In December 2019, I was chatting with Tori Amos. I mentioned that I just returned from three years working with girls in the Middle East. Most of these girls were from Syria, where rape is used to terrorize in the ongoing civil war. The sexual violence is so pervasive that many girls left their education because of the risk of being harassed, assaulted, or abducted on their way to school.
“You’d make a good RAINN hotline volunteer,” Tori said.
At first, I wasn’t sure how my experience working with girls overseas could translate to the United States. Until then, I only worked in conflicts and resource poor settings, mostly in Ethiopia. There I worked, and still work via Enhance Worldwide, with married girls and girls at risk for marriage. Child marriage is a form of sexual violence in which girls are married off to adult men with devastating consequences. Ethiopia is home to 15 million child brides, with 6 million of those girls married before the age of 15.
How on earth could sexual violence in Syria and Ethiopia compare with the United States?
An American is sexually assaulted every 68 seconds, and every nine minutes that victim is a child. Since April 2020, more than half of visitors to RAINN’s online hotline have been minors. This feels like an epidemic of sexual violence right here in the United States. An epidemic that has only worsened with the pandemic. Children have been stuck at home with perpetrators. And, with fewer social resources at school and in the community, they have been made vulnerable to perpetrators outside of their homes.
In my community in the United States, sex trafficking has tripled since the onset of COVID.
From Ethiopia to Syria to the United States, social environments allow sexual violence to be normalized, justified, and fueled by gender inequalities and attitudes about gender and sexuality.
As a volunteer on the RAINN hotline, I support people of all ages, identities, and backgrounds. Since COVID, these visitors include more girls.
Every time I support a girl, regardless of where, I am struck by her strength. At the same time, the necessity of her strength reminds me that we live in a world where the safe passage from childhood to adulthood is still a lottery, a roll of the dice.
Tori talks about the “the damage — and responsibility — that ripples into the world with every incident of sexual violence is not properly reckoned.” Organizations like Enhance Worldwide and RAINN take up the responsibility, but it takes all of us to prevent and respond to sexual violence.
Here are some ways that we all can start a ripple in the positive direction to support survivors of sexual violence.
- Learn and unlearn. Listen to the experience of survivors —and believe them. Think about what masculinity looks like in your community and how it might fuel attitudes about sexual violence. Learn about how certain factors, like gender identity, sexuality, disability, and context, can make some people more vulnerable.
- Have zero tolerance. Don’t tolerate sexual jokes, harassment, and violence in the spaces you live, work, pray, and play. Speak out or get help speaking out.
- Invest in girls and women. Support organizations that empower women, amplify their voices, support survivors, and promote acceptance of all gender identities and sexualities.
- Choose your words and reactions. Be aware that victim blaming that justifies sexual violence upholds a culture that enables sexual assault.
- Start or join a conversation. We must address sexual violence again and again and again, until there’s nothing left to say because it no longer exists.
COVID brought home how interconnected our world is — for better and for worse. It showed us that what starts in a home, an office, a school, a place of worship, a party, and a community ripples out in the world. We can continue to create environments where sexual violence is tolerated — or we can let our everyday words and actions change the narrative, the response, and the outcomes.