Turning the Tide on Sexual Violence

In 2017, I wrote a Girls’ Globe blog on how we can change a culture that normalizes and accepts sexual violence. Two years later, has anything changed?

We still live in a society that acknowledges violence against women as wrong, and yet accepts it as inevitable and therefore normalOur patriarchal culture has created a tense and treacherous space where no girl and no woman is truly safe. And out-creating the patriarchy is no small task.

Violence against women and girls continues to be accepted at the highest levels of our institutions, with an insidious trickling down to every echelon of society.

Perpetrators are emboldened. Laws are loosened. Misogynists have heroes in the most prestigious global offices, like the White House and US Supreme Court. And women and girls suffer.  

When I began this work, I felt that I was part of global progress toward ending violence against women and girls. Recently, I have felt more like I am part of global pushback against a powerful, misogynistic force. I feel as though I am one of many feebly standing against a tide that keeps rising and rising and rising.  

The statistics make it seem as if that tide is about to destroy us:  

  • Globally, an estimated 35% of women have experienced intimate partner physical and/or sexual violence. Some national studies show that number up to 70%.
  • The global number of women murdered has increased since 2012. Globally, 47% of women victims of homicide were killed by partners or family members. 
  • 40-60% of women in the Middle East and North African experience street harassment. When I worked in Egypt, I encountered girls who stopped going to school because of the threats they faced on their way there. 
  • One in five women living in the United States will be raped in her lifetime. Nine out of ten rape survivors are female whereas as over nine out of ten perpetrators are male

Behind these statistics are women and girls – individuals who could be you or me. As I move forward in the fight for the health, rights and dignity of all of us, I collect more and more memories of my time with survivors. The more memories I gather, the more often they crawl out from the corners of my mind when I’m least expecting them.

Blue tights drying on a space heater in Jordan, chipped pink nail polish on a woman in the DR Congo, the sound of a girl’s voice cracking.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, these moments crystalized into isolated memories and became a part of me. More and more the memories came back, and behind the isolated moments the faces of human beings appear.  

And that must be our focus: the human beings. That is where I am putting my focus as I increase my efforts to hold back the tide and eventually outcreate the culture of violence.  

In May, I became an online hotline volunteer for RAINN, the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the US. RAINN created and operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE, online.rainn.org or in Spanish rain.org/es). Supporting this organization, with either time or financially, matters. 

I have vamped up Enhance Worldwide, a nonprofit organization I co-founded to protect, engage and empower adolescent girls in Ethiopia. Two girls recently joined our program. They are 11 years old and survivors of child marriage. Engaging in work with organizations like RAINN and Enhance Worldwide creates an impact.  

I continue to write for Girls’ Globe. I continue to find circles of women – and men – doing this work. We can all speak out in support of survivors and against violence. We can all unite in a desire for justice. 

I’ve come to terms with the fact that we live in a global society that normalizes violence against women. And I’ve come to terms with the fact that my ability to stop sexual violence is minimal. I know this. I do. But I also know that individual impact matters.

Together, we can keep pushing back the tide until we’re strong enough to turn it.   

Mental Health Treatment & Gender Equality in Uganda

Conflict, poverty and instances of social injustice can provide the context within which a person develops mental health issues. And yet, while studying to become a creative/psychomotor therapist, I learned very little about this.

I didn’t question it at the time, because mental health is a personal issue, right? My time in a counselling centre in Uganda last summer showed me that the answer to this question is, in fact, a clear no.

I volunteered as a psychomotor therapist in the Bishop Asili Counselling, Rehabilitation and Community Centre in Ngetta, northern Uganda. The local population living here suffered badly during the Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency.

More than a decade after the end of the war, I came to Uganda with a stack of books on trauma and post-traumatic stress, ready to do creative therapeutic interventions that might help women cope with their war-time experiences.

Very quickly, it became clear to me that the conditions these women lived in asked for something different. Something more.

Sister Florence, an Ugandan psychologist who founded and runs the counselling centre, reminded me that next to their history of war, “there are so many [other] sources of trauma, so many, so many, so many”.

Women in Ngetta face many challenges. The patriarchal context leaves women with few, to zero, rights.

They have no right to land or any kind of ownership, and the moment a woman marries, her new husband acquires rights over her sexuality and reproductive ability.

Ellen, one of the women I worked with in the counselling centre, described the patriarchal culture: “I was now in the hands of my husband and I was now under authority of my husband. I need to respect him and do everything he tells me.”

Her words reflect the complex power dynamics and hegemonic masculinity that undermine women’s social status and power. On top of this, many women struggle to feed their families every day, while often their husbands drink away the little money there is. Other women have lived through (often multiple) more recent traumatic events, such as emotional and physical abuse by a husband or brother.

It made me wonder how much help my therapeutic interventions focused on (individual) war-trauma could be.

Recognizing the unequal social position of women, I needed to have a clear feminist ideology underlying my therapy. This meant focusing on women’s social position and equality.

Our sessions were related to resilience, visibility and communication, grounding techniques, personal boundaries, and more. Work related to the strive for equality for women was essential. However, paying attention to – and ultimately challenging – violent and unjust structures is not often included in mental health interventions in the Global South.

