Rape. Domestic Violence. Acid Burnings. Female Infanticide. Human Trafficking. Emotional Abuse. Sexual Harassment. Genital Mutilation.
These are just a few forms of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) that women and girls endure on a daily basis. But these assaults on the human spirit and sacred worth of women and girls will not have the last word.
Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is a public health emergency devastating its victims and their families physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Sexual violence is a horrific act that the perpetrator forgets, but the survivor does not, with the consequences continuing – from the posttraumatic stress, to compromised health to the lower survival rates of her children. And these crimes are not just occurring in areas of war and civil unrest. Rather, they are a part of deeply ingrained behavior in all levels society the entire world over. This year, the World Health Organization reported that 1 in 3 women globally will experience SGBV in her lifetime. Studies in the United States produced similar findings.
Rape is a war crime and can be an act of genocide. Yet we often do not respond adequately to it as a global society. For example, in my country, women impregnated by rape may pass HIV to their babies. Children born from rape may also suffer community rejection because of the atrocities of their conception. SGBV programs must take this dynamic into account.
SGBV requires a holistic response that does not forget the indirect victims of rape, the spouses and children of the victims and the community at large. We must remember that rape tears at the social fabric of communities because victims and their families often “lose” themselves. This is why the faith community is so important to this effort.
The faith community is a powerful agent of social change and possesses a founding principle of love and spirituality as well as the power and influence to lead individuals and communities to respond appropriately and effectively to SGBV. Faith leaders and their communities have immense power to reach all levels of society as well as a proven track record of leadership on such issues as poverty alleviation, HIV/AIDS and malaria.
Yet despite sexual violence’s being endemic the world over, leaving massive destruction in its wake, the faith community has remained virtually silent on this issue and sometimes has even perpetuated the stigma and discrimination of SGBV survivors.
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.