Silence is the Enemy


A sexual violence victim recovers in Goma, Congo
photo by Endre Vestvik

A few weeks ago, the NYT published a horrifying account by Nicholas Kristof of the pervasive sexual violence left over from Liberia's civil war. A major survey in Liberia found that 75% of Liberian women had been raped - most gang-raped. And many of the victims are children:

Of course, children are raped everywhere, but what is happening in Liberia is different. The war seems to have shattered norms and trained some men to think that when they want sex, they need simply to overpower a girl. Or at school, girls sometimes find that to get good grades, they must have sex with their teachers.

"Rape is a scar that the war left behind," said Dixon Jlateh, an officer in the national police unit dealing with sexual violence. "Sexual violence is a direct product of the war."

Of course, sexual violence is not limited to Liberia. According to the United Nations, between a quarter and a half a million women were raped during Rwanda's genocide in 1994. Currently, there are related situations in Congo and in Darfur, where sexual violence against women has become routine and systematic. Former UN peacekeeping force commander Major-General Patrick Cammaert, says of the situation in Congo, rape "destroys communities. You punish the men, and you punish the women, doing it in front of the men. It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in armed conflict." UN Security Council Resolution 1820 (2008) recognized that rape can be considered a war crime.

In March, Doctors Without Borders released a special report on the desperate need for medical treatment for victims of rape, such as this 16-year-old woman from Darfur:

"I was collecting firewood for my family when three armed men on camels came and surrounded me. They held me down, tied my hands and raped me one after the other. When I arrived home, I told my family what happened. They threw me out of our home and I had to build my own hut away from them. I was engaged to a man and I was so much looking forward to getting married. After I got raped, he did not want to marry me anymore and broke off the engagement because he said that I was now disgraced and spoilt."(source)

Of the 275 new sexual violence cases treated from January through April by Doctors Without Borders, 28 percent involve children aged 4 or younger, and 33 percent involve children aged 5 through 12.

It's impossible to read the victims' stories and not be moved. But the question is, what can we do to help? In my experience, it's not that Americans don't care what happens in Africa. It's that it seems so distant, we can't do anything to change it - in which case dwelling on it becomes frustrating, depressing, and self-defeating.

Fortunately there are things we can do. To prove it, blogstars Isis of "On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess" and Sheril of "The Intersection" have organized a coordinated blogospheric effort to raise awareness of rape in Liberia (and other war-torn nations) and generate real action on the issue.

This month, Sheril, Isis, and Tara at Aetiology will be donating their blogging proceeds to Doctors Without Borders. That could amount to a hefty sum - especially if you go visit them often! I will also be donating my proceeds for June - which is not likely to be a lot, given my traffic, but every little bit really does help when thousands of people are involved. If you are a blogger, consider posting about the plight of Liberia's women and girls and spreading the word.

Congress may be indicating a readiness to act on these issues. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing several weeks ago on "Confronting Rape and Other Forms of Violence Against Women in Conflict Zones." The video, statements, and testimony are here. Consider contacting your Representative or Senator and asking for them to get involved in legislation addressing the issue of rape - both at home and abroad. (Sheril is posting an example letter at The Intersection).

In addition to Doctors Without Borders, which treats an average of 35 sexual assault victims a day (including men, women, and children), other resources and organizations you might consider exploring include:

-Women For Women, an organization to help women rebuild their lives after sexual violence
-Physicians for Human Rights, who just released a medical study corroborating accounts of pervasive rape in Darfur and Chad
-Human Rights Watch, which reports that rapes in Congo have increased significantly since January, is sponsoring a June 18 showing in Chicago of The Greatest Silence, a film about rape in the Congo
-Save Darfur, which has prepared a fact sheet on violence against women and the Darfur genocide
-The Joyful Heart Foundation, started by Law and Order's Mariska Hargitay, to help all victims of rape and sexual abuse
-The Center for American Progress' Enough Project, promoting awareness of how rape is linked to the mining of rare minerals used in electronics - a global movement to stop violence against women and girls, started by Vagina Monologues writer Eve Ensler

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A Congolese woman recovers at a hospital
photo by Endre Vestvik

Can we change what is happening in Africa? I don't know, but I do know that the internet is a pretty powerful tool for mobilizing a community of caring individuals. Think about your own loved ones who have been the victims of sexual violence (statistics indicate that most of us know a victim of rape or sexual abuse) and then imagine if the pain they went through were routine, even expected. Imagine that women in your country could not run daily errands without risking being raped. That prepubescent children were commonly raped multiple times, including by their schoolteachers. That the police charged with keeping order were themselves perpetrators of sexual violence. It's hard to imagine, but I wish it were even harder - I wish it were unimaginable. Let's do our best to make it so.

More about the "Silence is the Enemy" blog initiative at The Intersection. And if you know of more activist groups fighting sexual abuse, have suggestions or personal thoughts on this issue, please post them in the comments.

More like this

When I think I have read all there is about this subject and cannot be upset any more, something will move me to tears again. The picture at the top of your article just breaks my heart.

Endre Vestvik's photography really captures so much more of the human aftermath of sexual assault than any words possibly could. I wish they would have a five-minute slide show just of these photos next time they do Congressional hearings on rape.