South Africa, Now is not the Time to Lose Momentum

On 2 September, South Africa exploded. She cried out in outrage. The bombardment of kidnap, rape and murder headlines in the last months escalated with the rape and death of Uyinene Mrwetyana. The news left our country both angry and heartbroken.

Since then, the heaviness in the hearts of many women (and men) has been tangible. The horrendous rape and murder of this young woman sparked a nationwide movement of solidarity and commitment to ending gender-based violence.

Uyinene had been missing for a number of days. On 2 September, it was discovered that she had been brutally raped and murdered while collecting a package from the post office in the middle of the afternoon in broad daylight. The story was reported alongside headlines filled with women and children who had been taken, killed, and raped. It sent a surge of sadness and anger throughout our beloved country. This is not okay.

Enough is enough.

It is not okay that a visit to the post office ends in the loss of an innocent life.

It’s not ok that women live in constant fear when going through the ordinary tasks of daily life.

It is not okay that this has been happening for so long without enough coverage because it has become so normalised.

It’s not okay that we are rendered powerless and voiceless.

I am angry. I am tired. But most of all, I am hurting.

I am hurting for all the women, and I am hurting for my country. I am hurting for the inherent hate and disregard for fellow humans.

Photo by Kyle Kingsley

We need change.

The rate of gender-based violence (which includes domestic violence) in South Africa is said to be one of the highest in the world. This alone should alert us to the necessity and urgency of action. Action by government, by men, by us; action by the people. I believe that policy change, stricter law enforcement, government reform and community intervention are all required. There is no question about this.

But in the same breath, I believe that it is ultimately up to us, the people of South Africa, to educate ourselves, change our behaviour and shift our mindsets. Then, and only then, will real lasting change be possible. Education, awareness and intervention need to be available and accessible for everyone. Privileged or not.

This is not a problem for any one class, gender or social group. This is a human problem.

Reform is needed. Change in behaviour backed up by actionable steps is needed. But for lasting change, minds and hearts need to be affected and moved. We should not lower ourselves to perpetuating the same shame cycle that is intended to bind us by staying silent. When we stand united and raise our voices, we are stronger.

Men need to be better. Men CAN be better. Overwhelmingly, men are the perpetrators of gender-based violence. It is time to put aside shaming and call men to join us in action. Justice needs to be served, and that means expecting more from the men of our country and holding them accountable.

Photo by Kyle Kingsley

We can’t lose momentum.

I choose to believe in the restoration of our country. And we are our country. All of us, the people. Women and men. And that means I choose to believe in the restoration of the people of South Africa.

This will not be a battle easily won, yet to bring peace and relief to the women of South Africa who are hurting and dying, we will have to come together. Now is not the time to be divided. It is the time to stand in unity. Publicly, privately, in our homes, in our friendship circles, in our relationships.

We are still blaming and shaming. Yes, we are angry. I am furious. But we must take action. I intend to. This is mourning and grief, but breakthrough comes from laying down oppressive and hateful mindsets. It will be uncomfortable; growth always is.

We must choose to look forward and to see that men can be a restorative power instead of a problem.

The pain brought upon women by gender-based violence has had a devastating effect on South Africa. There is no excuse for this behaviour. I am appealing to us, my bruised self included, to take our hurt, anger and frustration and put it into action. Let us not grow weary; let us not forget.

Our anger at these injustices is only as good as the action birthed from it. Hate and animosity cannot fix the problems and injustices that are at the root of gender-based violence. But unrelentless hope and belief, along with intentional action, can.

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.   

Justice for Evelyn in Landmark El Salvador Abortion Trial

Evelyn Beatriz Hernandez is 21 years old. She has spent almost 3 years in prison in El Salvador with 27 left on her sentence. Her crime? Suffering from a stillbirth after being raped.

Yesterday, in a landmark retrial that was the first of its kind in the country, Hernandez was declared innocent and cleared of all charges. With tears rolling down her cheeks, she walked out of the courtroom with her mother and lawyer into a crowd of cheering supporters.

In July 2017, Hernandez was convicted of aggravated homicide after falling unconscious and giving birth to a baby who later died. Despite maintaining that she had not known she was pregnant, she was accused of deliberately killing her baby and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Due to lack of evidence, Hernandez’s conviction was overturned in February this year and a retrial was ordered. Despite ferocious pressure from prosecutors, the judge concluded “there was no way to prove a crime.”

In El Salvador, sexual and reproductive health legislation is harsh and inhumane. Abortion is illegal in all circumstances, including instances of rape, incest and risk to life. Women who suffer from obstetric emergencies like miscarriages or stillbirths are routinely suspected of intentionally ending their pregnancies and accused of murder. Convictions are pursued aggressively and sentences are severe.

