Women are beginning to use the web to curb the epidemic of sexual violence – and to defy simplistic hype.
"It is time to turn up the volume on the women and men who are speaking solutions."
I was fielding a request from People magazine to interview a Congolese woman activist, when they asked the inevitable question: Is she a survivor of rape? The question hung in the air with the unspoken understanding that if she herself was not a survivor of sexual violence, the story would not be nearly as compelling.
They never did run her story. But the response rumbling from the heart of the Congo was a better one.
“I am not ‘a survivor,’ but a liberator,” wrote back peace activist Neema Namadamu in email, and later across the blogosphere. “This ultimatum is the same as forcing me to bend over if I want a remote chance for our cause to be promoted.
“In Congo we don't use the word "rape"; we call it "violence." For as women we are raped a hundred ways every day; our very personhood denied from the earliest age without any consequence. Surely this reporter understands that the greatest defilement of one's person is not what is done to the body – it is what is done to the mind.
I hope that the dialog begun here can become another "Occupy" worldwide. It's up to all of us sisters. We only have to decide enough is enough!”
Neema is one of millions building new online and offline movements to loudly “Occupy” spaces of silence and shame. They are using digital media in new ways to re-center the conversation about ending sexual violence, putting the experiences of women embroiled in rape cultures at the heart of it.
Neema launched an Internet café for women, which ignited a movement of hundreds of self-proclaimed Maman Shujaa, or “Hero Women.” They are speaking out with their agenda for a New Congo free from sexual violence—in their own words. Within months, their messages reached the White House National Security Council, after garnering 100,000 signatures on a change.org petition.
This International Women’s Day, other movements are reaching a fever pitch, at last pushing the urgency of ending rape and sexual violence to the center of the stage. From mass protests against rape in India and South Africa, to Eve Ensler’s One Billion Rising campaign, to the Nobel Women rallying with 600 coalition partners in their International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict, to the One Million Men. One Million Promises Campaign, to Women Under Siege cataloging cases of sexual violence in Syria, Afghanistan, and more—women’s groups, along with male allies, are shifting attitudes, norms, and cultures for generations to come.
For the past six months, World Pulse, the organization I founded, crowd-sourced women’s solutions for ending violence against women in a Digital Action Campaign. Women logged on from conflict-affected regions such as Darfur, Afghanistan, and Somalia, and joined participants from North America and Europe. They broke the silence on issues that are often taboo or hidden in their families and communities, overcoming pain and fear to courageously share their stories. They did this because they knew their voices can make a difference. Their solutions are myriad—they ARE the solutions. They write about the importance of education and training, protecting and empowering youth, economic empowerment, maternal and reproductive healthcare, and men’s partnership to prevent violence.
Just look to Olutosin in Nigeria, 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 was abused at the hands of her imam, but then became a nurse and a chaperone so she could protect other children. She also published a book about her experience. “I will continue to speak out until these changes are made and my voice is heard,” she says. “It is all I can do to help others.”
Courageous men joined the chorus. Look to Ali Shahidy, who was once an abuser himself but has escaped the paradigm he was raised in. “Together, men and women will stand hand-in-hand, raise their voices, and challenge the dominant and parochial beliefs of our culture. Together we will end violence against women,” he says. Now he is leading workshops to help men own their responsibility for violence and become allies for their sisters, mothers, and female friends.
All of these voices are needed now. And it’s not just the voices of survivors we need to listen to, but everyone affected by cultures steeped in violence. The matter is urgent: Surveys show that in South Africa, which has one of the highest incidents of rape per capita in the world, a quarter of men admit to having raped, and a woman is more likely to be raped than go to school. In Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a third of men admit to having raped, 75% think it is OK, and a woman is 134 times more likely to be raped than in the US.
Holistic, sustainable solutions exist. It is time to turn up the volume on the women and men who are speaking them. Let’s not debase her as solely a simplistic, sensationalist survivor of rape—but lift her up as a dynamic change agent and outspoken liberator of our future.