This week’s Reproductive Justice newsletter from Alternet drew my attention to a longish report about violence against women in West Africa. The survivors stories Ann Jones reports are absolutely terrifying, as are the statistics about how many women have been physically and sexually assaulted in the time since the wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Cote d’Ivoire ended (or supposedly ended, as her point is that the war on women seems to be continuing barely abated).
Besides drawing attention to this article and this issue, I wanted to take this opportunity to think a little bit about what kind of action people in the US, particularly students, can take in relation to events so horrifying but also so physically distant. I thought I’d start by explaining why this blog about sexual assault at American colleges and universities has covered stories about rape in Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda.
The first reason is that I believe that all violence against women has a deep common root in beliefs that women are less valuable or less human then men. The specific ways that those beliefs are expressed by people (men and women) who abuse women vary from culture to culture depending on what is socially accepted in that place and what limits and protections are provided by the local system of government. So rape in Kenya is intimately connected with rape in Kansas, although the breakdown of government in parts of Kenya has allowed the violence against women there to be more brutal, more overt, and more widespread. Acknowledging that connection leads, for me, to three conclusions, and they are the three other reasons I think college-aged men and women (and obviously, everyone) in the United States need to read about the prevalence of sexual assault in parts of Africa right now.
First, survivors everywhere need to be acknowledged and have their stories heard. Violence thrives in silence, and ending violence requires its exposure everywhere it occurs. If you have ever found a Take Back the Night Speak Out or a Clothesline Project display releasing your own pain or witnessed how much relief it brought to those who told their stories, you can empathize with the need of survivors in other parts of the world to have their stories heard as well. And, just as being part of the audience at a Speak Out fulfills a vital role in the process, helping to turn the world’s eyes towards the suffering of women in Sierra Leone or Kenya by reading the news reports and creating an audience for such stories is an important part of ending the violence elsewhere.
Second, and at the same time, the lives of women in other places in the world are vastly different from our own. What works for women and the feminist and anti-violence movements here may not work there. Knowing how to help combat violence against women in a country other than your own requires knowing how little you know about other women’s needs and ideas. It means listening constantly to hear what women are saying about their own situations and supporting them in their demands. And that means being aware enough about the situation to listen, and thus I try to post on the issue when I become aware of it.
Third, I do think that working to end violence against women in this country is connected to ending it everywhere in the world. The men and women on your campus who your programs and campaigns educate will go on to become the US government officials, the soldiers and peacekeepers (see the super upsetting part of Jones’s article where she talks about the role of peacekeepers in West Africa in promoting prostitution there and see also recent posts on US soldiers raping women in Japan), the international corporation employees (see posts about Iraq contractors and rape), the NGO advocates, and the everyday citizens who will decide, in person or long distance, how much violence against women they will perpetrate or condone. If the world as whole begins to decide that violence against women is unacceptable and begins to sanction people and countries who abuse women, violence against women will decrease all over the world. Not easily, not quickly, not completely. But every demand that women be brought to the negotiating table when countries that have been wrecked by rape try to reestablish new governments, every call for those who raped or ordered rapes or used rape as a weapon of war to be brought to justice, every person who makes a personal decision not to sexually assault a woman works slowly to change the cultures that across the world have allowed rape to be too much a part of too many women’s lives.
So what can you do?
Demand that the United States finally sign the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) (this means it would have to be ratified by the senate, so call your senators). The chances of this anytime soon are slim, but that doesn’t mean it is not worth letting them know that you care. Changes in long standing debates only happen because constituents demand it.
Call your senators again, and urge them to pass the International Violence Against Women Act. The act has some unusual bipartisan support, and I’m mildly optimistic about it at least getting debated, if not passing.
Join the Global Fund for Women and V-Day in writing letters to DRC President Joseph Kabange urging him to do more to end sexual violence in the DRC. Global Fund for Women activist Muadi Mukenge had a recent article on Alternet applauding the work of Kenyan women in trying to mover forward the Kenyan peace process. Support these women’s groups by monitoring the progress on the accord reached today and continuing to pressure the State Department to condemn the sexual violence that took place in Kenya as part of their support for Kenya’s crisis resolution.
Screen one of the excellent films that have been made about rape as a weapon of war on your campus as a way of raising awareness. MediaRights.org has an amazing database of films about social-justice issues including sexual violence. One of the most recent films about sexual violence in Africa, The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo won the Jury Prize for Documentary at Sundance this year, so there’s a lot of interest in it right now.
When HBO shows The Greatest Silence in April (date still TBA, but I’ll let you know) watch it. We all know that media companies pays attention to what people are paying attention to, and if lots of people watch the film, that increases the chances that they will screen more films about violence against women.
Get more involved through volunteering, interning, or working with NGOs and government organizations that work to end the use of rape as a weapon of war, to prevent violence against women, or to help survivors. One of our board members worked on the international trials of those accused of promoting genocide in Rwanda. There is no question that the experience changed her and her friends. I blog about rape internationally in part because I know her, and after hearing what she learned there, I can’t ever see what happens in other countries as being too far away to care about.
Educate yourself about feminism in other parts of the world (often called global feminism or third world feminism if you’re searching in a library catalog). Take classes, talk to professors, challenge your blindspots, and listen to other women. Then use that research in class papers, school newspaper articles, blog posts, and conversations with friends.
If you have money to spare, give some of it to organizations that are helping women who have been raped and otherwise devastated by the wars in West Africa and the DRC. You might consider CARE or Women for Women International among many other worthy organizations.
Most importantly, keep talking about rape and sexual assault and why it is unacceptable to have sex with anyone, of any age, sex, gender, nationality, race, ethnic group, class, social status, or state of intoxication for any reason without their enthusiastic consent.