Women’s rights activist Cherie Blair sparked outrage last week after The Guardian reported that she said “most African ladies’ first sexual experience is rape” at a lecture on March 20.
Blair, who is the founder of a charity that supports female entrepreneurs in developing countries and who is married to former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, was giving a talk about women and leadership to a group of about 100 students and members of the community, held at a secondary school in London.
While some people say that Blair was highlighting a serious problem, many women called her out for perpetuating racist stereotypes: that African men are violent and African women are weak and unable to give consent. And some critics said it was not her place, as a powerful white woman, to talk about African issues.
When NPR asked for comment, Blair’s office did not respond. But her foundation referred us to Blair’s statement to The Guardian, in which she said her initial remark was in answer to a question about adolescent African girls missing out on education due to circumstances such as early pregnancy.
“In that context I said that for the vast majority of young girls — who are often 12-, 13-, 14-year-olds – their first experience of sex was rape,” Blair said in her statement.
The statistic, she told The Guardian, comes from a World Health Organization report from 2002, which said that “A growing number of studies, particularly from sub-Saharan Africa, indicate that the first sexual experience of girls is often unwanted and forced.”
Other observers, such as Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng, a medical doctor and longtime sexual and reproductive rights advocate in South Africa, say a forced first sexual experience is not unique to Africa.
UNICEF estimates that about 120 million girls under the age of 20 worldwide have experienced forced sexual intercourse or other forced sexual acts at some point in their lives. That’s roughly 1 in 10 girls globally.
Mofokeng talked to NPR about the controversy and how she wishes Blair’s conversation had gone. “Dr. T,” as Mofokeng calls herself, is an Aspen Institute New Voices fellow and the founder of Nalane for Reproductive Justice. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.
What was your initial reaction when you heard what Blair said?
As a black woman who works in the sexual and reproductive rights space, I was just like, “Oh, typical.”
A lot of black women feel that white women still look at them through a [white] savior gaze: “Yes, we are all women and feminists, but we are still exceptional women by being white women; we possess better outcomes and know what’s better for you.” That’s the atmosphere in which she made her comment.
Based on your own work in sexual and reproductive health in South Africa, is there any factual basis for Blair’s statement?
What I know for sure is that [when] a lot of young girls who do go through sexual experiences, contact, penetration often for the first time, even with their own peers, consent is not fully understood. So technically what [Blair is] saying is not completely flawed, but it is flawed in that there’s no context to it.
What is the context?
Rape is not an African experience or a black woman experience. It’s a human experience. By making it a “black African woman” thing, she’s feeding a stereotype that we are so disempowered that no matter what we do, we don’t have agency.
So by saying “African,” Blair implied race, not just geography?
People like to use this term “African women” to convey a narrative of a woman who doesn’t care enough about herself. But they don’t actually mean every woman in Africa. Blair’s not talking about other white women who look like her, who happen to live in Africa or who grew up there. She’s talking about black African girls.
So how would you have liked to hear Blair talk about the issue she was trying to shed light on?
If she had initially answered: “In my experience, in the programs I’ve been in and in the conversations I’ve had with women, nonconsensual sex is a problem that keeps coming up. Even as someone who’s not from Africa, I know it happens,” this would have been a completely different positioning of the issue.
It affirms that yes, research shows this is a problem, but as an ally, you can’t leave African women feeling shameful and more disempowered by your attitude.
Joanne Lu is a freelance journalist who covers global poverty and inequity. Her work has appeared in Humanosphere, The Guardian, Global Washington and War is Boring. Follow her on Twitter: @joannelu