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The Shame Isn’t Ours, It’s Yours
The first corner turning was realizing we weren’t crazy. The system was crazy.—GLORIA STEINEM
Rape is hardly the first thing I would want to mention after delivering the uplifting news that women have reached a tipping point in the fight for emancipation. But as much as major corporations now want women on their boards, and the women of the Arab Spring have flexed their might in overthrowing dictators, and the women of Afghanistan and elsewhere are prepared to go to the barricades to alter their status, sexual violence still stalks them. It doesn’t stop women from reforming justice systems, opening schools, and establishing health care. It doesn’t eliminate them from leadership roles or prevent them from acting as mentors and role models. But rape continues to be the ugly foundation of women’s story of change. Burying the terrible truth is as ineffective as wishing it hadn’t happened. Naming the horror of sexual violence is a crucial part of the change cycle.
Rape as punishment or as a means of control still lurks in the lives of women. Marital rape is an old story. Date rape is relatively new. In many households, husbands still claim that they own their wives and have the right to sex on demand. Defenseless children are sexually abused by fathers, uncles, and brothers; in some countries, men think that having sex with a virgin girl child will cure HIV/AIDS. The impunity of men when it comes to rape constitutes a centuries-old record of disgrace. For women, sexual violence has been a life sentence.
I’ve spoken to women in Africa and Europe, in Asia and North America about the role of rape in their lives. Some of the stories they told me made me gasp in near disbelief at the extent of the horror inflicted on them. Others made me cheer for the awe-inspiring courage they showed in demanding justice. They all described perpetrators who banked on the silence of society and the shame of the victims to protect them from consequences. But they also spoke of the fearlessness and tenacity it takes to end this scourge.
Some people think you shouldn’t talk about rape. If it happens to you, be quiet, don’t tell, because the stigma could prevent you from getting a job, making new friends, finding a partner. People say, “Put it behind you. There is no good in rehashing the past.” Others still dare to say, “She asked for it. She was dressed like a whore.” Or worse, “She needed to be taught a lesson.” And too many people refuse to accept the statistics. They don’t want to believe that one human being could be so brutal to another human being, so they dismiss the topic as not fit for polite conversation. People who don’t intervene when something is wrong give tacit permission for injustice to continue, proving that there’s no such thing as an innocent bystander.
Rape has always been a silent crime. The victim doesn’t want to admit what happened to her lest she be dismissed or rejected. The rest of the world would prefer to either believe rape doesn’t happen or stick to the foolish idea that silence is the best response.
Today the taboo around talking about sexual violence has been breached. Women from Bosnia, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have blown the whistle about rape camps and mass rapes and even re-rape, a word coined by women in Congo to describe the condition of being raped by members of one militia and raped again when another swaggers into their village. Instead of being hushed up, cases such as that of Mukhtar Mai, the Pakistani girl who was gang-raped by village men who wanted to punish her for walking with a boy from an upper caste, have made headlines around the world. And the raping of an unconscious girl in Steubenville, Ohio, in 2012 got everyone’s attention, mostly because some of the media reported that the “poor boys who raped her were going to jail and their lives were over.” An outraged public responded with a conversation that went viral: “If you’re so worried about your high marks and your great ‘rep’ and your football scholarship, don’t go around raping unconscious girls and posting the photos on YouTube.”
The causes and consequences of rape are at last being debated at the United Nations. The International Criminal Court in The Hague declared rape a war crime in 1998. The UN Security Council decided that rape was a strategy of war and therefore a security issue in 2007. The announcement was welcome news to the activists, but most people asked what the Security Council could or would actually do with their newly forged resolution, which called for the immediate and complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence against civilians. The resolution also called for states to provide more protection for women and to eliminate the impunity of men. Getting traction on a UN resolution is like hoping for rain in the middle of a drought. Women are fed up with waiting for action. Eve Ensler, the award-winning playwright, author of The Vagina Monologues, and founder of V-Day, the global activism movement to end violence against women and girls, had an idea. What if 1 billion women around the world stood up on the same day and sang the same song and danced the same dance? What if together they claimed their own space, raised their own voices, took back the night? Would that send a message that 50 percent of the population has had it with violence against women? The naysayers said it could never be done. But the naysayers hadn’t asked the world’s women.
On February 14, 2013, 1 billion women from India and the Philippines to the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany danced, sang, and reclaimed their own bodies. On February 14, 2014, they did it again. Thousands of pairs of feet stomping, hands clapping; little kids and grannies, businesswomen and teenagers flooded into public squares in 207 countries. They danced, raised their arms skyward, and sang in a victory chant that was heard all over the world.
I dance ’cause I love,
Dance ’cause I dream,
Dance ’cause I’ve had enough,
Dance to stop the screams
Dance to break the rules
Dance to stop the pain
Dance to turn it upside down
It’s time to break the chain
They were taking part in One Billion Rising, which was the largest global action in history to end violence against women. Like a rising tide, the decision to stop the oppression, the abuse, the second-class citizenship of women was already surging in Asia, in Africa, in North America and Europe. When Eve Ensler did the math, she made a startling announcement: “One in three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. One billion women violated is an atrocity. One billion women dancing is a revolution.”
The idea came to her when she returned to the Democratic Republic of Congo—to Bukavu and the City of Joy she had built with the women who had suffered the worst and likely most depraved abuse the world had ever known. It was a bald and thin Eve Ensler who had just stumbled out of the fog and fear of uterine cancer treatment who fell into the welcoming arms of the women she had worked with in what had come to be known as the rape capital of the world. Eve linked her own cancer to the cancer of cruelty that these women knew. In her new book, In the Body of the World, she describes “the cancer from the stress of not achieving, the cancer of buried trauma” and the epiphany she had that “cancer was the alchemist, an agent of change”: “I am particularly grateful for the women of Congo whose strength, beauty, and joy in the midst of horror insisted I rise above my self-pity.”
