Saturday, 5 April 2014

Talking about sexual violence

Talking about sexual violence

I got together with Geneva's V-Day Les Grottes team for a photoshoot before their stunning final performance of The Vagina Monologues last weekend. They were brilliant, and their efforts raised over CHF 3000 for local and international organisations working with victims of sexual and domestic violence.


One of my favourite British authors, Ali Smith, once wrote that 

'To be known so well by someone is an unimaginable gift. But to be imagined so well by someone is even better.' 

To write The Vagina Monologues, playwright Eve Ensler interviewed over two hundred women from many different backgrounds and walks of life. She created dramatic monologues to represent those women's experiences, often experiences of sexual violence. You can read a bit more about the play in last week's post, Behind the scenes of The Vagina Monologues.

The monologue form in which these stories were told allowed the audience to feel a great deal of empathy. I could imagine these women so well. I was being asked by a group of people to listen to experiences that weren't theirs or mine but needed to be talked about, because whether we are exposed to this reality or not, one in three women will experience sexual violence in their lifetime. We need to start talking about this.

Figures from the World Health Organization (WHO) here in Geneva tell us that

  • 35% of women worldwide have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.
  • On average, 30% of women who have been in a relationship report that they have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence by their partner.
  • Globally, as many as 38% of murders of women are committed by an intimate partner.

I was dancing in a nightclub in Bristol, England, four years ago and a man walked towards me and grabbed my right breast. He just grabbed me, and it hurt. I was so stunned, I didn't know how to react. I was with only male friends at the time and they didn't know what to do either. This man simply grinned drunkenly and walked away.  

Writing about it now, I remember how it felt: the shock followed by the two-fold shame of being assaulted and not defending myself. But I was in my home city, in a club I knew, with friends I trusted. There was no need for my defenses to be up. I gave up on the night, the dancing and everyone with me and walked home alone. I thought about how it might have gone if I had been grabbed there, on the street, in broad daylight. It would have been called sexual assault. But it happened in a nightclub, so it was dismissed with a drunken grin, and by walking away, I dismissed it too. I would never have had the confidence to call the police, to ask my friends to be witnesses to a groped breast on a university night out. 

Four years on, I'm still thinking about it. Four years on, a girl faced with the same unwelcome physical assault did speak out, but when Jeanne Marie Ryan asked a man groping her in a nightclub to leave her alone last month, he attacked her for it. So she spoke out again, revealing her battered face to the papers, to Facebook and Twitter, and raised over £16,000 for the Oxford Sexual Abuse & Rape Crisis Centre. You can read her brave story here. 

I've spoken a bit before about this incredibly powerful moment in my posts on Human Trafficking: Learning to Listen and The Silence on Endometriosis, when victims decide not to be victims anymore. They turn themselves around and say 'I'm not ashamed. I'm not afraid. I want to prevent this from happening to others.' 

Some do not have that privilege, though. Last month, when I was thinking about the two years that have passed since the tragic March 2012 suicide of Amina Filali, a Moroccan girl forced to marry her rapist under a law that still exists allowing a man to marry his rape victim to protect her family's honour, another Amina committed suicide, this time in Pakistan. Amina Bibi was abducted and gang raped by five men in January of this year. When one of her attackers was released from jail last month, Amina went to the police station and set herself on fire outside, convinced she would not see justice served and others protected. You can read about it here. These tragic cases represent two incredibly brave Amina's, whose sacrifices we must remember.

Every grabbed breast, battered face and hopeless suicide should come as a wakeup call to us all: sexual violence happens every day, every where, and in many places is institutionalized. We need to start talking about it. In my lifetime, I want to see more and more women speak out against sexual violence. Organisations like Egyptian Harrassmap are ones to watch, check them out here. Harassmap draw on an ancient tradition of shaming, using geographical tracking and societal pressure to shame those who sexually harass and abuse.

More than anything, I want to live in a world where the men who stand up and tell other men to respect women and condemn sexual violence are in a majority, not a minority. Men can make this happen, can make of themselves the change we need to see by recognizing that talking about sexual violence with their friends, their fathers, their brothers and sons is something they can do too. 

Here are the wonderful words of Jackson Katz on TED. Can you take a moment to watch?

Perhaps the most powerful monologue in Ensler's play was that of a Bosnian woman, who had been a victim of sexual violence in the Bosnian conflict of 1992-1995. In this conflict, over 20,000 women were raped in central Europe as a systematic tactic of war. This monologue told the story of her seven days of rape.

Around 500, 000 rapes were reported in Rwanda in the year 1994. The past decade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has seen a proposed figure of 200, 000 cases of rape and sexual assault. Every day, across the world, women are raped as a byproduct of war. There are currently sixty official armed conflicts going on in the world. In Syria alone, it is in growing evidence that sexual violence is being used as a systematic weapon of war. Women are experiencing this in areas of conflict and areas of safety, refugee camps for example.  

This June, an upcoming global summit in London hosted by Angelina Jolie, representing UNHCR, and the British government, will bring together 141 countries to improve investigations into sexual violence used as a systematic weapon of war. I would like to see a hopeful resolution made this 2014. 

I would like to see an end to sexual violence, against women, against men, and if you do too, I think we can all help this change by opening up these conversations. It all starts with you, with me, with each other. 

Please feel free to use this article as a starting point.

Thanks for reading, and as ever, if you know anyone who this might benefit, you can share with email, Facebook and Twitter using the tabs below.

1 comment:

  1. Amazing post Helen (great Ted video too). And something that needs to be talked about - I don't think people realise how common it is in the UK.