Human Rights Lawyer: Denise Siwatula

Denise Siwatula

Denise Siwatula

“It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.” –Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady of the United States from 1933-45

“If we just sat with crossed arms, what would happen then?” is the question Denise, a Congolese civil rights attorney, asks us.

She has seen the destruction of her home through natural disaster and the pain of thousands of Congolese women who are raped every year. Still, she is faithful with the calling that she has been given—working to prosecute the cases she can to help rape survivors seek justice and find the hope to continue on.

Denise knows that to make peace, it is necessary to restrain and often punish the evil that humans do to one another.

“The Bible takes evil seriously and clearly says that evildoers should be held accountable for their deeds, and that the state has the legitimate role of bringing to justice those who perpetrate terrible crimes,” writes Jim Wallis in a July 2011 Sojourners’ column, “The Things That Make For Peace.”

But Denise’s work does not focus just on the punishment of those who commit rape but on the restoration of the survivors.

'The Invisible War' Sheds Light on Epidemic of Rape in the Military

 from THE INVISIBLE WAR, a Cinedigm/Docurama Films release.

Lieutenant Elle Helmer at the Vietnam War Memorial, US Marine Corps, from THE INVISIBLE WAR, a Cinedigm/Docurama Films release.

Men and women in the military face numerous challenges when they return from combat—whether post-traumatic stress disorder, economic struggles, traumatic brain injury. A glimpse at the headlines tells us the grim statistics of active-duty suicides tied to these issues.

But a new film, The Invisible War, brings to light another staggering reality: a female soldier in a combat zone is more likely to be raped by another soldier than killed in enemy fire.

The Invisible War, which opens in some markets on June 22, takes on the military culture that has failed to address the problem.

Filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering collected stories from sexual assault survivors across the country and show how hauntingly similar their the accounts are—from harassment to assault to lack of follow-up, and for some, blatant cover up. The powerful documentary pairs the survivors’ heartbreaking stories with alarming statistics illustrating the scope of the epidemic. 

According to the Department of Defense, service members reported nearly 3,200 incidents of sexual assault in 2011.

The 'Field of Panties': Sexual Violence and Immigrant Farmworkers

Field image by eurospiders/Shutterstock.

Field image by eurospiders/Shutterstock.

They call it the field de calzon — the "field of panties" —because so many rapes happen there.

On Wednesday, the organization Human Rights Watch released the report Cultivating Fear: The Vulnerability of Immigrant Farmworkers in the US to Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment. It’s filled with tales that would make Jeremiah, or Amos, or Micah weep: stories of some of the most marginalized, exploited, and impoverished people in the country.

HRW talked to 160 farmworkers, growers, law enforcement officials, attorneys and other experts in agricultural workplace issues in 8 different states, finding that most women working in agriculture have been — or know someone who has been — victimized sexually at work; confirming the findings of a 2010 survey of California Central Valley workers in which 80 percent reported having experienced sexual harassment or abuse on the job.

It’s common enough that some women farm workers see it as “an unavoidable condition of agricultural work.”

Mothers, Violence and the House GOP

Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

House Republicans' news conference on reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act in April. Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

When we look deeply into our mothers’ eyes we see the beauty and power of grace; their grace offered to us and our grace offered to them.

And so their abuse is unthinkable …and the thought that their abuse would be deemed unworthy of protection by the state—for any reason—is unconscionable.

Why, then, is the House GOP insisting on a scaled down version of the bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act that the Senate reauthorized with bipartisan support in April? Because they have decided certain women are worth protecting and others are not.


Reaffirming the Violence Against Women Act is Every Man's Moral Obligation

"Domestic Violence." Illustration by Ira Gelb via Wylio http://bit.ly/x8IjOo.

"Domestic Violence." Illustration by Ira Gelb via Wylio http://bit.ly/x8IjOo.

One in 5 women have been raped in their lifetime and nearly 1 in 4 women have been victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner.

Mothers, daughters, sisters, wives and partners physically, emotionally and spiritually violated.

This is a moral shame not just on the men who committed these crimes but on ALL men.

It wasn’t until 1920 that the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was ratified. It reads:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Men in this country live with a legacy of viewing and treating women as less than human. Our past reveals that we have not always recognized the image of God as fully present in our sisters.

While not every man has committed a crime of violence against women, all men are responsible to make sure such crimes end. The statistics show that rape and assault are not isolated incidents but rather are a consistent and constant part of our society and culture.