It was there she imagined the dance. “It could transform suffering into action and pain into power. We could call on all women to dance, to take back the spaces, put their feet on the earth, reclaim their bodies.” The idea spread like wildfire: urban and rural women, farmers and fishers, artists and teachers all said they would dance.
Eve Ensler says, “Dancing is a genius form of protest. You can do it together or alone, it gives you energy, makes you feel you own the street. Corporations can’t control it.” She lists dozens of events that made up One Billion Rising: a flash mob in the European Parliament, more than forty events in New York City, participation by cell phone in Tehran, a human chain in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and acid attack survivors in that country who rallied and danced. Fifteen city blocks in Manila had to be closed to accommodate more than a million women dancing. Two hundred women and men marched in front of the parliament in Afghanistan. There was the first-ever flash dance in Mogadishu, Somalia, and more than two hundred events in the United Kingdom. Hollywood actors like Anne Hathaway rose up. So did the Dalai Lama and politicians and CEOs. Eve says the participation was beyond her wildest dreams. She’s on a mission to stop the violence that she calls “the methodology of oppression” once and for all. Her goal was to find the right steps to end violence “so it’s not perpetual Groundhog Day.”
One Billion Rising was the wind needed to blow on the coals so the fire would ignite. And now she wants the international community to step up and keep stoking the fire. “Our time has come,” she says. “This is the moment to trust what you know, trust your instinct, move knowledge into wisdom. Now is the moment to stop waiting for permission. Stand up for your truth.” She calls women the people of the second wind and calls on all of us to keep rising.
One Billion Rising isn’t a single assault on violence against women. It’s part of a collection of volleys against sexism and oppression that is gaining in strength around the world today.
One of the most stunning examples comes from Kenya, where in 2011 there was a watershed moment everyone had been waiting for. In the northern city of Meru, 160 girls between the ages of three and seventeen sued the government for failing to protect them from being raped. Their legal action was crafted in Canada, another country where women successfully sued the government for failing to protect them. Everyone from high court judges and magistrates in Kenya to researchers and law-school professors in Canada believed these girls would win and that the victory would set a precedent that would alter the status of women in Kenya and maybe all of Africa.
These are grand claims for redressing a crime as old as Methuselah, but the researchers and lawyers working on the case insisted that the evidence was on their side.
The suit was the brainchild of Fiona Sampson, winner of the 2014 New York Bar Association Award for Distinction in International Law. She is the project director of the Equality Effect, a nonprofit organization that uses international human rights law to improve the lives of girls and women. It came about by way of a touch of serendipity and a lot of tenacity. Sampson was doing a master’s degree at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto in 2002 when she met fellow students Winifred Kamau, a lecturer from the University of Nairobi Law School, and Elizabeth Archampong, vice dean at the Faculty of Law at Kwame Nkrumah University in Ghana, who had come to Canada to study international law. Their mutual interest in equality rights drew the women together. A few years later, when Seodi White, a lawyer from Malawi, was a visiting scholar at the Center for Women’s Studies at the University of Toronto, the trio became a foursome. When the African women wondered if the model used in Canada in the early eighties to reform the law around sexual assault—in which legal activists successfully lobbied to rewrite the law, educate the judiciary, and raise awareness with the public—could work in Africa, Sampson started thinking about ways to tackle the entrenched violence against women in countries like Kenya, Malawi, and Ghana.
Eight years after their initial meeting, the quartet gathered in Nairobi in 2010 with the pick of the human rights legal crop from Canada and Africa for the historic launch of Three to Be Free, a program that targets three countries, Kenya, Malawi, and Ghana, with three strategies—litigation, policy reform, and legal education—over three years in order to alter the status of women. Their intention was to tackle marital rape and make it a crime. But when the lawyers returned home and started their research, another serendipitous meeting took place. A woman named Mercy Chidi was in Toronto taking a course at the Women’s Human Rights Education Institute at the University of Toronto. One of the lawyers working on the marital rape case, Mary Eberts, was teaching the course and heard Chidi’s story. She called Sampson and suggested she meet Chidi, who was the director of a nongovernmental organization called The Ripples International Brenda Boone Hope Centre (which is known locally in Meru as Tumaini—the Swahili word for “hope”). First a word about Brenda Boone, the Washington-based executive whom the shelter is named for. She met Mercy in 2006 when Mercy was in Washington raising money to rescue kids with AIDS who’d been abandoned. “I invited Mercy and her husband to come to my house—they arrived in full African attire in my Capital Hill home that was full of antiques and Victorian furniture.” Brenda asked how she could help, and when they asked her for a computer, she provided one immediately, along with a check for $5,000. A year later, Mercy was back in Washington to receive the International Peace Award. Brenda invited the Chidis back to her home—“I served them fried chicken because it was Sunday and I’m Southern”—and Mercy explained that they had made a business plan and decided to open a shelter for girls who had been raped. “That pierced my heart,” says Brenda. “I gave them another check, this time for $25,000, and committed to financing everything to get the place going.” Brenda knew the missing piece was the legal action required to stop the raping of girls.
A few years later, when Mercy met Fiona Sampson and told her about the shelter and about the girls who can’t go home because the men who raped them are still at large, they both knew it was time to tackle the root of the problem—the impunity of rapists and the failure of the justice system to convict them.
Sampson admits it was her own sense of urgency that made the concept take flight. “I am the last thalidomide child to be born in Canada,” she explains, referring to the anti-morning-sickness drug whose side effects in utero had affected the development of her hands and arms. (The drug was banned in 1962.) “There was a culture of impunity in the testing of drugs at that time,” she explains, “so I’m consumed with the desire to seek justice in the face of impunity.”
Kenya has laws on its books designed to protect girls from rape, or “defilement.” The state is responsible for the police and the way police enforce existing laws. Since the police in Kenya failed to arrest the perpetrators and fail on an ongoing basis to provide the protection girls need, the lawyers filed notice that the state is responsible for the breakdown in the system. Sampson said at the time, “We will argue that the failure to protect the girls from rape is actually a human rights violation, that it’s a violation of the equality provisions of the Kenyan constitution. It’s the Kenyan state that signed on to international, regional, and domestic equality provisions and it’s therefore their obligation to protect the girls. Only the state can provide the remedies we’re looking for, which is the safety and security of the girls.”
