Shattering the Silence on Violence Against Women

I had the honor of being part of the Digital Media Lounge during the Social Good Summit 2017. The day-long event touched on several topics in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals, from universal healthcare to violent extremism to climate change.

The panel that struck me the most was Shattering the Silence: Gender-Based Violence Solutions with ElsaMarie D’Silva and Ilwad Elman. ElsaMarie is the Founder & CEO of Red Dot Foundation, also known as Safecity  a platform that crowdsources personal experiences of sexual violence and abuse in public spaces. Since its launch in December of 2012, it has become the largest crowd map on the issue in India, Kenya, Cameroon and Nepal. Women can use it to report attacks and instances of sexual harassment anonymously and mark the spot where they happened on a map. Ilwad is the Director of Programs & Development at the Elman Peace & Human Rights Center. Through the center, she co-founded the first rape crisis center for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in Somalia.

The panel was moderated by Daniela Ligiero, the Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of Together for Girls, a public-private partnership dedicated to ending violence against children, with a focus on sexual violence against girls. The global partnership includes five UN agencies, many private sector organizations, and the governments of the United States and Canada, along with more than 20 other governments in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. All of these partners work together to generate comprehensive data and solutions to this human rights issue.

The panel focused on how silence is one of the biggest contributors to gender-based violence. According to Daniela, approximately one third of women and girls experience sexual violence and less than 50% of them tell someone about it. Furthermore, less than 2% of the victims get services. Ilwad’s words resonate:

“Silence on the issue is criminal…This is the most endemic situation in the world today”.

She told the audience that in Somalia, women are being jailed for talking about rape. Women are being silenced on the issue by their own governments and activists are being targeted for fighting for women’s rights. This is why ElsaMarie’s Safecity app is so important; it provides a safe space for victims to report their experiences and gives them the courage to speak up. Part of the solution is to stop being silent:

“If we don’t acknowledge it, it never happened. Don’t pretend it doesn’t happen. Make it an issue that it’s not taboo”.

We must report and document these stories so the world can see it’s a real global epidemic and we can use the information to make a change in our communities.   

Despite the darkness of the panel’s topic, it ended on a positive note. The panelists expressed their hope for the future, reassuring the audience that change is possible and we can stop violence against women and girls.

These amazing women are already doing their part by promoting advocacy and speaking up for themselves and others. They are an example of how women can lift each other up and stand up for each other in the face of adversity.

There’s a Chinese proverb I learned during this panel that says: “When sleeping women wake, mountains move”. Let’s wake up, speak up, and move some mountains.

How Venezuela’s Crisis Has Affected Women’s Lives

This past July, The New York Times’ front page featured an image of Venezuela’s street protests, showcasing the deep political, economic, and human rights crisis in the country. The violence that has ensued is a serious problem, but other, less visible effects are also problematic – and some affect the country’s women more than its men.

Situations of conflict and crisis are not gender neutral. Luz Patricia Mejía, a Venezuelan expert in women’s rights working at the Organization of American States, made this point in an interview when saying that in any kind of crisis, women’s rights are disproportionately affected. Three areas in which women have been suffering the greatest in the Venezuela crisis: menstrual and sexual health, maternal and infant health, and gender-based violence.  

Menstrual and sexual health:

Food isn’t the only things missing in Venezuela’s supermarkets and pharmacies: so are condoms, birth control pills and menstrual hygiene products.

Earlier this year, factories from different companies had to stop production of sanitary pads, affecting not only the women who desperately need them, but also the women and men employed by those factories. Venezuelans have had to turn to social media to find basic necessities, and many women have resorted to this to get tampons and pads – by exchanging them for flour, for example.

Venezuela is the country with the highest rate of teen pregnancy and earliest start of sexual activity in South America. A lack of contraception is especially problematic. Because of this, couples have had to make drastic changes to their sex lives to avoid pregnancy, such as using calendar-based methods and buying birth control pills off the black market.

Some Venezuelan women have chosen an extreme method of avoiding pregnancy during the crisis: sterilization. Speaking about her decision to go through the procedure, a young mother of two, aged only 25, said in an interview: “I will not bring a child to suffer. 