The importance of women’s mental health for general health is widely recognized. Mental health in international contexts is slowly becoming more of an acknowledged topic within the field of international development. This is really good news, especially considering the fact that only a small minority of the 450 million people suffering from mental or behavioural disorders worldwide receive treatment.

In 2013, the World Health Organization published their Mental Health Action Plan: 2013-2020. It is an ambitious action plan that understands ‘the essential role of mental health in achieving health for all people’. Global Mental Health (GMH) is thus an emergent topic in which more and more people are currently working. However, with this renewed focus on mental health, many critiques have emerged, some of them accusing GMH of being a colonial practice.

GMH is accused of globally enforcing biomedical systems, which are characteristic of the Global North’s approach to health. The biomedical framework locates illness, including mental illness, within a person. Though psychological and social principles are sometimes taken into account, biological variables are the most central.

Issues of social injustice and structural violence (such as poverty, conflict, sexism, racism) are not taken into account, despite their significant impact on women’s mental health.

Very important work is being done in the field of GMH. Organizations like SOS Children’s Villages or Action for Child Trauma International are great examples of a rights-based approach to trauma.

We must be careful to avoid new forms of imperialism in which the Global North enforces its biomedical approach to health on all cultures. We should work towards locally-informed care which approaches mental health not as an individual issue, but as something to be addressed on personal, community, national and global levels.

Mental health should be seen as a social issue.

This would allow us to challenge discriminating structures, both globally and nationally, while also focusing on community and personal struggles.

In order to achieve mental health for all, there is an essential role for work towards an equal world, and this work is should be integrated in the field of Global Mental Health.

In Conversation with Beverly Nkirote Mutwiri

Beverly Nkirote Mutwiri is a sexual and reproductive health and rights advocate from Kenya. She speaks to Girls’ Globe about the challenges she has encountered as a young woman in a patriarchal society.

“In many SRHR spaces we have male dominancy, and at times it can be very intimidating, especially to a young woman.”

This video was made possible through a generous grant from SayItForward.org in support of women’s advocacy messages.

If you liked this post, we think you’ll love our interviews with KingaWinfredScarlett, Natasha and Tasneem, too!

7 Women Breaking Stereotypes in Pakistan

Pakistan remains one of the most male-dominated societies in the world, and women still tend to be portrayed or stigmatised as subordinates. In the patriarchal culture of Pakistan, women are often limited to doing domestic work and forced to hide the talents and skills they possess.

Recently, however, more and more women have been breaking stigma and stereotypes by doing and achieving things traditionally seen as being ‘only for men’.

Here are 7 Pakistani women breaking stereotypes like they should be broken! 

Namira Salim

Namira Salim is the first Pakistani woman to reach the North and South Poles and, as a Founder Astronaut for Virgin Galactic, she’s the first future Space Tourist from South Asia to travel into space. Salim started her own initiative, SpaceTrust, which promotes Space as the New Frontier for Peace via novel peace theme initiatives to inspire change, encourage dialogue and enrich education.

Samina Baig 

Samina Baig is the first Pakistani woman to climb Mount Everest and the Seven Summits. She was awarded the Pride of Performance by the government of Pakistan, and runs initiatives that encourage women to take part in outdoor activities. Last year, Baig was appointed as the National Goodwill Ambassador for Pakistan by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Ayesha Farooq

“Instead of looking up to role models, become one yourself”Ayesha Farooq. Farooq is the first female to become a fighter pilot in the Pakistani Air Force. She’s also made history as the first woman to be assigned to one of Pakistan’s front-line dogfighting squadrons. 

Sana Mir

Sana Mir is the former Captain of the Pakistan national women’s cricket team. She was first female Pakistani cricketer to rank number one in the International Cricket Council bowler rankings, and led Pakistan to two gold medals in Asian Games in 2010 and 2014. Mir has been vocal in recent years when speaking out against body-shaming in sports advertising.

Zenith Irfan

Zenith Irfan is the first female motorcyclist to ride across Pakistan and an all-round bad-ass. After her father’s early death, Irfan decided to fulfil his dream to tour the world on a motorbike. The journey was a huge step in a country where it can be taboo for women to venture out alone, nevermind on a motorbike, and CNN have called her “Pakistan’s boundary-breaking motorcycle girl”. 

Tahira Safdar

Justice Tahira Safdar is the first woman chief justice of any court in the history of Pakistan, currently serving as the Chief Justice of Balochistan High Court (Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province). In a patriarchal society like Pakistan, where the subject of law and the profession of judiciary are preserved for men, Tahira Safdar has set one of the finest and most inspiring examples for women in Pakistan.

Uzma Nawaz

Did you just say that car repairing can only be done by men? Well, Uzma Nawaz, the first female car mechanic in Pakistan, is here to prove you wrong.

These are just some of the women in Pakistan who have broken through in a society that’s still very much dominated by men. I find each of these women incredibly inspiring, and hope that they can be a source of inspiration for other women out there too. What are you waiting for?!