Sampson and other human rights lawyers in Canada have done this successfully for approximately twenty-five years since the introduction of Section 15, the equality provision of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Their track record includes considerable success with precedent-setting cases that establish the state’s responsibility to protect the rights of Canadian women. One of them was a case in Toronto in 1986 involving a woman raped by a man referred to as the Balcony Rapist, who was targeting the women of one downtown neighborhood, gaining access to their bedrooms by breaking in through second- and third-floor balconies in the dark of night. The woman, who called herself Jane Doe, sued the police, claiming it was their responsibility to warn the potential targets of the Balcony Rapist and thereby protect them. The police tried to have her case dismissed using the argument that if they had warned the potential targets, it would have tipped off the rapist. But Jane Doe argued that the Toronto police used her as bait to draw out the predator. Her courage and dogged determination turned her case into a cause célèbre. In 1998, she won.
Mary Eberts, who is working on the Kenyan girls’ suit, explains the connection between the two cases: “The police knew about this guy, they knew about his method of operation, and they knew where in the city the women he liked to target would be living, but they did not warn those women about the potential danger they were in. Jane Doe was raped by this guy, as the police might have predicted. She brought this case, which we are using as a precedent in the 160 girls’ litigation, to say there is a duty on the part of the police to enforce the law—that’s why the law is there. And if the police do not enforce the law, if the government does not enforce the law, then they are guilty of violating a person’s equality.”
Eberts knows that the stars need to be aligned for precedent-setting cases to work. Her colleague Winnie Kamau says a case like this couldn’t have happened even a few years ago. “I think the timing was actually quite perfect, particularly in the Kenyan context,” Kamau says. “We have a new constitution that was enacted in August 2010, and in the last half dozen years we have had some very progressive laws passed in our country. Five years ago it would have been difficult to bring everybody together, but the timing now I believe is right. There’s also a lot more awareness among African women about their rights, and they have the feeling, the sense that they need to change. We can harness these energies.”
The new Kenyan constitution contains powerful provisions that provide for increased equality for women and girls, provisions that have not yet been interpreted by the country’s courts. This is precisely where the Canadian courts were twenty-five years ago when the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was enacted. New laws must be tested and interpreted in the courts. Reflecting on their own experience with charter challenges, the Canadian lawyers see this case as an opportunity to ensure that the courts interpret and apply constitutional provisions in ways that guarantee the human rights of women and girls. The process is time-consuming and expensive, but it’s the best way to establish precedents that the courts can rely on for future cases. The Three to Be Free activists plan to take similar action in Malawi and Ghana once this case is won.
Historically, when you alter the status of one woman, you alter the status of her family. When a girl is confident and knows what her rights are, she knows what she can claim from the state and that the state owes her certain things by virtue of the fact that she’s a citizen of that state. She can claim an education, livelihood, and shelter. She can claim that she has the right not to be marginalized. Once the state is held accountable for its obligation to promote women’s human rights and to protect women and girls from violence, a climate of intolerance for violence against women follows. There’s more likelihood that people who talk casually about violating women and girls will be censured by their friends and that women themselves will speak out, bring charges, demand justice.
* * *
It’s a four-hour drive from Nairobi to Meru (population 1 million) and the shelter where the Kenyan girls are staying. We drive through banana farms and tea plantations, past dark umbrella-like acacia trees, inhaling the dry scent of the savannah. Bleating goats and signs declaring JESUS SAVES dot the landscape. Mango trees and roadsides drenched in pink, orange, and red bougainvillea smack up against fluorescent green billboards advertising Safari, the country’s cell phone provider. When we cross the equator on the way to Meru, the heat intensifies but the traffic remains the same—heavy and fast, a series of near misses for both vehicles and pedestrians.
The rutted red dirt road into the Ripples International shelter is shaded by a canopy of lush trees that offer refuge from the heat of the equatorial sun. Hedges of purple azalea and yellow hibiscus camouflage the fence that keeps intruders away from this bucolic place that is a refuge for the 160 girls who are poised to cut off the head of the snake that is sexual assault.
I’d been briefed in Nairobi about what to expect when I met the girls whose cases have been selected for the lawsuit. The first one I’m introduced to is Emily. The size of the child takes my breath away. Emily is barely four and a half feet tall, her tiny shoulders scarcely twelve inches across. But when she sits down to tell her story, her husky eleven-year-old voice is charged with determination. “My grandfather asked me to fetch the torch,” she explains. But when she brought it to him, it wasn’t a flashlight he wanted. “He took me by force and warned me not to scream or he would cut me up.” Along with thousands of men in Kenya and indeed throughout sub-Saharan Africa, Emily’s grandfather believes that having sex with a girl child will cure HIV/AIDS, a belief that led him to rape his own granddaughter to presumably heal himself. What’s worse, men believe that the younger the child is, the stronger the cure will be. Now she is taking the old man to the high court in Nairobi. Even Emily knows the case is likely to be history making. This little kid, along with the other 159 plaintiffs, knows that she may be the one who strengthens the status of women and girls not only in Kenya but in all of Africa.
“These men will learn they cannot do this to small girls,” says Emily, who, like the other girls I met, balances the victim label with the newfound empowerment that has come to her from the decision to sue.
Charity is also eleven and her sister Susan only six. Their mother is dead. Their father raped them—first Charity, then Susan—after they came home from school one day during the winter months. Charity says, “I want my father to go to the jail.” Her sister is so traumatized that she won’t leave Charity’s side and only eats, sleeps, and speaks when Charity tells her it’s okay to do so. Perpetual Kimanze, who takes care of these girls and coordinates their counseling and therapy, keeps a close eye on Susan when the little girl begins to talk to me in a barely audible voice, uttering each word with an agonizing pause between, and says, “My … father … put … his … penis … between … my … legs … and … he … hurt … me.”