Some women who do find themselves pregnant amid the crisis have resorted to a dangerousand illegalalternative: unsafe abortions through homemade herbal medicine and introducing acids through the vaginal canal, procedures that can cause severe and life-threatening bleeding.

Maternal and infant health:

Lack of medicine and basic hospital supplies, as well as a reduction of the number of doctors in the country (in recent years, around 20% of doctors have left Venezuela because of working conditions) adversely affect maternal and infant health in the country. Hospitals have been lacking incubators and other essentials to care for pregnant women and newborn babies. Lack of food also means many mothers are unable to breastfeed.

More worrisome, infant mortality increased by 30% and maternal mortality by a staggering 65% in 2016—and back then, the crisis was not yet at its worst. 

Gender-based violence:  

Domestic and gender based violence don’t stop just because the rest of the country is in a crisis. In 2016, for example, the number of femicides increased compared to the year before. The dire situations in hospitals also affect the victims of domestic violence who need medical attention. Impunity of gender-based crimes is also a major issue, especially given that it’s currently estimated that impunity of human rights related crime in the country hovers around 98%.

As the crisis in Venezuela persists, so do the daily struggles of women to access their basic needs and rights. The ways in which this crisis has affected women’s lives highlights how gender issues are extremely important in the context of crisis and conflict, and should be taken into consideration as these situations are studied, researched, reported, and addressed.

Meet SafePal: an app designed by young Ugandans

SafePal is a true testimony to young people’s ability to find solutions to their challenges – as long as they can access the required resources. A group of innovators, Emmanuel Kateregga, Joshua Okello, Racheal Monica Achen  Gitta Brian, Jingo Kisakye and Nurah Shariff Nantume looked critically at the fact that young people are the most tech savvy Ugandans, but also the ones most exposed to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) challenges.

Their creative young minds were quick to pose a problem-solving question: what if this tech awareness was employed to solve the challenges? Today they are being commended nationwide for an invention that could quickly and easily address the issue of sexual violence reporting among young people in Uganda.

In a situation where a person has fallen victim to sexual violence, they often need a friend to act as a safe haven for them, and that is exactly what SafePal is designed to be. It’s that friend you can talk to without any fear of being judged or misunderstood, and with certainty that they would help you. SafePal has a mobile and a web portal, and works as a reporting and referral platform for young survivors of sexual violence.

Racheal, Nurah and Emmanuel are products of Reach A Hand Uganda (RAHU)’s Peer Educators Academy. Racheal was a member of the 2014 class while Nurah and Emmanuel graduated a year later. They all took part in the #Hack4Youth Hackathon, organised by UNFPA Uganda and Reach A Hand Uganda In Collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MiT) and Sana Mobile in 2015.

“At the Hackathon, we were tasked to identify an SRHR challenge and come up with a technology solution to address  it. We zeroed down on problem of sexual violence against young people and initially thought of a game, but we wound up with a reporting app,” Nurah said.

The SafePal app boasts of a database of health centres and other service providers able to provide immediate medical aid for victims of sexual violence, as well as psychosocial and legal support through a range of civil society organizations (CSOs). Once opened, the app sends the user messages about why and how they should report sexual violence against themselves or a friend.

“We also figured that some people may not be able to report cases themselves but their friends could. So we provided an option for reporting for someone else,” Nurah noted.

As such, anyone with the app can report a sexual violence situation as soon as they hear of one. After following the prompts, the reporter gets a code that works as a reference when they reach a civil society organization.

“The code helps us promote confidentiality. We wouldn’t want names of the victims or numbers of reporters to appear,” said Joshua Okello, the Technical Development Lead of the team.

With the app, the reporter can be found through a GPS location reference that is sent to the most appropriate CSO. It further eases the reporting process by providing the reporter with contacts for all the CSOs they can call if they have phone credit, and a toll-free number in case they don’t have credit at the time they need to report the incident.  

The challenge is ensuring access to SafePal in hard to reach areas; for young people with no mobile phones or in places of low internet connectivity. To this issue, Emmanuel refers to their prospective partnership with UNICEF:

“UNICEF has Digital Drums, which are solar charged computers that are deployed in community settings and used to distribute information in low connectivity areas to young users. We want to integrate our web portal into those drums so the young people can report from those computers.” 

