Not Just Another Gender-based Violence Statistic

Let's talk about sexual and physical violence -- about how it violates the body, how it violently strips self agency of women -- and the anger, powerlessness, silence, confinement, strength, abruption, dreams, hopes, dance that it elicits. We can also talk about the serious health consequences.
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I want to tell you about the day it happened and about the next day. About how I felt and the days after that when fragments of that day would spill in unexpected spaces and places. And the months after that when I discovered all the creative ways to not deal with or address "that day." And the year after that when I would spill some more unto strangers and other friends who'd calmly, as calmly as they could possibly configure, politely ask, "Why did you go that night?" I want to tell you about how I'd fold into a thousand more pieces because my answer was so simple, obvious in its simplicity. I liked him. I trusted him. I want to tell you about what my body did and the ways it broke, bent, contouring itself into surprise shapes and sizes -- repairing itself as our bodies often do, only for that progress to be halted by memories that would not repair as quickly. Maybe if I tell you about bleeding, feeling decapitated, being frozen and shaken all in a single moment or in a series of moments, and maybe if I tell you about being unrecognizable to yourself and the feeling of departing from your very own body as you welcome shame to lay rest on your skin, in the crevices of your mind and heart, then 35 percent would mean more than a statistic to you. Thirty-five percent. That's the proportion of women globally that have experienced that kind of pain either due to physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence. Millions of young girls and women either process or don't process this pain; they either talk about the plethora of ways it defines, shapes and influences who they choose to become or not become. When they don't talk, there silence screams, and 35 percent just remains an unfriendly statistic to you.

Let's talk about sexual and physical violence -- about how it violates the body, how it violently strips self agency of women -- and the anger, powerlessness, silence, confinement, strength, abruption, dreams, hopes, dance that it elicits. We can also talk about the serious health consequences -- the short- and long-term physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health problems that survivors must deal with after and because of the violence experienced. Recent WHO figures show that immediate consequences of intimate partner violence and sexual violence include unintended pregnancies, induced abortions, gynecological problems, and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. A WHO 2013 analysis found that women who had been physically or sexually abused were 15 times more likely to have a sexually transmitted infection than women who had not experienced partner violence. Intimate partner violence in pregnancy also increases the likelihood of miscarriage, stillbirth, pre-term delivery and low birth weight babies. The link between violence and its impact on health does not stop there; health effects also include headaches, back pain, abdominal pain, fibromyalgia, gastrointestinal disorders, limited mobility and poor overall health. Does this list seem long? Let me remind you that 1 in 3 women globally will experience intimate or non-intimate partner physical and/or sexual violence. Now read the physical, emotional and psychological effects of violence again, keeping in mind that this is what a third of girls/women on the planet will go through at least once in their lifetime.

This is the world we live in today and it seems like we are beginning to become desensitized, almost complacent to the proliferation of violence against women. Unfortunately, my story is not unique. I will tell you about my girlfriend who once told me about being 8 and being "played" with by her uncle while growing up in our home country, Sierra Leone. I want to tell you about the upheld strength in her eyes as she laughed at the absurdity of it all, quickly going on about other things. I want to tell you about the sexual violence case that gripped Sierra Leone in September, when the former deputy Minister of Education was charged with allegedly raping a 24-year-old university student. For a moment there it was all everyone could talk about. Some recounted their own personal experiences, many glazed through the topic, others were enraged and yet, I will tell you about how the media tore her apart, and how hearsay made many people unsympathetic to her story and how influential men started to have their "guard up" about the women they chose to have affairs with. I could also tell you how society's response to this high profile case will deter many from speaking out again.

There are general laws in Sierra Leone that are meant to improve and protect the rights of young girls and women, like the Child Rights Act of 2007, which promotes the rights of the child and is compatible with the Convention on the Rights of the child. There also exists a Family Support Unit within the Sierra Leone Police (SLP), with trainings to help police build skills to better address gender violence reports.

However, I will tell you about how these laws, these commitments by government are neither effectively implemented nor enforced. I will tell you about the disturbingly high out-of-court settlements for sexual and gender-based violence, as if it's a one-time thing, with no ripple effect. They say atonement has been made for the violence -- atonement for the event of the violent act itself, that is. Not for the interruption of her good health, her mental and emotional sanctity, her stolen agency. I will tell you that we, the women, do not like to talk about the violence that happens against us for the sake of maintaining our social dignity and respect, for fear that it too will easily be taken from us if we become too open, too outraged, too vocal about intimate partner/nonintimate partner physical or sexual violence against us, against our friends, our sisters, our daughters.

Then, I will tell you about an 11-year-old girl I met in 2012 in Mattru-Jong, located in the southern province of Sierra Leone, who was suffering from fistula, having being raped since the age of 9. I will tell you about her eyes that still haunt me to this day. I will tell you about her shy and calm demeanor, and then some more about her eyes that seemed dead. In Africa today, women aged 15 and older have a 45.6 percent lifetime prevalence risk of intimate partner violence/non-partner sexual violence.

Gender violence affects health; beyond that, it destabilizes the emotional and spiritual core of a girl, of a young woman -- as it did to that calm 9-year-old girl, to my girlfriend, the 24-year-old who spoke out against being raped and to millions of women worldwide. As we continue to commemorate 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, better work needs to be done to assign responsibility to gender violence that destabilizes health systems, social ecosystems and economic systems. Better work needs to be done by us Sierra Leonean women in becoming bolder and louder about our stories. These experiences do not make us weak -- the experience of violation does -- we need to become more comfortable in sharing our own personal stories of physical and sexual violence while making sure that government, society, the laws that be increasingly become more uncomfortable in maintaining the status quo.

I want to talk to you about not only processing statistics and stories when you can, I instead urge us to act. I urge us not to become complacent, I urge us to not judge survivors, I implore us to embrace these stories, I implore us to scream, ask, demand that better health and law systems are put in place to protect victims. I ask us to adopt prevention practices by talking to our young men, our men and bridging gender gaps by fostering meaningful conversations that induce understanding and empathy. I ask that we continue to re-envision a society where 1 in 3 women at not at risk of sexual or physical violence during their lifetime. I demand that you act today, that you do one thing that will nourish young girls and women globally in the fight in ending violence against women. I want to one day be able to tell you a very different story.

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