It’s been six days since Emily was raped; she still complains of stomach pain. She can’t sleep. She says in her native Kiswahili (a local dialect of Swahili), “Nasikia uchungu sana nikienda choo, kukojoa.” It hurts to go to the bathroom.
Doreen, fifteen, has a four-month-old baby as a result of being raped by her cousin. Her mother is mentally ill. Her father left them years ago, and they had moved in with her mother’s sister. When Doreen realized she was pregnant, her aunt told her to have an abortion; when her uncle found out, he beat her and threw her out of the house. She was considering suicide when she heard about Ripples and came to their Tumaini Centre.
In Kenya a girl child is raped every thirty minutes; some are as young as three months old. If a girl doesn’t die of her injuries, she faces abandonment; families don’t want anything to do with girls who have been sexually assaulted. She almost certainly loses the chance to get an education. Some can’t go to school anymore because they’ve been raped by the teacher. Others are prohibited by the stigma; the girls are doubly victimized by being ostracized. They often become HIV positive as a result of rape, so their health is compromised. Urinary tract infections and sexually transmitted diseases plague them. Without an education, with poor health and no means of financial support, the girls drift into poverty. Their childhood is over and they become the face the world expects of Africa—poor, unhealthy, and destitute.
Twenty-five percent of Kenyan girls aged twelve to twenty-four lose their virginity due to rape. An estimated 70 percent never report it to the authorities, and only one-third of the reported cases wind up in court. If the prosecutor can prove that a girl was under the age of fifteen when she was assaulted, the rapist’s sentence is life in prison. But there’s the rub. The laws are not enforced, and rape is on the rise. More than 90 percent know their assailant: fathers, grandfathers, uncles, teachers, priests—the very people assigned the task of keeping vulnerable children safe. And raping little girls as a way of cleansing themselves from HIV/AIDS isn’t the only reason they act. Says Hedaya Atupelye, a social worker I met at the shelter run by the Women’s Rights Awareness Program in Nairobi, “Men think having sex with a little girl is a sign of being wealthy and stylish. Some of these men are educated beyond the graduate level, but they want to be the first to break the flower so they seek out young girls.”
If it’s the breadwinner who’s guilty, the family will go hungry if he’s sent to jail, so even a child’s mother will choose to remain silent. “It’s our African culture,” says Kimanze. “No one wants to associate with one who’s been raped or who’s lived in a shelter. We need to stand up and say the shame isn’t ours, it’s yours.”
In Kenya, people can pay to have their police charges disappear. Or they can bribe a police officer and no charges will be brought. If the case is taken seriously, statements are taken, the child is sent to a doctor for examination, and the file with the doctor’s report is returned to the police. “This is also where money changes hands,” says Atupelye. “If a girl, or for that matter a woman, goes to the police on her own, she is usually ridiculed and harassed. It was suggested half a dozen years ago that the police create a gender desk where a female would be safe in reporting the crime, but invariably the gender desk isn’t manned and is covered with dust.”
“One of the challenges is that our culture doesnt allow us to speak out about sexual things,” says Mercy Chidi. “My only advice from my mother when I got my period was ‘Don’t play with boys; you’ll get pregnant.’ My own uncle tried to rape me, and to this day I have not told my mother. We have to break this silence.” When the girls arrive at the shelter, she says, they are severely traumatized and don’t want to talk to anyone. Some are frightened, others aggressive. They tend to pick on one another. And as much as they come around and begin to heal, Mercy says that they never completely overcome the trauma. “It’s like tearing a paper into many pieces. No matter how carefully you try to put the pieces together again, the paper will never be the same. That’s what sexual assault does.” One little girl at the shelter begins to cry every night when it starts to get dark and the curtains are drawn. “It’s the hour when her father used to come and rape her,” Chidi says.
In the program at Tumaini Centre, the girls stay for six weeks; they receive prophylaxis drugs to prevent HIV/AIDS and pregnancy as soon as they arrive and medical care and counseling for the duration. If it isn’t safe for them to return home, they go to a boarding school or stay on in the residence at the center. Those who go home come back once a month for six months and then every three months for ongoing counseling and support. When I visited, there were eleven girls in residence.
One of them, a fifteen-year-old called Luckline, had been raped by a neighbor. She was thirty-nine weeks pregnant when we met. When she talked about what had happened to her, she didn’t sound like a victim. She sounded like a girl who wanted to get even, to make a change. She said, “This happened to me on May 13, 2010. I will make sure this never happens to my sister.” When I asked what she would do after the baby was born, she said she wanted to return to school because she planned to become a poet. With little prompting, she read me one of her poems.
Here I come
Walking down through history to eternity
From paradise to the city of goods
Victorious, glorious, serious, and pious
Elegant, full of grace and truth
The centerpiece and the masterpiece of literature
Glowing, growing, and flowing
Here, there, everywhere
Cheering millions every day
The book of books that I am.
This from a teenager who is disadvantaged in every imaginable way. Yet she was preparing to sue her government for failing to protect her. This is how change happens. But it takes commitment and colossal personal strength for a girl to tackle the status quo and claim a better future for herself.
Back in Nairobi, I visit with Nano, a magistrate in the children’s court. She insisted that her full name not be used, as she must be seen as totally impartial both to the children and to the system that she criticizes. “The difficulty,” she said, “is that the police lack knowledge of the law. Not all but most need training and sensitization around sexual assault.” And, she said, “It’s hard to get evidence from children; they need psychologists and counselors to talk to them, and the Kenyan legal system simply doesn’t have that resource. Even some magistrates lack training and knowledge of the Sexual Offences Act.” Of the few cases that have made it to the court, she said, “The difficulty is, they come without the information I need to convict. The girls block it out or don’t turn up. There are all kinds of judicial tools I can use: CEDAW [the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women], the children’s convention, even the new Sexual Offences Act legislation in Kenya. The investigating officer needs to tell the court what has been found, the charge sheets have to be drafted correctly, and the child needs to be able to tell the officer what happened; if she can, she needs to identify the man who defiled her and say, ‘He is the one who did this to me.’ The children have to be prepared for this. Without it, I cannot convict.”
