On April 14, nearly 300 Nigerian girls were abducted from their dormitories in a school in the northeastern town of Chibok. But this is hardly the first time Nigerian children have been kidnapped en masse for the purposes of sex—in fact, Nigeria is the birthplace of a sex-trafficking pipeline that leads directly to Italy.
It wasn’t easy growing up as a teenage Muslim girl, with a father who thought he owned your body just because he put a roof over your head or food on the table. Not just that—this was a Muslim man who perverted the teachings of his own religion to justify the sexual abuse that he inflicted upon me, his own daughter.
With the story of more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by an extremist group in Nigeria hot in the news, we spoke to the BBC about why coverage of such violence against women and girls in conflict is so sporadic—and what can be done to make a lasting difference once and for all in the media and in the lives of those affected around the world.
Eight million people and counting have watched a video featuring an 11-year-old Yemeni girl named Nada al-Ahdal. From what looks like the seat of a car, she talks about why she left home because, she says, her parents tried to marry her off. Al-Ahdal talks about the “innocence of children” and the consequences—including suicide—of being force-married to an older man at such a young age.
“They didn’t hit her, but they ruined her.” That’s how a young woman named Maimouna described the gang rape of her 16-year-old neighbor in Mali, according to a new report from Save the Children. The NGO has transcribed interviews with witnesses such as Maimouna and with dozens of firsthand survivors to illustrate their latest findings.
Her name is Amina. She is a teenage girl. A man in her country, Tunisia, thinks stones should be thrown at her until she dies because she posted a photo of herself on a website. Because she is a woman. Because she had the audacity to make a comment about her own body, and to photograph her body, and to use it to share her ideas with others.
Not every survivor wants to talk about rape. We know that many women and men choose to keep their stories private, be it to move past their abuse internally or, perhaps more often, to avoid being shunned or re-attacked. We also know that open conversation about sexualized violence is something whole societies still grapple with: From Sudan to the United States, it is only in the last few decades that a respectful public dialogue has begun. It is that much more important, then, to recognize historical examples—the few instances in which women did come forward despite a climate that was likely even more judgmental than today’s.
Safa Sankari, a member of our Syria team, spoke at the UN on July 18 as part of a presentation of our first findings of a data analysis of our crowdmap of sexualized violence in Syria. Sankari, who is Syrian-American, is the co-founder and president of the Syrian American Medical Society’s Michigan Chapter Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps in the humanitarian and medical needs of Syrians. WMC’s Women Under Siege Director Lauren Wolfe also spoke. You can read her testimony here.
Silence: A symptom that plagues all scenarios of sexualized violence, rape, and abuse, no matter what communities we’re addressing. In the Sudan conflict, rape was used to silence women. When a woman named Safiya Ishaq unashamedly spoke about her rape, she was forced to flee the country for fear of retribution. The potential of being stigmatized has prevented women in the Democratic Republic of Congo from seeking medical treatment for rape.
“I sometimes heard the cries of the girls with my own ears…there were girls who made food that I saw, but also sometimes at night there were commanders…and you could see the girls prepare the food, and at night you could listen to the girls even saying, ‘I don’t want to.’”
“I have lost hope,” a 13-year-old rape survivor tells Inter Press Service. After fleeing war in Congo, she was attacked by her own stepfather in a Malawi refugee camp, where she lives with 11,000 others. Now, she must care for the baby produced by the rape.
The most positive, most productive way to improve the lives of girls in conflict areas may appear to be to sharply steer them away from stigma and violence. But as researchers and fieldworkers, advocates and policymakers, we have to consider the pitfalls of thinking we know best.