Have we Forgotten what Feminism Really Means?

Feminism: a controversial word that still makes many people’s eyes roll.

There’s a misconception about feminism and so in my first blog post, I’d like to share my point of view. 

Feminism is NOT a movement aimed at destroying men, but at destroying the patriarchal ideas that are cemented in society. Feminism is NOT aimed at making men lesser than women, but at improving the status of being a woman so that it’s equal to that of being a man.

Feminism is NOT about treating men as trash, but rather pointing out the ‘trash’ things that some men do that increase the degradation of women. Feminism is NOT about reversing the status quo and oppressing men, but about challenging the status quo to stop oppressing women.

I’d like to talk about an important issue within feminism: gender-based violence. This is a sensitive topic all over the world, because the idea of rape, in particular, has been non-existent in the past. Rape was not rape. Rape was a woman who had ‘asked for it’. It was shameful and women were resented for being abused. Rape was not a topic up for discussion.

Recently, with movements like #MeToo, more and more people have been sharing their experiences of sexual abuse. It has become a more openly discussed topic now than ever before.

Many women have spoken up and made accusations, and in response (to no one’s surprise) came comments such as “she’s lying”, “why only come out now?”, “she’s trying to sabotage an innocent man”, “what was she wearing?”, “she was drunk yes, but she consented so it’s not rape”. The list goes on.

To anyone asking the question, if a woman was raped 30 years ago, why only come out now? I can give you an answer – rape was not up for discussion in the past. As soon as it became a topic that was no longer so much of a taboo, and as soon as more people were supporting women who sought justice for the offence committed against them, women decided it was time.

Time to stop holding back and to stop feeling guilty for someone else’s wrongs. Time to use their voices and turn the tables on the powerful men who thought they could get away with abuse because “she was asking for it” or “she consented” (even though she had been underaged or intoxicated), or “how could I have controlled myself with her looking like that?”.

Men who don’t rape, don’t abuse, don’t seek superiority, it’s also your job to stand up against those who do.

If you are a man who supports equality for all, doesn’t support patriarchal views on sexual abuse, doesn’t treat women as objects, doesn’t stereotype women as emotional and unfit to be in charge, then YOU ARE A FEMINIST.

Being a feminist is not just for women, but for all who support equality. 

If you are sexualizing a woman because of what she wears, and if you think that it gives you the right to sexually abuse her, the problem is with you, not with her.

If you see intoxicated consent as consent, you are mistaken.

If you think that an underage child’s consent gives you any rights over her, you are wrong.

And if you think that the patriarchal ideas of society will protect you from justice, then again, you are mistaken.

The movements will not stop, feminism will not stop and you will not beat them. So, educate yourself on equality for all, on the accurate statistics of rapes and sexual assaults, on the reality for women in the world. You might surprise yourself and find that feminism is not a tool to defeat the male species, but rather to empower all people in the world to enjoy equal rights and freedom of choice.

Who knows, whether male or female, you might just find that you are a feminist.

Time to Disarm the Patriarchy

We live in a time where the threat of nuclear war is a normal household conversation. Many live in a nation led by a man who cannot control his urge to press ‘tweet’ on every unhinged thought he dreams up each morning. And yet, he alone has the authority – the sole authority – to push the launch button on a preemptive nuclear attack, should the mood strike him.

The risks that nuclear weapons currently pose to global peace are monumental.

We also live in a time where the seemingly unmovable and intractable weight of our patriarchal society is suddenly being forced to reckon with women’s voices and stories and experiences – both the ugliness that we’ve endured and the talent and wisdom we’ve been barred from contributing.

We know for a fact that if peace is the goal, women absolutely must be part of the process to achieve sustainable and lasting results. Women are key to national and global security. When women are meaningfully involved in peace processes, it is more likely that peace lasts.

Empowered women create communities that are more just, prosperous, and safe. We know that having women involved at every level of decision-making is strategic—and yet, when it comes to nuclear weapons, women are rarely included at the table where political and security decisions are made. In a cruel twist, we regularly disincentivize women from actively participating in the careers, conversations, and halls of power where this work happens.

Credit: Women’s Action for New Directions

That’s where our project comes in. Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND) recently launched a campaign specifically designed to educate young women about how they can advocate for international diplomacy over militarism.

It’s more important than ever to make sure the public – and women specifically – know how they can get involved to keep our democracy and safety intact. The Disarm the Patriarchy campaign is designed to engage young women in efforts to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. foreign policy as activists, policy-makers, diplomats, legislators, and scientists.

It has never been more important to educate ourselves and demand change. We are building a new generation of peace and disarmament activists and amplifying diverse women’s voices in the disarmament sphere.

Our Disarm the Patriarchy Handbook gives women the tools they need to be advocates for policy change and hold their elected officials accountable for creating a safer world for all of us.

Nancy Parrish is the Executive Director of Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND), which educates and empowers women to advocate for security and peace with justice. We believe that women are central to shifting the militarized, patriarchal culture that pervades our society and leads to endless war and violence. We know that when women are engaged in the political process and given the right tools, they can be true agents of change.