After that conversation with the magistrate, I sat in on the meeting that the team of lawyers was holding in a hotel across town. While diesel-belching buses and the traffic chaos in Nairobi created cacophony outside, the lawyers hunkered over their files at a long narrow table, creating a strategy for the case. They debated the wording, parsing every sentence, nitpicking the legal clauses, testing the jurisprudence. They knew it would take collaboration between lawyers, doctors, and academics, experts in human rights law as well as international law, to be successful. They also needed to protect the girls and make sure they weren’t revictimized by the process. Once the child’s story has been documented by an officer, the lawyer can make the accusation in court, thus preventing the girls from being further traumatized.
For five long days, they argued over how best to make the case. There were three choices: a civil claim, a criminal claim, or a constitutional claim. Finally they decided that a constitutional challenge was the way to go. The Kenyan constitution guarantees equality rights for citizens. It promises protection for men and women. It governs the laws that deliver that protection. The lawyers decided to argue that the state failed to execute the constitutional rights of the girls. Then they set their sights on a court date. The journey they were on together is about girls who dared to break the taboo on speaking out about sexual assault. It’s about women lawyers from two sides of the world supporting these youngsters in their quest for justice. It’s about the kids who were told they had no rights but insist that they do. It’s the push-back reaction that every woman and girl in the world has been waiting for. “This case is the beginning,” said Chidi. “It’ll be a long journey, but now it has begun.” The feeling as they prepared to go to court was if they won, the victory would be a success for every girl and woman in Africa, maybe even the world.
On October 11, 2012, when the case went to court in Meru, the lawyers marched through the streets from the shelter where the girls had been staying to the courthouse. The kids wanted to march as well but were told their identity needed to be protected and they must stay back at the shelter. Nothing doing, they said. They marched beside their advocates to the courthouse chanting, “Haki yangu,” the Kiswahili words for “I demand my rights.” With all the hullaballoo on the street, the police at the court panicked and slammed the gates shut as the girls approached. Nothing would stop them now. They climbed onto the fence still calling, “Haki yangu,” and then they looked at one another and started to laugh at the reversal in roles being played out in front of them. “Look,” they called to each other, “these men who hurt us and made us ashamed are scared of us now.” Soon enough the gates were opened and the girls and their lawyers entered the court to begin the proceedings that would alter their future.
There was something deliciously serendipitous about the power going off in northern Kenya seven months later on May 27, 2013, just as Judge J. A. Makau read his much-anticipated decision about this case that put rape in a glaring spotlight, a case that could alter the status of women and girls in Kenya and maybe all of Africa. When the lights came on, the judge in the high court in Meru, Kenya, stated: “By failing to enforce existing defilement [rape] laws, the police have contributed to the development of a culture of tolerance for pervasive sexual violence against girl children and impunity.”
The earth shifted under the rights of girls and women that day; the girls secured access to justice for themselves and legal protection from rape for all 10 million girls and women in Kenya.
Within forty-eight hours of the court decision, Fiona Sampson had heard from half a dozen other countries that want the same action. But “the win is only as good as the justice each girl gets,” says Marcia Cardamore, whose PeopleSense Foundation was the major funder of the court case. She underscores the need for close follow-up when she says, “We sent a letter to the court to give three months’ notice to the police that we need to see results or we’ll take more action, put more legal pressure on them. Without due process, we haven’t won anything.”
Marcia is part of a new generation of women philanthropists who are determined to make changes. She belongs to an organization called Women Moving Millions that was founded in 2005 by Helen LaKelly Hunt and her sister, former U.S. ambassador to Austria Swanee Hunt, who understood that moving the bar for women’s equality rights meant raising the financial stakes. “I get the sense I am not an outlier and there are other women in the world who want to overcome these injustices,” says Marcia. Like everyone else involved with this case, she’s watching and ready to act if justice is not forthcoming.
* * *
The road they travel was paved by women who went before: those who were willing to cry foul rather than be silenced by shame; those who worked tirelessly to make the world understand that rape is not the right of men; those who insist rape is not the “fault” of women but a control issue among men who have failed to grasp the consequences of scarring a woman’s mind by assaulting her body.
Like so many issues that have reached a turning point for women, rape has gone from being the crime no one wants to talk about, to making headlines, to being a prominent subject in courts, in newly published books, and in award-winning films. Among the first to go public on a world stage were the extraordinarily brave women from Bosnia who went to the International Criminal Court in The Hague in 1998; despite the very real possibility that they would be forever rejected by their families, they testified about what had happened to them: they had been rounded up, taken to enemy camps, and gang-raped.
Their story of sexual violence actually began when the USSR collapsed in 1991 and its sister state Yugoslavia (created at the end of the First World War from seven independent nations) erupted in a civil war in the Balkans so virulent that former neighbors, old friends, and business partners attacked one another in a ferocious bloodbath that riveted the world’s attention. I began covering the story soon after that, which is how I came to meet some of the women who had been gang-raped. But getting their story published was a story in itself.
In the fall of 1992, I was in Sarajevo to cover the effect of war on children. The siege of Sarajevo was like nothing I had ever seen before. Snipers and soldiers were waging a war against civilians. Targets of the shelling were hospitals, schools, and playgrounds. Explosives made in the shape of children’s toys were maiming kids who picked them up. Families were forced to live in basements while soldiers took over the rest of the house. And all this was happening in a breathtaking setting, in a city that had played host to the Olympic Games, in a region that was picture-postcard beautiful. The towns had names that sound like songs. White stucco houses with red clay roofs dotted the landscape.
The sun cast a glow on ancient hills that turned purple at dusk and glowed buttery yellow at dawn. But the streets were rife with the Devil’s work, and there was peril at every corner.
