Abuse & Violence Rates Rise Amid Global Lockdowns

Many countries around the world are in complete lockdown. Millions have been forced to stay at home, self-isolate or socially distance themselves to combat the ongoing threat of coronavirus (COVID-19).

The pandemic is creating an environment of high stress, anxiety and depression for millions of people. It’s taking an economic and social toll. It is also leading to increased rates of domestic violence. In times of crisis or natural disaster, children’s and women’s health and safety are the most severely compromised. In our current situation, this pattern is compounded by limited access to safe centers, shelters and health services.

National lockdowns have exposed many who experience abuse within their homes to danger on a daily basis.

In addition, strict quarantine measures have restricted people’s ability to report abuse. The majority of domestic violence victims are women. However, others such as LGBTQI individuals also face the risk of being abused or thrown out of their homes.

Current statistics show a worldwide surge in the number of reported gender-based violence (GBV) cases. There are increased incidences of domestic abuse and violence being reported from Brazil to China to Germany to the United States. Like the virus itself, this is a global issue.

The South African Police Minister has announced that nearly 90 000 cases of GBV were reported within the first week of the country’s lockdown. Crimes of intimate partner violence, sexual abuse and molestation have been seen to rise in record numbers.

Some countries are coming up with measures to protect and safeguard those in vulnerable circumstances.

In France, some women are being housed in hotels. Pop-up centers have been set up in malls across the country. People can use these centres to report GBV when they go out to buy medication or groceries.

In other countries, helplines have been set up for women to use during this difficult time. In Spain, lockdown conditions have been lifted to allow people experiencing abuse to seek help without being fined. Shelters and safe havens are being created in many other countries as well.

The UN Secretary- General, António Guterres, made an appeal to governments worldwide. He implored them to take the matter of abuse during COVID-19 seriously and to implement structures to support women and vulnerable groups.

During this time, we can all play a role by creating more awareness.

We can reach out to municipalities, governments and NGOs to ask for support and safety measures to be applied in our communities. By doing so, we can better protect those at risk of abuse and violence.

White Privilege & Sexual Abuse in Uganda

I remember Bery Glaser as a corpulent and friendly old man. With grey hair, bright eyes and a smile, he was born in Belgium and holder of a German passport. He had a protuberance on his face, revealing some sort of sickness, which made me feel sympathetic towards him. Bery said he was a retired health professional and seemed confident and knowledgable. He spoke with both pride and condescension about his work in Uganda protecting young girls from sexual abuse and disease.

At first, I thought Bery was the utter personification of white saviour syndrome. Little did I know, when I sat down with him for tea and biscuits, that he was a sexual offender.

My Trip to Kalangala, Ssese Islands

In 2018, while working in Uganda, I needed a break from chaotic Kampala. I decided to go to the Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria for a stress-free weekend. The lodge I stayed at arranged a local guide to show me around. He was a police officer but drove tourists around, in his free time, to make extra cash. Because of his position and network, he told me, everyone in the island knew him well and it was easier to reach hidden spots.

After a day visiting amazing beaches and tropical forests, we stopped for tea at Bery’s Place & Ssese Humanitarian Services. It was a gorgeous place on a hill with views over Lake Victoria. A muzungu (white or foreign person) – Mr Bery Glaser – had founded the place in 2006 and it served as a shelter for young girls who were survivors of sexual abuse. Mr Glaser and his wife housed the girls, provided them with food, paid their school fees and took care of their health.

Bery welcomed me and saluted my guide enthusiastically. He then invited me in. I saw a number of girls aged between 5 and 15 years old around the house and the patio. Some were doing house chores or playing but mostly, they were being curious about my presence. Bery and I sat on the verandah for tea and biscuits that were served to us by a very young girl. Then, he told me his story and the story of the girls he sheltered at Bery’s Place & Ssese Humanitarian Services.

The Girls at Bery’s Place

Bery was brutally graphic in describing the accounts of sexual abuse “his” girls had endured before arriving to the shelter. I felt my arm hair raising almost in pain as he explicitly described rape scenes and the damage girls suffered in their genital area. It made me tremendously uncomfortable. I asked him to tone down his words. He argued that precise detail was important to fully understand to severity of the issue. He also emphasised on the prevalence of AIDS in the island and how unprotected these girls were. When I asked about the girls’ parents, he replied that they didn’t care about them.

Thinking back, there was something disturbingly odd about the whole situation. I remember my goosebumps and how uneasy I felt. I guess I unintentionally refused to think poorly of this old, sick man.

He showed me the facilities in and around the house – the shared living room and the girls’ bedrooms arranged in bunkbeds. Bery introduced me to some of the girls, with whom I talked briefly. They were shy. But, from my experience, many are when talking to muzungus. After this, I made a small donation and said goodbye.

