends that they don’t have to laugh, get drunk, or get liposuction to impress their male colleagues. And if I end up in a high school classroom here, I will do my best to encourage my female students to be birds of paradise and to grow tall and bright in a safe – and yes, a colourful – environment.


The Guatemala Project: student-driven social action

Social action is often discussed in high schools but rarely do schools undertake meaningful, sustainable, student-driven social action projects. The school where I did my student-teaching last November runs several exemplary social action projects, including The Guatemala Project. I sat in on several of their lunchtime meetings and was impressed with the students’ dedication – this project goes beyond selling beans.

The students work with the Campesino Committee of the Highlands (CCDA), an organization whose mission is to promote the development of campesino communities in Guatemala. The organization promotes land reform, campaigns for human rights, and creates economic and educational opportunities for Guatemalan agricultural workers and their families. Canadian students involved with the Guatemala Project learn about the history of the Central American country and about the injustices that many Mayan campesinos face today. The students raise money for the CCDA by selling fair-trade, organic Cafe Justicia beans, and raise awareness by featuring speakers from the CCDA at school events. The Guatemala Project has sent groups of Canadian students to Guatemala to volunteer on service projects. The group also lobbies the Canadian and Guatemalan governments on behalf of activists being persecuted for their work.

…which brings me to the purpose of this post.  A former student of mine sent out an e-mail recently, urging Canadians to take action on behalf one of the CCDA’s leading activists. Please read the text of the e-mail below and, if you have a moment, copy the text of the letter into an e-mail and send it on to the addresses below.

For more on Cafe Justicia and the CCDA, check out this Rabble podcast: Cafe Justicia | rabble.ca or this video

URGENT: Social Injustice in Guatemala.
Take action now with our email campaign.

The UFA Guatemala Project has a long-standing partnership with an organization in Guatemala called the Campesino Committee of the Highlands (CCDA). The National Coordinator of the Campesino Committee of the Highlands (CCDA), Leocadio Juracán, and his family have been forced to go into hiding following a series of threats against them in the past week.

Since May 1, 2008, the CCDA has denounced several acts of violence against the organization, and has yet to hear a response from the appropriate authorities.  On May 1, 2008, national coordinator of the CCDA, Leocadio Juracán Salomé, and other associates were threatened when the car they were driving in was shot at six times, following the signing of the Rural Development Framework Agreement with Alvaro Colom, the President of Guatemala.  In February, 2009, after a press conference where the CCDA criticized the Guatemalan State’s refusal to proceed with the draft of the Integrated Rural Development Law, the Coordinator received a death threat by phone. Most recently, following a series of actions at the national and international level to pressure the Guatemalan Congress regarding the Integrated Rural Development Law, in November, 2009 27 bags of green coffee were stolen from the CCDA (Café Justicia) processing centre in Cerro de Oro, Santiago Atitlan. These acts have all been reported to the National Civil Police, but to date, no investigation has been carried out.

Recent Attacks

On February 2, 2010, the Campesino Committee of the Highlands, (CCDA), as a member of the Labour, Indigenous and Peasant Movement of Guatemala (MSICG) presented the report: “Guatemala: The Price of Labour Freedom,” and denounced the numerous attacks and violence directed toward the labour, indigenous, and campesino sectors.  One week later, on the morning of Wednesday, February 10, CCDA staff became aware that 182 100-pound bags of coffee (worth approx. CAD$35,000) had been stolen from their processing centre during the previous night. The processing centre is where small coffee producers, and associates of the organization, sell their fair-trade coffee to the CCDA. The National Civil Police were immediately called.  Nonetheless, the Criminal Investigation Division did not arrive on the scene until five days later.  At the scene of the crime, a circle with cement blocks had been made.  In the middle of the circle half-full bottles of liquor and beer were left along with cigarettes that had been lit but not smoked.

In the days that followed the robbery, the CCDA, with the support of MSICG, publicly denounced the incidents both nationally and internationally. On Saturday, February 13, the CCDA received letters that threatened the National Coordinator of the CCDA, Leocadio Juracán, at both the coffee processing centre where the robbery had occurred, and at their office in the community of Quixaya. The same letter was received at both locations. Given the severity of the threats, and to ensure the physical safety of the Juracán family, Leocadio, his wife and children fled their home and took refuge near Guatemala City. On Sunday, February 14, another letter, written in a similar style, was left under the door of the house in Guatemala City where Leocadio’s daughter was living. The letter threatened both Leocadio and his daughter.  The letters and the coffee robbery are seen as attempts to destabilize the organization, weaken its base and debilitate the labour, indigenous and campesino movement. These acts are seen as a strategy to weaken the CCDA, through the destruction of its economic sustainability, Café Justicia, which is the source of income to strengthen its work in rural communities.


To: fdeleon@mingob.gob.gt; gmazariegos@pdh.org.gt; Ruth_delvalle@copredeh.gob.gt

Cc: leeann.mckechnie@international.gc.ca; ccda_cafe_justicia@yahoo.com


To Whom It May Concern,

I write this letter with great concern regarding the most recent attacks against the Comité Campesino del Altiplano (CCDA), in particular the robbery of over 18,000 pounds of green coffee (café pergamino) and letters that have threatened the physical integrity of Leocadio Juracán, the National Coordinator of the CCDA and his family.  Since 2008, the CCDA has denounced attacks against its members and to date, no investigation has been carried out by the Public Prosecutors Office (Ministerio Público). Given the severity of the recent events, I strongly urge the Ministerio Público to fully investigate these crimes in order to arrest and prosecute the material and intellectual authors of these events.

I also strongly urge the appropriate State Authorities to ensure the life, safety and physical integrity of the leadership and associates of the CCDA be guaranteed, as well as all members of the Juracán family.

I strongly urge the Ministerio Público and the Ministerio de Gobernación, with the support of the PDH and COPREDEH, to investigate these acts against the CCDA, and the Juracán family, so that those defending human rights in Guatemala can work free of persecution and that aggressions against human rights defenders do not remain in impunity.


On behalf of the Guatemala Project and the CCDA thank you all for your support around this issue.