The day before I was to leave Sarajevo, I began to hear rumors about Bosnian Serb soldiers who were rounding up Bosnian Muslim women and dragging them off to rape camps. Every journalist knows that one of the first casualties of war is the truth, and I thought that what I was hearing was propaganda. This was two years before the horror of Rwanda, before Darfur, before Congo. But as the day progressed, I kept hearing about the rape camps from more and more credible sources. At that time, I was the editor in chief of a magazine, and magazines have a much longer lead time than newspapers. If this story was true, it was breaking news that needed to be published immediately; it couldn’t wait the three months it would take to get it to my magazine readers.
I gathered everything I could—cell phone numbers, names, details about Muslim wives and sisters and daughters being gang-raped eight and ten times a day. When I flew back to Canada, I went straight to a media outlet and handed over the file to an editor I knew. I said, “This is a horrendous story. Give it to one of your reporters.” I went back to my office and waited for the headline. Nothing. I waited another week and another—still nothing. Seven weeks later, I saw a four-line blurb in Newsweek magazine about soldiers gang-raping women in the Balkans. I called the editor I’d given the package to.
As soon as he heard my voice, he started to giggle—nervously. “Oh, I knew you’d be calling me today,” he said.
“What happened?” I wanted to know.
“Well, Sally,” he said, “it was a good story, but, you know, I got busy and, you know, I was on deadline and, you know, I forgot.”
I was astounded. I said, “More than twenty thousand women were gang-raped, some of them eight years old, some of them eighty years old—and you forgot?”
I hung up and called my staff together and told them what had happened. We decided to do the story ourselves. I was on a plane back to the war zone two days later.
Six women who were refugees in Zagreb, Croatia, were willing to be interviewed, but they were reluctant to have their names used as they knew they’d be rejected by their families if word of the rapes got out. While most women did not become pregnant, some did. Of those who were pregnant, some managed to get abortions; some had been kept in prison until abortion was impossible. And still others had escaped but couldn’t find medical help in time for an abortion. Many who gave birth left the newborns at the hospital. Mostly I talked to frightened women who badly needed health care and counseling and were too traumatized to share their stories. I worried about asking a woman to relive the horror and began to wonder how to best tell a story that most preferred to be silent about.
Then I met Dr. Mladen Loncar, a psychiatrist at the University of Zagreb, who told me about a woman who was furious with the silence around this atrocity and had plenty to say. He promised to call her and ask for an interview on my behalf, and when he did, Eva Penavic said yes, she would talk to me. Getting to her was a problem, though, as she was living as a refugee on the eastern border between Bosnia and Croatia, near the city of Vukovar. The area was being shelled day and night.
The photographer I drove with accelerated through towns where buildings were still smoking from being hit by rocket-propelled grenades (and turned up the volume on a Pavarotti CD to block out the sound of grenades exploding in the distance). We finally arrived late in the afternoon at the four-room house Eva was sharing with her extended family of seventeen. For the next seven hours, I listened while she described the hideous ordeal she’d survived.
Eva told me that she thought the men pounding at her door in the little eastern Croatian village of Berak in November 1991 had come to kill her. Rape was the furthest thing from her mind when they shot off the hinges of her door. After all, she was regarded as a leader in this village of eight hundred people. She was forty-eight years old. She had five grandchildren.
Eva was a wise woman who knew that her sex didn’t guarantee her safety. She was the child of a widow who had to leave home and find work in another village. She was the niece of an abusive man who tried to force her into an arranged marriage when she was sixteen. But despite all her girlhood experiences, she could never have imagined the horror she’d be subjected to during the brutal conflict in the former Yugoslavia.
Eva was one of the civil war’s first victims of mass gang rape. The crime committed against her was part of a plan, a cruel adjunct to the campaign known as “ethnic cleansing”—a phrase as foul to language as the act is annihilating to its victims. An estimated twenty thousand to fifty thousand women, mostly in Bosnia and some in Croatia, shared Eva’s fate.
Historians claim that what happened there was worse than the rapes of opportunity and triumph usually associated with war. This was rape that was organized, visible, ritualistic. It was calculated to scorch the emotional earth of the victim, her family, her community, her ethnic group. In many cases, the victim’s husband, children, cousins, and neighbors were forced to watch.
In other cases, victims heard the screams of their sisters or daughters or mothers as one after another was dragged away to be raped in another room.
Eva was canning tomatoes in a little stone pantry at the back of her house when her door splintered open and twelve men rushed in, subdued her, and blindfolded her. Hissing profanities in her ear, they bullied her out the door and beat her about her legs as she stumbled along a path to a neighboring house, which an extremist Serbian group known as the White Eagles had moved into just the week before.
Born of Croatian parents, Eva knew every house in her home village, every garden, the configuration of the town center, every bend of the creek that flowed around it. Her lifelong best friend, Mira (her name has been changed), was Serbian. As children, they spent their days chasing geese through the middle of town to the Savak Creek. The game was always the same, the kids shrieking wildly as they chased baby geese, with the big geese in hot pursuit of the kids. Eva became a sprinter of such caliber that she was selected to represent first her village, then her district in regional track meets.
As a young woman, she fell in love with a man named Bartol Penavic, and on November 17, 1958, they were married. Together they raised three children, saw them married and settled, and in time became grandparents. Life was good.
The countryside surrounding the village resembles a mural crayoned by children—a clutch of clay-colored houses here, a barn there. On one side of the village stretches a patchwork of rolling hills and thick oak forest so green and purple and yellow that the colors could have been splashed there by rainbows; on the opposite side is flat black farmland with hedgerows of venerable old trees. The town itself is an antique treasure, a three-hundred-year-old tableau of muted colors and softly worn edges—as unlikely a setting for ugliness as could be imagined.
By the time spring began to blossom in 1991, Croatia had declared its independence from Yugoslavia and there were rumblings of trouble. But no one paid much attention. Eva said, “We’d lived together—Croats and Serbs and Muslims—for fifty years. How could anyone change that?” Bartol had told her, “Now is the time for us. Our children are settled. It’s time for us to enjoy life.” They’d had their share of grief: Eva’s father had been killed during the Second World War, and the uncle who assumed charge of her was appalled that she dared to choose the man she would marry. Bartol’s family saw Eva as a peasant, hardly a match for the son of the biggest landowner in the surrounding villages. Despite the odds against them, their thirty-three-year marriage had been rich with the promise of happily-ever-after.
