In a hospital room in Nigeria, recovering from a beating perpetrated by her husband, Olutosin Oladosu resolved that her daughter’s fate would differ from the last three generations of women in her family. In the UK, Nabila Sharma put pen to paper, breaking the silence surrounding a childhood marred by sexual abuse at the hands of her imam. In Afghanistan, Ali Shahidy’s concern for a sister trapped in an abusive marriage challenged him to flip the script and reject the violence he grew up with—violence he once perpetrated himself.
These voices join a chorus of over 150 courageous women and men from 38 countries who contributed to World Pulse’s Ending Violence Against Women Digital Action Campaign. They are survivors and witnesses to the violence that affects 1 in 3 women worldwide—and they signal our greatest hope for change. As these women and men speak out on a topic that is all too often cloaked in silence, taboo, and isolation, there is an urgency to their voices. They paint a horrific picture of women tortured, killed, intimidated, and harassed in shockingly brutal ways.
But they also offer glimpses of hope and strong recommendations for a way forward. The solutions are there. Just look to Olutosin, who after leaving her abusive marriage, is now raising her daughters and mentoring 70 girls in her community to value themselves and break cycles of violence. “If I refuse to be the voice, my daughters would remain voiceless,” she says.
Look to Nabila, who became a nurse and a chaperone so she could protect other children, and published a book on her experiences. Look to Ali, who has escaped the paradigm he was raised in and is now leading workshops to help men own their responsibility for violence and become allies for women.
Identifying the Issues
Submissions to the campaign confirm that rape, domestic violence, and abuse of women and girls happen everywhere: in homes, in streets, in schools, in legal and judicial institutions, in workplaces, in places of worship. “The place is different,” writes Nilima Raut from Nepal, “but the issue remains the same.” Submissions from Kenya, Sudan, Nigeria, and the Gambia paint a ghastly picture of rampant female genital mutilation in the region.
In Cameroon, body modification shows up differently: Mothers seek to delay their daughters’ sexuality by ironing their budding breasts with hot stones. In India and parts of Africa, cultural traditions target widows with violence and stigma. Acid violence threatens women in Bangladesh. In Nepal and India, accusations of witchcraft provide another scapegoat for gender-based violence. Sex trafficking across borders thrives in secret in many parts of the world, as does the forced marriage of young girls. And conflicts and humanitarian disasters leave women vulnerable to heightened violence of all kinds. If we want solutions, “It’s time to go global with this issue,” insists Neema Namadamu of Democratic Republic of Congo.
Changing the Laws
There are places where certain types of violence against women, such as marital rape or child marriages, are not yet illegal. Making these abuses official crimes is a step in the right direction, but women in the World Pulse community say that too often existing laws are not enforced. Briarose Marguerite D'silva writes that in Bangladesh, the only country with specific laws against acid violence and regulating the sale of acid, women continue to be burned.
Perpetrators of violence often walk free, and crimes go unreported as women avoid ‘justice’ systems that punish victims instead of the perpetrators. Emi in Tunisia laments of a Tunisian woman who was arrested and charged with public indecency after being gang-raped by police officers. Upasana Chauhan of India submitted stories about three gang rapes in Haryana state that occurred within a span of 20 days.
In these instances, public figures immediately blamed the victims, suggesting girls should avoid going out late and wearing jeans. “It isn't that [law enforcement] can’t see the solution,” writes Upasana. “It is that they can’t see the problem.” The problem is huge—it is inequality for women across every level of society. In India, that inequality often begins at birth where preference for sons persists, causing girls to grow up without a sense of worth—or to be denied the chance to grow up at all.
Gender inequalities extend to education access and to women’s representation in politics and public life, all of which curtail women’s chances to escape violence. Kabukabu Ikwueme slams the many traditional courts throughout the African continent that do not include any women, and which routinely “deny women equal opportunities before the law.” “While we wait for our government to get their act together, we can protect our little ones,” says Chioma Agwuegbo who hails from Nigeria, where 13 bills are pending on the rights of women and children.
