Stepping away from silence.

This month, Sheril Kirshenbaum and Dr. Isis are spearheading a blogospheric initiative to call attention to a continuing epidemic of mass rapes in Liberia even six years after the end of its 14 year civil war, and to try to do something about it.

Last month, Nicholas Kristof described the situation in the New York Times, touching on the particular case of a 7-year-old rape survivor named Jackie:

[S]omehow mass rape survived the end of the war; it has been easier to get men to relinquish their guns than their sense of sexual entitlement. So the security guard at Jackie's school, a man in his 50s, took the little girl to the beach where, she said, he stripped her and raped her. Finally, he ran off as she lay bleeding and sobbing on the sand.

"I couldn't walk well, so they took me to hospital," Jackie told me. It was worse than that: She was hemorrhaging, and the hospital couldn't stop it. So Jackie was rushed in critical condition to Monrovia's largest hospital, where she spent weeks recovering.

Jackie is now in a shelter for survivors of sexual violence -- and what staggered me is that so many of the girls are pre-teens. A 3-year-old survivor has just moved out, but Jackie jumps rope with girls aged 8 to 11.

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."

The evidence is overwhelming that the best way to deal with rape -- whether in Darfur or Liberia, or even in the United States -- is to demystify it, dismantle the taboos, and address it directly. That is happening.

Addressing rape directly. From the point of view of ethics, you'd think this would be a very short discussion. It is wrong to commit sexual violence. It is wrong to act out your frustration or your sense of entitlement or your need to feel that there is something in your life that is within your control on the body of another human being. It is wrong to treat a woman or a child (or another man) as less than fully human.

Anyone who would argue otherwise could only be a moral monster. Or thoroughly steeped in a culture that regards women and children as less than fully human, and the desire, anger, and frustration of men as something that can be acted out on women and children.

The problem, in other words, is not restricted to Liberia, or Darfur, or someplace safely far away. The tides of the sea of culture that "other" women and children enough to make rape tolerable by a society lap on our shores.

As Tara writes:

What to do about this? That's what's kept me from writing more about this, I suppose--the sheer magnitude of what is happening, and the helplessness one feels when reading about it. With infectious diseases, though some of them are equally overwhelming, at least there is the hope of prevention via relatively simple devices (bed nets for malaria; condoms for HIV; isolation and medical treatment of TB, and of course the hope for vaccines, etc.) With systematic rape, there is no drug or vaccination to look for in the future. What is needed instead are shifts in attitude: more respect toward women; societal intolerance of such crimes by men; empowerment of women and girls; an understanding by family members of those who were raped; cessation of femicide. These are overwhelmingly difficult things to ask for, especially in countries fragmented by years of war and violence. How does one help to accomplish these things in far-off countries, when it's hard enough to be respected as a woman right here in the U.S.?

The necessary shift in attitude seems enormous. But it is necessary. And once you see that it's necessary, you have to put your shoulder into the burden. The only other option is to give up.

I'm not giving up.

Along with Sheril, and Dr. Isis, and Tara, and Jessica, and SciCurious and Evil Monkey, I will be donating the proceeds from my blogging this June to Doctors Without Borders. I'll continue to blog about the ethical dimensions of this issue -- and how it touches all of us. And, I'll try to suggest ways that we can make a difference. To start, Jessica has a round-up of resources:

-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

Being silent here is assenting to the way things are. While there is strength left in me, I cannot do that.


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