Then in the fall, barricades appeared on the street. As a precaution, they sent their daughter and two daughters-in-law away with the grandchildren to a safer place. Soon enough, the village was under siege. Their sons managed to escape as tanks rolled into town. Most villagers ran away; those who didn’t, including Eva and Bartol, were rounded up and kept in detention. The interrogations and beatings began. Bartol was beaten to death. Eva was sent home by the commander and told to stay in the pantry at the back of the house.
Then the men came for her. They said they were taking her to another village for interrogation, but she knew precisely where they were going—to the nearby house where the White Eagles were headquartered. At the door, her captors announced to the others, “Open up—we bring you the lioness.” Once she was inside, they attacked her like a pack of jackals. Six men stripped her, then raped her by turns, orally and vaginally. They urinated into her mouth. They screamed that she was an old woman and if she was dry they’d cut her vagina with knives and use her blood to make her wet. She was choking on semen and urine and couldn’t breathe. The noise was horrendous as the six men kept shrieking at her that there were twenty more men waiting their turn and calling out, “Who’s next?” She was paralyzed with fear and with excruciating pain. The assault continued relentlessly for three hours.
When they were finished, they cleaned themselves off with her underwear and stuffed the fouled garments into her mouth, demanding she eat them. Then they marched her outside into the garden. She could hear the village dogs barking. She knew exactly where she was and she knew that the cornfield they were pushing her toward was mined. Still blindfolded, she was thrust into the field and told to run away. She stumbled through the slushy snow and sharp cornstalks, and when she was far enough away from the house, she ripped the blindfold off. Injuries from the rape slowed her down, but she was fast all the same. Then she slipped in the muddy field and fell, and at exactly that moment, bullets ripped over her head. She flattened herself into the mud as she heard the cheers of the terrorists, who thought they had bagged another kill. She waited a long time before getting to her feet and staggering on, and then wandered for three more hours, trying to focus, to think of a way to survive. Finally she stumbled into her neighbor’s garden.
Mira had been waiting by the window all night, knowing her childhood friend had been taken away. When she heard the rustle in the garden, she rushed outside with her husband, and together they gathered up their battered friend. Mira bathed Eva, made her strong tea, and cradled her head while she vomited the wretched contents of her stomach and then collapsed. The next morning, Eva left the village. She didn’t come back until the conflict was over.
I visited her again during the war and after the war was over, as well. Although she had reunited with her family and together they returned to Berak, the men responsible for the crime were still roaming the streets of her village, still gloating when Eva walked by. The last time I saw her, in 2005, she told me she still wonders why she was spared. Cradling a new grandchild in her arms, she repeated the comment she’d made when I left her in 1991: “I’ve always wondered why God didn’t take me when he took my Bartol. I think I must have been left here to be the witness for the women.”
It took me the usual three months to get the story to our readers. But after it was published, they took up the torch for these women, and in the form of thousands of letters to the editor, they demanded that the United Nations do something about it.
This was rape as a form of genocide. In the rape camps, many Bosnian women were assaulted until they became pregnant. The Serbian soldiers, known as Chetniks, viewed systematic rape as a way of planting Serbian seeds into Bosnian women and therefore destroying their ethnicity and culture. It wasn’t enough that the women felt their families would reject them because they had been raped, a shame to Islam. The women’s suffering was twofold, just like that of the women of Rwanda and Congo in the years that would follow.
I often wondered what made Eva tell her story when others were too afraid to speak. She told me that in her opinion, the vanquished need a face and a name. Atrocities need a date and a time. Telling the truth is the only way to heal. “It’s not enough to say, ‘You raped me,’” she said. “When I say it happened, where it happened, and what my name is, it makes the rape something to be responsible for.”
But even with worldwide attention on the mass rape of women in the Balkans, and the enormous pity for them and fury for the perpetrators that resulted, the stigma of being raped stuck to those women. One of the problems with stopping the scourge of rape in zones of conflict is eradicating that stigma. What everyone needs to understand is that these women and girls are just like everybody’s mothers and daughters. They are women who had jobs to go to, mortgages to pay; their children, just like the children of their rapists, just like our children, also got croup and forgot to do their homework or ducked out of doing family chores. They had friends over for dinner, took holidays, went to the park, watched over their kids on the swings, the seesaws, the jungle gyms.
But somehow when we hear stories like Eva’s or stories about the women in Rwanda or Congo, we turn the victims and their attackers into “others.” We listen to foolish remarks such as “They’ve been at this for centuries; let them kill each other.” Or “They always treat their women like this; it’s not my business.” Perhaps it’s a way of separating ourselves from something we feel powerless to stop. But we do have power. We can write letters to the United Nations to demand action. We can speak up when others dismiss these atrocities as cultural or religious or worse—none of our business. It took a brave collection of women from Bosnia to do something about rape. They took their dreadful stories to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. They risked being rejected by their families by telling their stories to the world. But they gave the international tribunal the tools to do what courts and governments have avoided throughout history. It made rape a war crime. In 1998, the Yugoslavia War Crimes Tribunal, also in The Hague, made rape and sexual enslavement in the time of war a crime against humanity. Only genocide is considered a more serious crime.
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I believe the shift in thinking about the role of women and the issues that women deal with in the first decade of the third millennium will go down in history as a turning point for civilization. Issues such as sexual assault that had been buried, denied, and ignored suddenly began to be explored in groundbreaking research papers and to figure in legislative reform.
Two books published in the spring of 2011 brought facts to light that might have put the international community on alert against the mass rape in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Congo. In one of them, At the Dark End of the Street, Danielle McGuire exposed a secret that had been held for sixty-five years. It’s the story of the iconic Rosa Parks, the tiny, stubborn woman who defied the Jim Crow segregation rules in Montgomery, Alabama, when she refused to comply with a white man’s order to move to the back of the bus. That solitary act of defiance was the catalyst that in 1955 gave rise to the civil rights movement. But McGuire’s research brings out a more astonishing piece of the story. For ten years prior to her famous bus boycott, Rosa Parks was an antirape activist.