It won’t end the crisis, but the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), is an important tool, giving an avenue of response to women who have been victimized.

Rape: The Horrific Tale of Two Surveys

Protester holding placard, 2010. Image via Wylio. http://bit.ly/rXM1Om

Protester holding placard, 2010. Image via Wylio. http://bit.ly/rXM1Om

Earlier this week, the Burlington Free Press broke the story about the circulation of a provocative online survey among members of Sigma Phi Epsilon — the largest fraternity at the University of Vermont — which included the question: "If I could rape someone, who would it be?"

On the questionnaire, fraternity members were asked to respond to questions ranging from the benign (“Who’s my favorite artist?”) to the debauched (“Where in public would I want to have sex?”) But it was “Personal Question #3” — the hypothetical rape question — that drove the university to put the fraternity on suspension.

The University of Vermont’s chapter is under investigation by Sigma Phi Epsilon's national office. Women’s and other human rights groups in the Burlington area circulated petitions, gathered for protests on campus, and have called on the university to terminate the fraternity once and for all.

This isn't the first time the men of University of Vermont’s Sigma Phi Epsilon aka “SigEp” – a fraternity founded on the principals of “Virtue, Diligence, and Brotherly Love” – have gotten themselves in trouble. A few years ago, SigEp’s national office temporarily revoked the school’s charter, stating that the house’s hazing rituals and other risky behaviors made the organization vulnerable to lawsuits.

It’s impossible to ignore the significance of the most recent SigEp transgression in light of a very different survey released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the day after the Vermont story broke.

The CDC study found that nearly 1 in 5 American women have been raped.

Penn State’s Massive Moral Failure to Put The Most Vulnerable First Instead of Last

Jesus comforts the children. Image via Wylio.

Jesus comforts the children. Image via Wylio.

In Mathew 25, he allows no excuses, personal or institutional.

“As you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me,” Jesus says without qualification. Apply that text to this terrible exploitation at Penn State and it certainly speaks explicitly to the most vulnerable children who have been so horribly abused there.

As it was done to them, it was done to Christ himself, the very Son of God. This famous text is one of the few passages of judgment in the New Testament.

Judgment is now needed at Penn State and beyond about how we continue to allow wealth, power, institutional protections, and cultural complicity to aid, abet, and enable the evil abuse of our most vulnerable children.

Racism, Moral Law and the Penn State Abuse Scandal

I made myself read the Grand Jury report about Sandusky's alleged crimes and it was 23 pages of vile and inhuman behavior not only by the predator but by those who actually saw it, heard of it, or received reports about it across their desk. 

Then to also learn that all these children were black deepens my sadness.

I am forced to ask some really hard questions.

Are black people that expendable?

Was the fact that they were black, poor and powerless the reason it was overlooked?

Is football, a school, and personal reputation so important that a 10-year-old black boy being raped in a bathroom can be covered up? 

I had an idea that power was corrupt, but this is much more than simply corrupt. It is pure evil.

Say It Ain't So, David

King David (left, by Paul Reubens) and Joe Paterno (coaching in 2010)

King David (left, by Paul Reubens) and Joe Paterno (coaching in 2010)

Abuse of physical strength and power hasn’t been limited to the locker rooms at Penn State. Nor is it limited to middle-aged men. It's in every culture, every city and state, and in every generation. And, I might add, it is both wicked and foolish.

I think we’ve been given enough examples of such abuse being handled incorrectly—to be swept under the rug instead of dealt with directly. The silence of witnesses only allows the abuse to continue. When I spoke with Daniel Walker, author of the new book God in a Brothel, about child slavery and prostitution, he noted that the men who oppress women and children don’t need to be ministered to as much as they need to be held accountable.

Joe Pa, 84, who had coached at Penn State for more than 45 years, has been fired, and the university’s president has resigned over the abuse scandal. Both actions were reactive responses to a problem that really needed proactive intervention.

Migrant Workers and The Grapes of Wrath Revisited

When John Steinbeck's classic novel The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939, it caused a sensation. It won the Pulitzer Prize and was the best-selling novel of the year. Just months later, in 1940, the book was turned into a film by John Ford, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards.

For readers today, Steinbeck's migration saga remains relevant as a piece of (dramatized) social analysis. It's essentially a road novel about the Joads, a poor Midwestern migrant farming family. Throughout the novel, the Joads fight to keep their family intact while fleeing the 1930s Oklahoma Dustbowl for the hope of farm work in California.