It is estimated that since 1998, over 600 women have been imprisoned under El Salvador’s abortion laws, many serving up to 40 years in jail.

Paula Avila Guillen, human rights expert and Director of Latin America Initiatives at the Women’s Equality Center, explains: “El Salvador violates the human rights of women, not only because of the total prohibition of abortion but because of the arbitrary and erroneous application of the law that sends women to prison.”

Sentencing a teenage rape victim to 30 years in prison sends a direct message from those with all the power to those with very little: we set the laws, we decide what happens to you, we are in control.

But times are changing.

Last year, 20-year-old Imelda Cortez was released from prison after almost 2 years awaiting trial for attempted homicide. Like Hernandez, Cortez became pregnant as the result of rape. Like Hernandez, she hadn’t known she was pregnant. And like Hernandez, Cortez woke the world up to the reality of El Salvador’s absurd and cruel criminalization of vulnerable women and girls.


Miscarriage is not a crime. Still birth is not a crime. Abortion is not a crime. What is criminal is using the law to force women and girls to bear children against their will.

What better way to restrict women’s power and agency than to lock them into child bearing. And if they appear to resist, what better way to punish them than to simply lock them up.

In our current climate, where abortion rights continue to be denied and progress is not only slow but actively reversing, Evelyn Hernandez’s release is a welcome reminder that activism works. Her case offers hope to all those still imprisoned under heinous laws and to all those currently denied human rights. Hernandez’s retrial gives new hope for reform and for a deeper understanding of the catastrophic human and social impact of abortion bans.

Evelyn’s story, like Imelda’s, is about far more than a debate on the morality of abortion. It’s a story about systematic persecution by unjust justice systems that treat victims as perpetrators and women as less than human. And like recent stories of women in Argentina, Chile, Northern Ireland and Alabama, it’s a story about fighting to defend human rights.

Speaking outside the courtroom yesterday, 21-year-old Evelyn told the crowds of supporters: “My future is to keep studying and achieve my goals… There are many women who are still locked up and I call for them to be freed soon, too.”

Activism, social pressure, solidarity – they work. But we have to keep going, in every case, in every country. Evelyn finally has justice, who’s next?

#JusticiaParaEvelyn, #OjosEnElSalvador, #JusticeForEvelyn, #EyesOnElSalvador

Revolution & Massacre in Sudan: What Can We Do?

How much do you know about the massacre in Sudan? About the mass murder, internet blackout, rape and torture inflicted on those standing up for peace, freedom and justice over the past two weeks? How much do you know about the revolution that began last December?

If you’ve been relying on major international media outlets, the answer is quite possibly not much at all.

What happened?

After several months of demonstrations and protests, Sudan (finally) captured the world’s attention in April this year when an image of a young woman dressed in white went viral. It was celebrated as an image of hope. International media shared it widely, drawing global awareness to the courage and progress of the revolution.

Soon after, Omar Hassan al-Bashir was overthrown from his presidency, ending a 30-year reign of oppression, corruption and conflict. The Sudanese people demanded an immediate transition from al-Bashir’s presidency to a civilian-led government. Instead, however, military generals took over, agreeing at first to transition to a civilian-led government within 3 years but revoking the agreement soon after.

And so in the days and weeks that followed, protesters remained outside the military headquarters, gathering each day in an area filled with art, music and political discussion. From social media coverage, it also seemed to be a space filled with joy and fierce hope for the future.

In the early hours of Monday 3 June, Sudanese security forces began a brutal massacre.

Civilians were shot and beaten. Mutilated bodies were urinated on and thrown in the River Nile. Women, men and children were raped. At least 118 people were killed, 300 critically injured and 70 raped that day (although the true figures are probably much higher). Perpetrators were mostly members of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – paramilitary forces formerly known as the Janjaweed.


As graphic videos of violence started to spread across social media, the government shut down the internet. The country has endured a total information blackout ever since. Violence continues. It has been reported that a 6-year-old girl was raped by ten men. Stories have been shared of Sudanese military officials with women’s underwear draped over their weapons.

International media have not shared news of the Sudan massacre widely. They have not drawn global awareness to the atrocities being inflicted on innocent people.

For the most part, social media and grassroots activists have been far more informative than newspapers or world leaders. Many have called out the silence of the international community in the face of such horrific events.

Coverage and information from major media outlets is increasing, but shamefully slowly and with a disturbing lack of urgency. I look at the BBC News app on my phone every day. Not once since June 3rd has a story about Sudan been the daily featured article.

