I can still see in my mind’s eye the vibrantly colored wraps draping the hundreds of displaced women I met at Joborona Camp in Northern Sudan. The stories they told, of blazing huts in Southern Sudan and their men burning alive inside; of their boys forced to fight and kill at ages as young as six or seven; and of their girls taken and forced into sexual slavery seemed impossible to be true. Yet I heard them again and again.
And if these stories weren’t horrific enough, it was the stories the women chose not to share that haunt me the most. Their empty eyes and void expressions told me all I needed to know.
I know empty eyes. I have gazed into them in Bosnia and Croatia. I remember Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. I have witnessed them in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — where it is believed that one million girls and women have stories to tell of the gender-based violence they have endured. I have been confronted by the eyes of our sisters from Darfur, who risk their dignity, their bodies, and in some cases their very lives by leaving their refugee camps to collect firewood for their small cooking stoves (those who are lucky enough to have one). It is in the bush, often, that they are victims of sexual and gender-based violence. These are the countless women who risk being raped so their children can eat.
These very women are our sisters, fellow human beings, beloved daughters of God. I can’t help but ask myself: Are our bodies any more important than theirs? Are our lives worth any more than their lives? Sexual and gender-based violence is anything but life-giving, and it has been afflicting girls and women the world over for far too long. It robs women of their dignity, their pride, their sense of self-worth, their autonomy, and their quality of life.
As in most cultures, sexual and gender-based violence is rarely, if ever, discussed in the Sudan, or the Congo, or even in Eastern Europe. It remains not only taboo, but perhaps more shockingly, unimportant — a non-issue. So, to follow that logic, why discuss it, let alone acknowledge it? Those who do are often shunned or expelled from their own homes and communities, considered an embarrassment. Considered outcasts. Even worse, considered guilty, as if somehow the violence they suffered was their own fault.
Let us not fool ourselves into thinking that sexual and gender-based violence happens only, or even primarily, in the developing world or transitional societies. While particularly graphic stories often bring the issue to our consciousness, the most graphic statistic of all, for me, is the one I hardly ever hear uttered: “More than one in three women in the United States have reportedly experienced sexual assault, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime.” Yes, you read that correctly: one in three women in the U.S. has been a victim of some form of sexual or gender-based violence. One in three. That’s one too many.
One in three women around the world will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime. Inside this staggering statistic are stories that must be told, lest we continue to treat this as a taboo issue, or worse, as unimportant or perhaps even nonexistent. For is there such a thing as a taboo issue to preach from the pulpit? Why does this specific issue seem so far outside of our comfort zones? Each moment the church remains silent on issues of sexual and gender-based violence, another woman risks being raped so she can feed her children. Another woman is brutalized on her way to market. Another female body becomes a weapon of war. One more woman in the United States of America, “Land of the Free,” is imprisoned by domestic abuse or sexual violence. One in three. How long, O Lord, how long? How long must women’s lives and bodies be considered anything but sacred?
I believe that the church has the potential to be the most powerful social agency on the planet. If we as the church, beginning with our own faith communities, collectively committed to speaking out against sexual and gender-based violence, we would be one step closer to answering that question the Psalmist asked so long ago, “How long, O Lord?”
Can you imagine what it would sound like to hear the united cry of the church proclaiming, “Never again!”
Will you join me in speaking out? Will you reach outside your comfort zone and address this crisis from the pulpit? Will you join our campaign to end sexual and gender-based violence? Join us on Speak Out Sunday, Nov. 24: www.wewillspeakout.us to stand up, speak out, and put an end to this senseless violence.
One in three. But even one is too many.
This post was featured in Sojourner’s monthly Faith in Action newsletter, which you can join by clicking here.
The Rev. Amy Gopp responds to her calling to the work of Christ by serving as a global activist and peacemaker — one who through dynamic preaching and creative teaching urges God’s people to engage in compassionate service that imbues hope and empowerment for all. An ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Gopp currently serves as the Executive Director for Week of Compassion, the relief, refugee, and development mission fund of the Disciples church.