After I left, I remember feeling very distressed by the stories I had heard. I also remember appreciating that someone was caring for those girls. I hadn’t understood why the guide had taken me there, but assumed he would get a share from the donation. For a split-second, however, a horrendous thought crossed my mind and I immediately felt tremendously guilty. I thought about that visit for days with a bittersweet feeling. It looked like a pleasant place, but something was off.

German National Accused of Sexual Abuse

Fast forward 6 months and I read in the newspaper about a foreign sexual offender in Kalangala. My heart froze. Before even reading his name, I knew it was him. Mr. Bery Glaser was accused of sexual abuse and child trafficking. I called one of my contacts in Uganda, who confirmed the news. A number of local organisations and a very few journalists had been following Bery’s case for years. Locals on the island knew about the shelter and what was happening to those girls. The police officer who worked as a tourist guide knew. Politicians knew. Everyone knew. 

The accusations started in 2013 when a few girls came forward. They reported sexual touching under the guise of medical vaginal examinations using fingers and other objects. Bery coerced the girls into sleeping with him in exchange for housing, food and school fees. Mr. Glaser was arrested then but, to the outrage of social workers and the journalists following the case, he was acquitted by the court. Bery’s Place was again open for business.

Arrested 6 Years Later

Long story short, after years of reports and denunciations from several victims and witnesses, the old man I had tea and biscuits with was arrested in February 2019. He was charged with “19 counts of human trafficking, seven counts of aggravated defilement, one count of indecent assault and one count of operating an unauthorized children’s home.”

According to the local newspaper New Vision, police found sex tapes, sex tools and erotic material in the bedrooms of the shelter. In addition, a spokesperson for Uganda Police told CNN that the girls had contraceptive implants inserted. A survivor testified that the girls had to sleep with Bery on a rota basis. This included sexual massages to ‘help cure his cancer’ and other types of abuse that he told them were “normal in his culture”.

Mr Glaser used his power and network in the island to bribe police and threaten whoever spoke out. I remembered my guide/police officer. A year after his detention, Bery’s trial has been postponed 8 times as requested by his legal team. He denies all allegations.

Dangerous Power Dynamics

Ever since finding out about the accusations against Glaser, I’ve been following the case closely. I can’t help but remember every single detail of my visit back in 2018 – our conversation about sexual abuse and how uncomfortable he made me feel. Why didn’t I realise? How could I have missed the red flags? Did I purposely ignore my gut feelings because he was an old white man? Did I also succumb to white privilege?

It is dangerously easy for white men to sexually abuse girls in the Global South. And to do so with complete immunity.

Bery Glaser had been running a children’s home illegally without a registration certificate. But white people’s good will is always assumed. Could a local man or woman have done that? Absolutely not. But Bery did it for over 10 years. He used his position of power and taken-for-granted morality to coerce and abuse dozens of vulnerable Ugandan girls, under the supervision of locals and officials.

We need to put a stop to the power dynamics that perpetuate men’s ownership of women’s bodies and allows whiteness to get away with injustice. We need to make a collective effort. Starting with me.

To Prevent Abuse, Young People Must Know their Rights

Content note – this post refers to sexual violence and suicide.

Recently, a Twitter user named @twadi_doll shared her story fearlessly and curtly online – giving many people a reality check and leaving them feeling shaken.

Twadi narrated in her thread that at 13 years – orphaned and young – she found herself living with a pastor and his wife.

A respected…no, scratch that…a revered member of society, the man of God raped Twadi her on a regular basis. On other occasions, he would call his friends and they took turns exploiting her body. As if that wasn’t enough, the pastor would ask her constantly to seek forgiveness from God, for making him commit a sin.  

Since she had nowhere to go and was being blackmailed by the pastor for receiving food and shelter from him for 3 years, Twadi couldn’t escape the reach of the preacher’s hand. Even when she spoke out in church, she was called a liar and a demon who had been sent to tempt and disorganise the pastor in his job of shepherding the Lord’s people.

As a result of the continued sexual abuse, Twadi became pregnant and 6 months later, her teachers learnt of her story and offered her immediate support. They opened a case against the pastor, who in shame committed suicide. An abortion was arranged for Twadi and painful as it was, she took the option because she had long decided that either the baby dies or she commits suicide herself.

Twadi’s story calls upon us all to play our part in improving SRHR information and service access to young people.

This lack of access spirals into multiple other challenges, and sadly, it is the young person who suffers. Their untapped potential is heavily undermined.

For starters, we should always be able to come out and condemn what is wrong, no matter the position or reputation of the person in question. The pastor’s wife, years later after her husband’s death, wrote Twadi a letter saying she knew about the abuse the whole time, but found it better than her man going out to cheat. In Twadi’s own words, “she used me as a glue to hold her marriage together.” The pastor’s wife betrayed and failed Twadi, and her suffering falls as equally on her shoulders as it does on the pastor’s.