What’s happening now?



What can we do?

“Shaming still works – Sudan’s government would not kill the internet if it did not,” writes journalist Nesrine Malek. “So shame the world into applying pressure on the regime and restraining the Gulf powers that support it.”

She explains that we can help “by preventing the normalisation project and aiding the Sudanese people in getting their message out during the blackout.”

If it’s within your power to do so, inform yourself about what’s happening and the context and history that has led to this point.

Spread knowledge and awareness to others in whatever way you can. The list below is by no means comprehensive, it’s simply a starting point of resources I’ve found useful in my own attempts to educate myself. If you have any to add, leave a comment and I will update the list.

Follow:

@hadyouatsalaam, @amel.mukhtar, @bsonblast, @yousraelbagir, @NesrineMalek, @reemwrites

#SudanUprising, #SudanRevolts, #SudanCivilDisobedience, #IAmTheSudanRevolution #SudanRevolution #SudanProtests #Internet_Blackout_In_Sudan

Read:

If you want to help Sudan, amplify the voices of those suffering its horrors, The Guardian

Victims of Sexual Violence in Sudan Deserve Justice, The Daily Vox

Rape and Sudan’s Revolution, BBC

Three Pioneering Women Recount the Brutal Turning Point of Sudan’s Revolution, Vogue

Tasgot Bas Archives: an up-to-date documentation of Sudan’s most recent uprising

Sudan’s Third Revolution, History Today

Sudan’s Revolutionaries: Offline but Not Silenced, BBC

No, It’s not Over for the Sudanese Revolution, Al Jazeera

Donate:

Emergency Medical Aid for Sudan

Food & Medicine for Sudan

Sign:

The UN must investigate 3 June human rights violations in Sudan

Recognise the Rapid Support Forces led by General Hemedti as a Terrorist Organization

US – Send a message to your representatives in Congress through Resistbot

Today, on International Day to Eliminate Sexual Violence in Conflict, I add my voice to the global demand for accountability for the sexual crimes committed in Sudan.

I add my voice to the chorus of those outraged that rape continues to be used without consequence as a tool for dehumanisation and a weapon of war. You do not have to be Sudanese to support the basic human rights of civilians being systematically and mercilessly massacred. I stand in solidarity with the people of Sudan, and in awe of their resilience and courage. Voices are powerful and silence is deadly.

Gender is at the Heart of Spain’s 2019 Election

Spain’s 2019 general election will take place on 28 April. This year, a range of political alternatives have emerged across the ideological spectrum, creating an extremely heated electoral debate. And gender seems to be at the heart of the conversations.

In 2018, a passionate feminist movement was sparked in Spain. It was a reaction to the most high-profile rape case in the country, known as the ‘Manada’ or ‘Wolf Pack’ case. Five men were accused of gang raping an 18-year-old girl. They were sentenced to 9 years in jail for “sexual abuse”, but acquitted of rape. Such a verdict was made possible because the Spanish law requires rape cases to include proof of “resistance” from a victim. In this case, the young woman was deemed to have shown “passive” behaviour.

Public reaction to the ‘Wold Pack’ verdict was unprecedented.

Thousands of (mostly) women stormed the streets of Spain’s main cities. They called on leaders to change the current legislation and reverse a patriarchal justice system. They also offered support to all sexual abuse victims – voicing “yo te creo” (I believe you). However, a ‘macho movement’ has grown in backlash to this feminist renaissance. Spain has heard narratives of victim-blaming, slut-shaming, and excusal of “boys will be boys” behaviour.

Conversations around gender and feminism have dominated Spanish news, TV shows and social media. And now, in the run-up to the elections, gender is being used ruthlessly as a political tool.

Right-wing and extreme-right-wing parties seem to be on a race towards backwardness and misogyny. In a recent electoral debate, one of Partido Popular’s regional leaders – Cayetena Álvarez de Toledo – made a very alarming remark on consent. She stated that during sex, “no one says yes, yes, yes until the end”, and that “silence doesn’t mean no”. Cayetana is well-known for her anti-feminist views. In the past, she has has been vocal about her beliefs that equality was achieved long ago, and that today’s feminism is unrealistic.

Vox, a newly acclaimed far-right party, has gained voters’ favour with straight-up misogynistic discourse. They have repeatedly described feminism as “supremacist”. The party has publicly questioned official data on violence against women, alleging that “many women unjustly report their partners”.

