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End violence against women — everyone’s voice is essential

I was recently a guest on Wilmer Valderrama’s Essential Voices podcast with actor and advocate Gabrielle Union and sexual assault response worker Solange Ramkissoon to highlight the role of essential workers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic — here’s the summary. I love the idea that we’re honoring frontline workers, and defining that more broadly. We’re really thinking differently about what it means to be on the frontlines — and how those frontlines are all around us. Violence against women has been happening since the beginning of time, and frontline work is absolutely lifesaving. It is about bodily integrity and autonomy, it is about dignity and respect, it is about your right to your own body, and your right to not have it violated — the things that should be taken for granted. And yet, these are the things that we have to fight for constantly.

I’ve been working to end violence against women for twenty five years all around the world and I see it everywhere all the time — it repeats and it is constant. Meanwhile, people will always argue that other things are more important than this. It’s the tyranny of the urgent. But I say, what is more important than this?!

In all the countries I’ve been in, all around the world, there’s really nothing more important than being safe and free and comfortable in your own body, in your own home, in your school, on the street, in the market, in the office, in public office. I sometimes wonder how we’re still even fighting for all of this!

I got into this at 14, and haven’t been able to think of much else. Twenty five years and around 20 different countries. And I’m going to do it until I die. And even then, I wouldn’t have fixed the problem. I want someone to dig me from the grave and let me know when we’re done because I just can’t believe that we still have to face this issue. And then something like COVID comes up and violence against women increases all over again. Is this what we do in times of collective crisis?! And violence against women is even worse, and women are more at risk and less safe. I cannot accept this kind of world.

We talk about self-care and understanding what that means. And I think those of us who’ve done this work or who’ve experienced this and who are survivors as well, we just don’t think about it as much as we should. And we feel like every minute that we don’t spend doing this work is one minute more that we’re going to have to endure it later.

I remember in 2002 before I moved to Afghanistan, a colleague told me: If you get to the point where you know you need a break, you’ve already gone too far. I ignored that advice for about two decades, but those words still haunt me because now I understand what that means. If we are dedicating our lives to the service of others, we need to look after ourselves as well, otherwise we’re not going to be good for anyone else.

COVID has amplified existing forms of violence — intimate partner violence, sexual violence — everything that existed before has gotten much worse. At the same time, it’s important to note that this is everywhere, all the time. It’s not just COVID, not just disasters, not just conflict. It’s rich and poor. It’s black, white, brown. It’s literally everyone, everywhere, all the time.

The danger that we face is that we “other” it. We say: That’s not me, that’s not us, that’s not here, that’s not now. And that is not true. It is here, now, you, me. It is one in three. One in three women and girls worldwide are going to experience some form of violence. The statistic is disturbing, because it is true. And that’s just cases we know. And that’s even in so-called “normal” times. So now bring in COVID, or a war — like Ukraine right now — or absolutely anywhere. Pick your crisis. Because violence against women is a crisis.

Everything that happens in so-called “normal” times is going to get much worse, and new forms are going to be created. Where intimate partner violence existed before, now it is much worse. You’re locked in with the abuser. And new cases of abuse emerge. Women and girls are always the ones that are vulnerable before any crisis, and in crisis, that vulnerability is magnified.

Look at child marriage, that exists everywhere — yes, even in the States! Twelve million girls under 18 are married every year. Twelve million. And this is pre-COVID, in what I’m calling so-called “normal” times, even though there’s nothing normal about this. That amounts to nearly 33,000 marriages of girls a day. Every day. Now, bring COVID in, and we are going to have an additional 10 million girl child marriages, because families have to offload the economic burden, so they have no choice but to sell off their girls. They can not afford to feed them, keep them, school them. Same for female genital mutilation, that is increasing by several million as a result of COVID. Is this how we respond in times of crisis?!

All of these things that happen to women and girls anyway have now gotten that much worse. And resources are reduced, the resources that we use for shelters, safe spaces, services, support, hotlines, health care — redirected to COVID. Granted, COVID was an emergency, but resources for women are already so scarce. These programs tend to be the least resourced, even in the good times. Funding for women is the first to be stripped and the last to be revived. And not just for violence against women, but also for economic opportunities. Meanwhile, as a result of COVID, we’ve seen women forced to resort to transactional sex as a means of survival — increasing sex for work, sex for food, sex for rent. All of this is about survival and safety. So COVID has made a bad situation that much worse.