Like Chioma, the grassroots women leaders in the World Pulse network do not appear to be waiting patiently for institutions to change on their own. They are busy shaping the next generation and changing patriarchal attitudes at the community level. Education and training–at every age group–emerged from this campaign as a leading solution to ending violence. “Women need to learn from childhood how to value their dreams and their psychological health,” writes Asma Asfour of Palestine. “They need to feel that their dreams and hopes are in safe hands.”
Family and community leaders also need access to educational resources to become agents of change. “In families, literate women can prove to be the most influential and radical sources of socializing modern peace-building attitudes,” adds Ali Reza Yasa, another male ally from Afghanistan. Some contributors wrote about the need for sex education so that girls and women are empowered in their bodies. “There is a need to carry a wider effort in educating every member of the community to know his or her own rights,” says Ruun Abdi of Somalia. And these women aren’t just talking—they’re doing.
From Sudan to Vietnam, they are making use of the arts through street plays and drama as a vehicle for education and lasting solutions. They are leading community education projects like Gender Danger in Cameroon which trains communities to prevent violence, in this case in the form of breast ironing. They are creating the opportunities they never had, like Gladys Kiranto who ran away from home as a child to escape female circumcision, and who now provides community-led advocacy and a safe haven for young girls.
Not Without Men
Women who participated in this campaign spoke loud and clear that prevention efforts need to include men too. “Let us not only empower girls, but also talk to our boys about self-awareness and self-respect,” writes Emms from Namibia.
Heather Plett, who survived a rape by an intruder in her home in Canada, found solace in the fact that men in her life were there to support her. “I believe it was a game-changer for me that men were in my corner along with the women,” she says. “To make real change, rape needs to be seen as a crime against humanity,” she adds. “Anything less than that, and it can be dismissed as a ‘women’s issue’.”
Economic and Social Support for Survivors
“Economic empowerment is a crucial component to stopping violence against women and children,” says Dr. Edonna who found freedom from abuse herself by establishing her own financial independence. Now she helps domestic violence survivors in Jamaica earn a living crafting eco-friendly body products, giving them a viable alternative to returning to their abusers. “Ideally, there would be the formation of a multidisciplinary task force to protect and care for victims, made up of professionals from psychosocial, legal and health backgrounds,” suggests Andrea Vilela Araujo of Brazil. Valéria Barbosa da Silva of Brazil echoes a popular sentiment that “welcoming the victim should be prioritized, creating a space of trust and comfort where she can share the pain that she keeps a secret.”
Finding Solace in Voice
“What about the violence of the silence?” pleads Ynanna Djehuty of the US. “Of the cry caught in her throat, the pain in her chest, and the fury in her womb?” Ynanna struggled for a long time to even use the word rape to describe what happened her. But when she did say the word out loud, it prompted a healing process that has led her to not only claim her own voice, but to become a voice for other survivors. “Even if my voice shakes,” she says, “I will talk about rape.”
The strength of this digital action campaign goes beyond concrete recommendations to the sense of community forged amongst hundreds of voices speaking in unison against violent practices. Every word written and spoken against violence takes power away from the silence and isolation of victimhood. Together, these testimonies send a resounding message to women everywhere: You are not alone. “There is someone somewhere in the world in the same situation,” advises Jennifer Johnson of the US. “Probably very close to you.” “In my culture, it is not familiar to express fear, hopes, and ambition in public...” says Asma Asfour of Palestine. “But one needs to start breaking these traditions to initiate the change.” Mukut Ray shares the story of a 13-year-old girl in India who watched as her mother was shunned and abused by her community simply because she was a widow. The girl Jyoti began by going house to house speaking her mind, gradually prompting changes in the attitudes and treatment towards widows in her community. As Mukut says, “If a young girl can, we also can.” Yes, the solution will involve new laws and new norms. It will involve major shifts in our political landscape, in our communities, in our families, in the lessons we teach our children. But it can start with one young girl standing up for what’s right. It starts with a man who decides to create a new story that challenges violent masculinity. It starts with all of us creating supportive spaces for survivors to speak and release their pain. It starts with us. And it starts NOW.