White Ribbon Day – 25th of November
Today is Blog Action Day for the Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women, also known as White Ribbon Day as men are supposed to be wearing a white ribbon today in solidarity with abused women everywhere.
I could perfectly well drown you with statistics, describe at length the different forms violence against women can take, or even explain how the Convention on the Elimimation of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) works, but really, you can perfectly well find all this information on Google should you be so inclined.
Today, let’s forget the academic legalistic aspect of Violence Against Women. Let’s forget about reports, UN statistics, programmes, and other studies. Let’s even forget about men, even if this day is supposed to be about involving men in the struggle against violence against women, and let us focus on the women, the primary subjects of violence.
Today, I simply wanted to share with you testimonies I collected in the course of my job, when I went to meet women from Africa, Middle East and Europe. I have no pretence whatsoever that those tesminonies are tell-all tales, but I just wanted to give these women a space, so that their plight is listened to. These women touched my very heart in so many different ways, yet the thing that struck me was their innate dignity. I know it really sounds like a cheesy cliché, but that’s the simple truth. None of them was telling her story in a “please pity me” fashion, they never allowed themselves to be victims. They were simply here, in a forum we had created to speak up. To express what lied behind the concept of Violence Against Women.
When I speak about violence against women in times of conflict, two women automatically come to my mind. One was a young mother from Sudan, we’ll call her Grace. Grace is from South Sudan, a region that has cruelly suffered decades of war. When I first saw her, I was struck by how beautiful, quiet and reserved she was. Sometimes a shy smile would illuminate her otherwise still face. She was the kind of person that would barely look at you in the eyes, that’s how shy she seemed to be. Grace was scheduled to speak at one of our sessions on violence against women during times of conflict. She told her story the same way she was carrying herself, but this time she looked at us all. She looked at us, and did not give a powerpoint presentation, or ditributed maps. She looked at us, and told us how militiamen came to her village, and raped her. Several times. She was not quite sure, she said, as she had lost consiousness somewhere along the event. Grace was not weeping, or complaining, she just told her story, then moved on to share how depressed she was after her ordeal, how she got married and had children, but still finds it difficult to care for her children. However broken she might be, she is working for her community. “We used to fight with guns, now we need to fight with pens. We are dying, and only knowledge can save us”. After her speech, many participants had to leave the room, as it was getting too much for them. I just stared blankly at her, my mind not quite being able to grasp the horror of what she had been through in her body and soul.
The other woman always think of when speaking of violence in times of conflict is a Palestinian woman. I was sitting next to her, and we started chatting during a coffee break, when she started telling me about her life under the Israeli Occupation. Sipping coffee, she told me how she got stopped and searched at a check point, while she was at the beginning of her pregnancy. “They stripped me, she says, and were being so arrogant and invasive, and then anger started boiling inside of me, I was so so angry.” So angry that she started bleeding, and almost lost her baby. Only when they saw the blood coming out of her did they stop searching her for weapons or God knows what that did not exist. “I’m angry, until this day, I’m angry”. I could not speak. What could I say really? I got angry inside, for feeling of helplessness.
In a bit over two years, I feel like I’ve met so many different faces of Violence Against Women. Societal violence, with older women from the Middle East sharing their hopes and dreams for themselves, their desires to be doctors or flight attendants or writers, all these dreams coming to a crushing halt when they got married, and suddenly had to turn into non stop cooks, carers for their husband and children, and simply forget about their own selves. Sexual violence, with young women from Africa sharing how many teachers or employers had requested sexual favours in return of good grades or promotion. One especially stayed with me, as I remember thinking after listening to her story that everyone had let her down. Her teacher that failed her because she did not want to sleep with him. “When I went to university I was 17 and a professor, who was much, much older than me wanted to have a relationship with me. I refused. He failed me and I was forced to repeat the year. The second year he said he would keep failing me unless I slept with him. He said if slept with him he would make sure I progress. I simply quit and I’m trying to study something else”. The medical staff that would not take care of her because she’s HIV positive, causing the death of her new born. Society, that let her down because no one really cared, and the blame was put on her.
I could go on and on, about stigma on migrant women, stigma and discrimination towards HIV+ women, discrimination at the work place, sexual harassment, psychological violence that leads to the annihilation of self esteem, discrimination based on sexual orientation or domestic violence.
I would just like you to remember these women, for they’re the faces of violence against women. When we speak about it, we speak about them, not about some etheral concept enshrined in international law. I’m not convinced having a UN day around this issue will bring change, but it would be a good start if it could bring reflection and yes, empathy, to the extent that we can. For we will never be able to even begin to imagine the scars they have to bear.