This stuff is shocking, but we need to normalize having this conversation, because this crime is so incredibly normal in its occurence. People don’t know who is or is not a victim, because every single woman I know — myself included — has a story. All of us are victims.

It’s not about the numbers. In my humanitarian work, there was a fetishizing of the experience, with journalists wanting to speak to the “rape victim” and asking for numbers of girls raped in order to justify the telling of the story. “How many is enough for you?” I’d ask. “How many do you think is important? What’s the magic number here that will get you to care?”

And donors do the same, withholding funding until there’s “enough.” I can assure you that whatever number you need, it already exists. First of all, we know that sexual violence is dramatically underreported. And most importantly, even ONE case is one too many.

And there’s no incentive to report when there is no support, no services, no justice, no security. And everybody is a victim, as long as this exists. We are all victims, whether we experience it ourselves or not. Even the fear of violence is a form of violence. As a woman living anywhere in the world, how many times have you said “call me when you get home safely” or “don’t walk in the parking lot alone” or “keep your keys ready in your hand”? What kind of life is that? You’re curbing your freedom and your mobility, and you’re restricting your life and your space. You are forced to live small because of this risk. And if anything happens, society says it’s your fault. And on and on. The way that we deal with this is so flawed on so many levels.

Even after decades of doing this work, there’s so much that I still need to learn. It’s taken me years to understand the difference between self-care and self-soothing. To me it is the difference between an Instagramable life — with massages, bubble baths, a glass of wine, a trip to Jamaica — and the daily rituals. There’s something trendy about self-care, but also elusive. And — tick-boxy. Like, something I need to do. Another thing on the to-do list. Book massage! I remind myself. Well, that’s three weeks out. What am I going to do now, today, in the micro-moments? How do I talk myself off the ledge in my daily life? How do I remember to breathe deeply, step back, put it away, close my eyes, turn the other way, ignore that comment. Do whatever it takes, whatever you need to do, whatever you can do at a moment’s notice that you have at your disposal. Your little personal arsenal.

This work, it’s frustrating. We need to find things to do to soothe ourselves before the emotional hyperventilation overwhelms — or paralyzes. It’s impossible not to be emotionally involved. I keep telling people, if you’re not angry about this, you’re asleep. How can we not be angry?!

Are enough people angry? I don’t think so. There is a missing element in really understanding how pervasive this is, these forms of violence, and how they affect us all, what they do to individuals and families and societies and communities and countries. What is the best predictor of peace and prosperity and progress? No, not the government. Not the health of the economy. It is equality. It is about how you treat women. That’s it. There’s nothing more important.

Everybody deserves dignity, equality, respect, rights, bodily autonomy, safety and security. These are basics, and we’re all going to be better off if we understand that. This is not about other people — it’s you, me, all. And it’s just not something that I’m willing to tolerate in my lifetime. I certainly don’t want to pass this on to the next generation. So let’s not.

Let’s start young. Let’s talk about consent and bodies and boundaries and saying no. Let’s normalize all of these conversations. Let’s talk about bodily autonomy, safe and unsafe touching. Let’s have these conversations at home and in schools. Let’s have basic universal sex education. And — let’s have full sexual and reproductive health and rights. Let’s view these as non-negotiable rights for everyone. We’re not there yet. Here we are, in the US, fighting for our rights to decide what to do with our bodies and our lives again, again and again. We are in year 49 of Roe versus Wade, and it could be the last year. We demand the right to decide what happens to our bodies — from the fetus to the funeral.

We need to understand that this violence, this violation of our rights, it is happening all around us. You don’t need to go to Afghanistan, Haiti, Central African Republic. It’s right here — in our homes, our streets, our schools. Everywhere.

In 2015, I did a TEDx talk with the message “start where you stand” — meaning stand up, look around, see what’s going on. And you’ll never un-see it. And then you can take action — in your home, with your friends, with your peer group. Whatever you’ve got around you, in your little circle, you can make change there. And if everybody took responsibility for their own little circles, that would be something! Behavior is contagious, so better to make it good behavior. Change the narrative. The story of violence doesn’t have to be our story anymore. Turn to your friends, your buddies, and say No. You can’t. That’s not cool. Don’t say that, don’t do that, that’s not right. Stop. Enough.

Start where you stand, wherever you are. That is what will make a difference. You — taking responsibility for yourself and your circle and your life. And for me, I decided long ago that this is not something I’m willing to tolerate in my lifetime. So let’s fix it. Now.

#GenderbasedViolence #Activism #GenderEquality #Women #Feminism #WomensRights #VAW #ViolenceAgainstWomen #GBV

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