I spent the first half of 2018 in the Middle East. Originally working to prevent and respond to child marriage among Syrian refugees, I spent most of my two and half years in the region creating empowerment programs to help girls respond to sexism and inequality. Inevitably, this work always circled back to confronting sexual violence.
This summer, I returned to the United States to work for an organization supporting girls in Sub-Saharan Africa. Although a world apart, the girls I serve in Africa share experiences with the girls in the Middle East. In fact, in all of the places I’ve worked – from Indonesia to the DR Congo, from France to Ethiopia – girls and women share many of the same concerns and experiences of sexual violence.
Because where there are men and boys, there is sexual violence.
In September, my focus settled in the US when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee about her experience of sexual assault by Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Although I followed the news closely, I didn’t watch her testimony itself. At the time I couldn’t. It was too painful and too triggering and I could not absorb another story – especially a story that involved someone who would, inevitably, become a justice on the Supreme Court.
Fast forward to November, and I’m out on a run. As I was running past post-harvest wheat fields, I turned up my Tori Amos playlist to tune out the world.
And then her song Climb, a song I’ve heard hundreds of times before, unexpectedly knocked me back into the world, back to my work and to a call to action.
“Kneel before your judges in reverence
Your penance for the woman you’d become
You knew if you talked there’d be a consequence
Your sentence for the woman you’d become”
I stopped running. There was something about Tori’s voice, the piano, the poetry that opened my heart to empathy, a pain that I knew was inevitable from the moment I had heard about Dr. Blasey Ford. I thought of the bravery of her testimony, how she sacrificed her privacy, safety and normalcy and how this heroism was met by a mixed response that included mockery, anger and death threats.
I realized that, by keeping her story at a distance, I was curtailing my own activism in favor of my own safe space.
Later that night, tucked away in my home office, I watched her heart wrenching testimony. I felt it, I held space for it and I absorbed it in my bones.
As I watched this brave woman speak, I thought of so many survivors of sexual harassment, abuse and assault – friends, family, colleagues, the countless girls I have met over the years in my programs, and even myself. What consequences we face for who we’ve become, and what work there is to do to ensure that the passage from victim to survivor is kinder to others than it has been to us.
Approximately 90% of survivors of sexual violence are girls and women. A girl in Syria. A girl in Ethiopia. A woman in the United States.
If we are to be united by this trauma, let us make it a source of strength, power and motivation. Underneath the pain of this universal experience is a call to action.
RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization and the leading authority on sexual violence, experienced a 338% increase in their sexual assault hotline traffic between Thursday, the day of the hearing, and Sunday. That Friday was the busiest day in their 24-year history.
This will not get easier in 2019. And so we must get stronger.
As I gear up for 2019, I am increasing my commitment to preventing and responding to all forms of sexual violence. What I do in my work is not enough. In times like this – times when triggers are omnipresent and misogyny is emboldened – I will volunteer more. I will advocate more. I will donate more to organizations like RAINN, even if that means making personal sacrifices to do so. And I will engage in better self-care so that I can absorb more stories when they hit, propelling myself into action faster.
This will not be easy because there are consequences for standing up and speaking out. But if we are to climb over the walls of fear, the walls of doubt, the walls that protect perpetrators and isolate survivors, then we must face 2019 with bravery. As Tori sings, it’s a long, long climb. It is. But I’m ready.