Daily Maverick

Oxfam’s bras without borders

In the latest drive to save Africans from the perils of life on the ever-dark continent, British charity Oxfam has launched the Big Bra Hunt campaign. No, they are not hunting down Blighty’s biggest bras. Instead, Oxfam is calling on British women to donate their unwanted bras to charity – for the betterment of Africa.

Daily Maverick, 4 April 2011- 

In the latest drive to save Africans from the perils of life on the ever-dark continent, British charity Oxfam has launched the Big Bra Hunt campaign. No, they are not hunting down Blighty’s biggest bras. Instead, Oxfam is calling on British women to donate their unwanted bras to charity – for the betterment of Africa. 

On Sunday, Oxfam revealed it had peeked into the underwear draws of British women and found a surplus of bras. British women, the NGO found, are hoarding nearly £1.2-billion worth of “unwanted” bras. Oxfam found the average British woman has nine bras in her collection and spends about £16 per item, but then proceeds to leave three of these unused in her closet.

Armed with this knowledge, Oxfam has launched a campaign to persuade British women to part ways with their surplus bras. The aim is to collect one million unwanted bras this month. Many of the bras will be sold in Oxfam’s UK high-street shops, while the remainder will be shipped off to their ethical second-hand clothing project in Senegal, Frip Ethique.

Oxfam describes Frip Ethique as a social enterprise in Senegal that employs women, who sort and sell clothes donated to the NGO – including bras – to local market traders. “It’s a great way of making sure donations make the most money possible. And it’s also a great way of enabling people to earn a living,” Oxfam says in promotions for Frip Ethique.

According to them, Frip Ethique employs 40 people and last year sold a total of 2,000 tonnes of used clothing, translating to £1.5-million in turnover, a 35% increase in profits from the previous year.

British bras, they say, are “seriously sought after in Senegal, where few businesses have the complex technology needed to make good-quality bras”. Bras, Oxfam say, are one of the most desirable items in West African second-hand clothing markets. The current campaign is not Oxfam’s first attempt to persuade British women to part with their surplus bras. A previous campaign in 2009 sought to break the record for the world’s single biggest single donation of bras.

Aicha Padane, a credit analyst at Alios-Finance in Senegal, who has run a series of projects for women in rural areas, said: “I confirm the shortage of bras in Senegal. Chinese traders sell it in a large quantity but with a very bad quality. We can say good-quality bras are rare and very expensive in Senegal. Only second-hand bras have a better quality but are often very old and people are not interested. Unwanted bras imported from the UK will attract women more.”??Development pundits believe the price of good-quality bras in Senegal are made exorbitant by import duties and transportation costs. They agree the local market isn’t developed enough to begin manufacturing its own bras, but what remains unanswered is how importing used underwear from the West helps to alleviate the underlying causes of the problem of scarcity and pricing of bras in Senegal?

Local procurement, development theorists warn, should always take precedence, with exceptions being urgent disaster relief. Yet, even in such cases the importation of relief goods remains a short-term intervention. Ugandan blogger TMS Ruge told Daily Maverick that Oxfam’s Big Bra Hunt exemplifies the problem of aid agencies ignoring the underlying problems of the countries in which they work.

Markets in sub-Saharan Africa are, however, flooded with second-hand clothing. Large volumes of used clothing that have been sourced as cast-off donations in industrialised countries are sent to Africa. Research indicates that there has been a sharp increase in the donation of used clothing to charities in developed countries over the past 20 years. More than 30% of the total value of imports in sub-Saharan Africa consists of used clothing.

Unable to sell most of this clothing domestically, charities typically sell the used clothing to exporters, who send it at a very low cost to developing countries, particularly in Africa. Used-clothing imports are not formal government aid but they begin their second lives as donations – aid by any definition. They are provided to African markets at the cost of transportation and therefore share key characteristics with aid. And it’s not only the UK that’s contributed generously to the second-hand clothing market in sub-Saharan Africa. Used clothing is also one of the top 10 American exports to Africa.

This relentless influx of used clothing has long been criticised by African policymakers as detrimental to domestic garment industries. Alongside cheap Chinese imports, attempts at growing local industries have been severely stymied. African economies have not been able to produce and export textiles and apparel like bras, despite relatively low wage levels and strong supplies of cotton.

Yet the second-hand clothing sector has significant advantages for the consumer, especially in communities with low purchasing power. Second-hand clothing, be it bras or pants, is simply more affordable.

Oxfam estimates that about 24,000 people work in the second-hand clothing sector in Senegal. Suzanne Scheld, writing in the City & Society journal, notes that while the sector in Senegal continues to flourish in the face of great economic hardships, women have found both opportunity and difficulty in forging a female presence in the market. Young female traders, she says, are disparagingly called “njoogan”, which means a fake or unimportant person who tries to look important. The term also refers to knockoff or imitation clothing. Scheld believes the label highlights the intensification of gender competition among youth in clothing markets, but she stresses that working in trade, and especially commerce in clothing, has become an important means for young women to gain small measures of independence in Senegal.

Jennifer Thorpe, editor of FeministSA, believes it is crucial the campaign is understood within the framework of Oxfam’s reputation for successfully empowering women in the developing world. “Oxfam is a charity that does great work supporting women worldwide, including providing funds to organisations in South Africa who work to support survivors of sexual violence. For this they must certainly be commended,” she says.

“The effort to provide opportunities for women in West Africa to earn an income is commendable, and perhaps the choice of donating a bra is one that most British women can more easily relate to and achieve. In addition, many studies have shown that women who have their own form of income are more easily able to leave violent relationships, and to likely access other rights and health services. It is important that, in our support of projects like this, we reconceptualise our view of African women as victims of circumstance and recognise the steps that they are taking to empower themselves each day.”

In her book The Female Eunuch, feminist writer Germaine Greer famously wrote, “Bras are a ludicrous invention, but if you make bralessness a rule, you’re just subjecting yourself to yet another repression.” For many, the bra remains a symbol of restrictions imposed by society on women. The act of burning bras has come to represent the cry for liberation from the oppression of male patriarchy. It is then particularly significant that Oxfam’s drive to alleviate the plight of women in Africa, centres so prominently on bras.

Ruge rightly points out, “Bras are alien to African culture but this campaign uses bras as a token of development.” He notes the Oxfam campaign is not nearly as offensive as another campaign that collected panties for African women in the name of preventing rape. “We are not offended by the readiness to help,” he says.

With the Big Bra Hunt, Oxfam proves that there is a flourishing trade in good intentions. Well-meaning people in the West will donate their underwear to African women. They feel better about their own lives. They feel less guilty for their excesses. But this sense of wellbeing is then owed to the poor African women desperate for support. It does little to offer sustainable solutions to the underlying problems. DM

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