Parks began investigating rape in 1944, collecting evidence that exposed a ritualized history of sexual assault against black women. That evidence was ignored. All these decades later, McGuire is the first to tell what she calls “the real story—that the civil rights movement is also rooted in African-American women’s long struggle against sexual violence.” And she argues that given the role rape played in the lives of women—that it was ongoing, that it fueled the anger and powered the movement as much as the Jim Crow laws did—the history of the civil rights movement needs to be rewritten. She sees the infamous Montgomery bus incident as an event that was as much about women’s rights as about civil rights. As McGuire eloquently writes, “It was a women’s movement for dignity, respect and bodily integrity.”
Gloria Steinem agrees. In a review of McGuire’s book, Steinem wrote, “Rosa Parks’ bus boycott was the end of a long process that is now being taken seriously. What Rosa Parks did was expose [to the leaders of the civil rights movement] the truth about sexual assault as well as the widespread ugliness of rape as a tool to repress, punish and control women during the civil rights movement. Her work was meant to be a call for change in America. And yet until the fall of 2011, hardly anyone even knew about it.” Why didn’t we know this before? Why has so much history involving women been either ignored or suppressed? How is it that the stunning facts Rosa Parks gathered were never published at the time? And would the world have changed had the information been available sooner?
The rape of black women as an everyday practice of white supremacy wasn’t the only revelation in 2011. The other book, Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust, is a collection of essays edited by Sonja Hedgepeth, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University, and Rochelle Saidel, executive director of the U.S.-based Remember the Women Institute. As I read the book, I had to put it down from time to time to catch my breath. With all the documentation and literature of the Holocaust, all the memorials and reminders, how can it be that this appalling information about the gang-raping and sexual abuse of Jewish women has been left out until now? No one knows how many women and girls were sexually assaulted while they were isolated in ghettos or incarcerated in concentration camps, and no one ever will. Some women were murdered, and others chose to remain silent, as rape carries a stigma even in the chambers of death: even though a woman was raped, she was “having sex” with the enemy. The authors refer to this kind of shame as the most effective of all social weapons. And they say that women caught in war zones invariably face “a dilemma of fatal inclusion or unbearable ostracism.”
The men who raped these women in Nazi concentration camps were obsessive about keeping records—of inhuman medical experiments performed, of the elimination of men, women, and children in the gas chambers or by shooting or hanging. But they kept no list of who was raped. There is not a word in the vast accountings of the Nazi regime about the sexual assault of women and girls. The story is simply missing. Seen as sexual objects as well as a biological danger by the Nazis, Jewish women were the target of sexual depravity and rape. And yet their story was suppressed. As the essays in this important book show, the survivors shared details before the trials at Nuremburg, but not a word was spoken during the trials.
In an interview with me, Gloria Steinem said, “The judges at Nuremberg didn’t want crying women in the courtroom. And some Jewish historians didn’t want to admit their women had been sexually assaulted and/or denied it had happened. It’s taken sixty years for that to come out.” She believes that the floodgates began to open when rape became a war crime and told me that women owe a debt of gratitude to Navi Pillay, the judge who made that historic ruling at the International Criminal Court. Because of her, and the recent work of other scholars and activists in the public sphere, the crime of rape is no longer seen as either inevitable or the fault of women.
“Think about Bosnia, Rwanda, and Congo,” Steinem said. “If we had acknowledged what happened to Jewish women in the Holocaust or black women in the civil rights movement, we’d have been better prepared for what happened in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Congo. It’s not about war, it’s about genocide. To make the right sperm occupy the wrong womb is an inevitable part of genocide. The publication of these books is a warning to the world that sexual violence is a keystone to genocide, and they make it clear that today there’s a shift in the sense that rape is now noticed and even taken seriously. That wasn’t true before.”
As the researcher Brigitte Halbmayr points out in Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust, “Unlike the cases in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, where rape was used as a strategy of war, sexualized violence was not an inherent part of the genocidal process during the Holocaust. Instead, it was part of the continuum of violence that resulted from genocide. Rape was not an instrument of genocide, but was the byproduct of intentional annihilation.”
Like the judges at Nuremburg, film directors and publishers have hesitated to expose the brutal truth about rape. But that too is changing. Lynn Nottage was awarded the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play, aptly titled Ruined, which chronicles the plight of women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Pulitzer citation hailed Ruined as “a searing drama set in chaotic Congo that compels audiences to face the horror of wartime rape and brutality while still finding affirmation of life and hope amid hopelessness.” The play tells the story of Mama Nadi, the proprietor of a local establishment that acts both as a shelter for women who’ve been damaged or “ruined” by the civil war and a bar/brothel for the nationalist and rebel soldiers who keep it raging on. Always the shrewd businesswoman, Nadi sides neither with the women she shelters nor with her militant patrons until the war outside closes in and there are choices to make and truths to face.
Two years later, a film called Incendies (Scorched) became another example of the new truth-telling. Adapted from a play by Wajdi Mouawad, a Lebanese-Canadian writer, and directed by the Quebec filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011, even though it takes the audience where few have dared to go before with a story in which twins fulfill their mother’s dying wish. They travel to the Middle East, where they discover they were born of rape by the man who ran the prison where their mother was incarcerated. That man turns out to be their brother as well as their father. It is a searing and courageous tale of the humiliation of rape, the will to survive, and the scorched-earth patterns of rapists.
Whether committed inside or outside a war zone, rape punishes women twice. First they suffer the physical abuse and then the never-ending memory and shame, which threaten and retreat like tidal surges throughout the rest of their lives. Justice can only come from acknowledgment and the conviction of the perpetrator.
That’s what the girls in Kenya were counting on. And when the judge vindicated them in May 2013, magistrates from around the world were buffeted by the hot winds of change that blew out of Africa.
Copyright © 2013, 2014 by Sally Armstrong