The SafePal Portal was launched on Friday 7th July 2017 at Makerere University, Kampala. The team is now looking at how the app can be marketed, and are focusing on working with selected schools and churches.

SafePal is the first of its kind. The team looks forward to spreading its wings to other parts of the country in the near future, and eventually the rest of the world. For now, the focus is on making it work in Kampala.

According to the Uganda Police Crime Report of 2014, an approximated 32,000 cases of sexual violence happen in Uganda each year. Of these, about 7,000 are reported and yet the victims are not referred – for two main reasons: fear of speaking out and fear of discrimination. With an app like SafePal, these numbers could soon be a thing of the past.

Healing from Sexual Trauma: A Therapist’s Perspective

As a follow-up to Letter to Assault Survivors, Girls’ Globe contacted a therapist for professional insight into the psychological ramifications of sexual assault, and how survivors can heal. Michelene Wasil works with survivors of sexual assault, both men and women, many of whom were victimized in the military. Throughout her interview, Wasil repeatedly returns to a common theme regarding the struggles her clients face: “There’s a lot of shame involved.”

“Shame and guilt. That’s typically what happens.”

Paradigm of Pain

Victims of assault can have counter-intuitive reactions, which can in turn exacerbate their trauma and cripple recovery efforts. When we broached the question of maladaptive reactions, Wasil was unsurprised, having worked with clients who turn to chemical painkillers like drugs and alcohol, as well as those who develop internal ones, like sexual addiction or gambling.

She says that trauma can do more than alter a person’s behavior, it can also decimate their emotional capacity.

“There’s also a lot of emotional avoidance, unhealthy attachments, so they might get into abusive relationships. Numbness, emotional numbness, inability to really feel love.”

“Two [clients] can’t really have an intimate life, at least not very often, because it’s very painful…I’m not a doctor so I can’t tell you if it’s because of the rape, but I can guess that likely that’s a big thing. They can’t even enjoy sex anymore, or sex is cued with the trauma, so they are constantly reminded of what happened to them.”

Self-Blame

One of the most damaging tendencies, and one that acts as the biggest hurdle to recovery, is the tendency to pin blame on victims instead of perpetrators. 

“If you look at any typical rape case in a courtroom, women are interrogated about what they wore that day, they’re interrogated about their sexual history,” Wasil points out. “Someone defending a rapist will dig up the woman’s past, so there’s that whole idea of, ‘you shouldn’t have been wearing that short skirt,’ or ‘you shouldn’t be out past 2 AM,’ ‘you shouldn’t have had so much to drink.’”

A community’s willingness to blame victims can lead the victim themselves to shoulder responsibility, or tear apart every aspect of a situation, from what they said, to what they did, to how they felt.

“I have a client who was sexually assaulted in the military, so there’s that added layer of shame, as in, ‘I should have fought them off.'” explains Wasil, “And then if you…get really graphic, ‘I was aroused during this trauma, so I must have liked it somehow,’ so there’s all this self-doubt. It gets really murky and complicated.”

Wasil has also witnessed revictimization, where victims, either in childhood or adulthood, find themselves entangled in subsequent abusive relationships.

“I don’t think it’s that they choose dysfunctional relationships,” says Wasil.

“I think it’s that they’ve been so psychologically damaged from this horrendous trauma that I don’t know if they really know how to interact in a healthy way, and their unhealthy behaviors are attracting other unhealthy people.”

The Way Forward

The crucial thing for survivors of sexual assault to know is that recovery from an assault is possible, through the support of family, friends and professional help. However, survivors should start therapy with realistic expectations.

“It’s a long road to recovery,” advises Wasil. “It also depends; if you were raped as a child and raped as an adult, and haven’t talked about it, and it’s been 30 years or 20 years, whatever, that’s been festering for a really long time.” 

No matter what modality treatment takes, healing from sexual assault and breaking patterns of behavior – even painful ones – is not an easy process to undergo, although in some cases medication prescribed by a professional can help through the worst of it. “It can get worse the first month or two,” advises Wasil. “Just stick with it.” 

“I would say if you’re going to a therapist, and you don’t feel better in 8 – 10 sessions – if you don’t feel better at all – it might be time either find a new therapist or consider some medication.”