The third party in the conservative game is Ciudadanos. They have become quite popular due to their ‘liberal feminism’. Inés Arrimadas, regional leader for Ciudadanos, has stated that every woman should be free to reclaim equality on her own terms. The issue with liberal feminism is that while it acknowledges gender inequalities, it dramatically fails to see the sexist structures that allow them, in favour of market self-regulatory rules.

In contrast, Spain’s left-wing parties are doing exactly the opposite and intensifying their pro-feminism discourses. The Socialist Workers’ Party has been vocal about gender quotas in the private and public sectors, and fight against the gender wage gap.

In fact, Spain’s current president – Pedro Sánchez – recently became the first world leader to appoint women to almost two-thirds of cabinet positions.

Further along the progressive spectrum, there’s Podemos. Irene Montero, the party’s spokesperson, is a long-term feminist activist. Her gender narrative has intensified with the introduction of gender-neutral language and the proposal of feminism as a subject in school.

Across the political spectrum, gender is receiving huge attention in this year’s Spanish elections.

It’s the guest star at every political rally, sparking both outrage and admiration. And while some still fight to safeguard traditional patriarchal values and try to destabilise feminism, the truth is that gender has never been so high on the political agenda.

Our Spanish sisters must be doing something right.

On Her Shoulders: A Call to Stand with Survivors

I have just finished reading reviews of ‘On Her Shoulders’, Alexandria Brombach’s documentary on Nadia Murad, the human rights activist who won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize.

From the New York Times to RobertEbert.Com, the almost exclusively male reviewers gave halfhearted write-ups on a movie so powerful that I felt anxiety in my chest while watching. The reviewers, shying away from challenging the culture around sexual assault, took the movie on its surface, commended Nadia’s bravery and quietly moved on.

But if we quietly move on – as our culture suggests when it comes to the rights and dignity of women and girls – we’re missing an opportunity to question our response to sexual assault. We’re missing an opportunity to better support survivors. And we’re missing an opportunity to resist the subtle misogyny that inspires a “three thumbs up review” of a movie that dares questions how we treat survivors of sexual violence.       

Nadia Murad is a young Yazidi activist who is known as a survivor of sexual violence in conflict.

Growing up, she dreamed of being a make-up artist. She never wanted to leave Iraq. Never wanted to be an activist, never desired the public light.

Then ISIS, targeting the Yazidi minority, came to her village. They killed Nadia’s family, destroyed her community, and abducted, tortured and trafficked her until she narrowly escaped.

But ‘On Her Shoulders’ does not highlight Nadia’s background. Instead, it reveals that Nadia is telling a story that she does not want to tell.

Part of her reluctance is reliving the terror, and the other is dealing with a media that is more concerned with her rape than her advocacy.

She answers questions that distract from ending sexual violence in favor of focusing on the act of sexual violence itself. Her goal is to prevent such atrocities, and yet she is asked about the details of the abuse of her body.

Even in the midst of #MeToo, sexual assault is still seen as a sexual act rather than an act of power and control. The objectification of women is a deeply rooted cultural norm. So when we encounter a survivor of such extreme violence that no one dares justify it, the media defaults to the pornographic interest around the act.  

Nadia knows this. Yet she answers these deeply personal and objectifying questions because she recognizes that any attention, however misdirected, provides the opportunity for advocacy. She survived the assault of ISIS, and now she is surviving repeated retelling in pursuit of justice and prevention.

How can we, as individuals living in a culture that still objectifies female bodies, better support survivors and resist the framing of sexual assault as desirable, justifiable or entertaining?       

We need to change how we receive the stories of survivors.

We need to believe them, and we need to focus on what they want us to know, not on what our voyeuristic society wants to know. We need to shift from the male gaze to the human gaze, where we see survivors as individuals with dignity and not as a victims whose assault exists to incite our imaginations.  

Nadia, as such a public figure, is giving us the opportunity to do this. We can stand with her by reading her book, watching ‘On Her Shoulders’ and supporting Nadia’s Initiative, which advocates for victims of sexual violence and works to rebuild communities in crisis.

We can support all survivors by speaking out against any framing of assault as desirable. I will walk out of movie theaters when rape is sexualized, and I will not cast a vote for anyone – man or woman – who perpetuates this culture of victim blaming. We can question and disagree and create change within our own families and communities. And, of course, we do not need to swallow “three thumbs up” reviews of topics about the dignity of our bodies.

I’m fighting – and writing – back.  

Nadia is battle-weary, but still she soldiers on. ‘On Her Shoulders’ reveals the burden of her fight and challenges us to support her, and all survivors who have become reluctant heroines for our sake. She may not be the last girl to survive sexual assault, but if we raise our voices together she could very well be the last girl to speak out alone.