We need to pay special attention to young people’s voices on their reproductive health concerns with as open a mind as possible.

Sometimes we can’t understand young people by assuming we know who they are and what they want, especially if we aren’t young people ourselves. The pastor’s congregation was way off course in this case, defending the pastor simply because of his position and ignoring the truth Twadi was telling.

If even one of them had taken time to hear her out, it could have changed her fortune. We should seek virtual spaces where young people are free to talk about their challenges with no fear of judgement, and where they are sure they will be believed and helped.

It is critical that we provide young people with information on their rights so that they can know when to say no, how to say it and how to defend themselves against manipulation and abuse.

The more we starve young people of such information, the more we make them vulnerable to attacks and abuse and the multiple challenges that ripple from those.

Finally, we need to work with stakeholders who can put policies in place to ease the combatting of these challenges. In Uganda, for example, we have been advocating for an operational School Health Policy where we can provide sexual and reproductive health and rights information to young people that fits the context we live in.

Such a document is key, because then we can arm young people with knowledge, and we will have the backing of the law. It is something that policy makers and governments should consider, lest we see more young people come out with stories similar to Twadi’s.

This selfless story should be an eye opener.

Many young people are undergoing such horrific challenges, and the veils of religion and culture, which otherwise should be guiding us to a sane and loving society, are being used as defences and barriers against SRHR access. Such incidents are indeed present in our society and the best we can do is speak out against them, bring the perpetrators to justice and provide young people with information and services so that they can make informed decisions and protect themselves.

PS: Twadi has moved on and is strong now. However, is that what we want, for all young people to become strong like her and move on? Or is it better to stamp abuse out once and for all? Something must change in our communities, right here and right now.

What #MeToo did in Sweden

Unless you haven’t been on social media or read the news for the past few months, you can’t have missed #MeToo. In Sweden, the campaign was taken from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and put into practice in the real world, showing that activism on social media can generate actual change in society.

It is now almost 3 months since use of the hashtag peaked on several social platforms globally. Facebook reported that the phrase was used in over 12 million posts in just 24 hours. They also found that in the U.S., almost half of all users had a friend who had used the hashtag.

In the end, the most successful feature of the campaign was that it made a problem visible. #MeToo united women globally, and they all told a version of the same story – they had been subjected to some kind of sexual harassment or abuse. This abuse was no longer surrounded by silence, but rather recognised by people of all genders as a systematic problem in all societies. There were, however, many who doubted the effectiveness of an online campaign. Could a hashtag make a real change in society?

In Sweden, #MeToo quickly took hold of the country and was eagerly reported by media. In the few days after the campaign went viral, women from several different professions organised and collected names and stories of people affected by sexual harassment within their sector. Actors, doctors, chefs and lawyers were just some of the groups that launched their own follow-up campaigns, making the scale of the problem even more apparent.

Soon, several Swedish male celebrities were accused of rape, sexual harassment or misogynistic behaviour, and many of them had to leave their jobs as a result. The culture of silence was breaking down and companies could no longer cover up such accusations. High profile individuals within politics, TV and academia were exposed and removed from their posts, one by one. Power was no longer enough to protect people from the consequences of their actions. Hopefully, this cleanse of misogynistic plutocrats can create space for a more healthy, equal and sustainable culture within all sectors in Sweden and around the world.

But how can we make this change last? Media campaigns come and go and very few make it off the screen and into everyday life. Sexist structures are deeply rooted in most societies, and merely recognising the problem won’t be enough to eliminate it. But it is a step on the way. People can no longer deny the scope of this problem, and awareness is crucial when fighting social issues. Hopefully, grassroots activists will no longer be operating in headwinds. And maybe, Sweden can lead the way in this fight.

A new law that would require explicit sexual consent has been proposed by the Swedish government. TV-personalities have been fired and companies are adopting new policies of dealing with misogynistic behaviour. People are fighting for more thorough legal consequences for perpetrators of sexual harassment. Although we are far from finished, change is happening, and we must act quickly before things go back to ‘normal’. Effective change in society requires everyone to act, and it is crucial to use the energy, anger and hopefulness that has been generated during this campaign.

We have a long way to go, but for me, the #MeToo campaign is a sign of progress and shows what can happen when women unite. After all, this is what Girls’ Globe is about – raising the voices of women and showing that our experiences and voices matter.

Everyone knows someone who has been subjected to sexual harassment. Women have spoken up, the world has listened, and now all of us must act. The internet is powerful, and so are women. The culture of silence has been broken, and so let’s not only hope it stays that way, let’s make sure that it does. Let’s include everyone on that journey – him, her, them, and #metoo.

#MeToo: Reflections from a College Student

Harvey Weinstein; a man who used to be synonymous with Hollywood films, but who now carries the weight of sexual assault allegations after a tsunami of testimonies. From Kevin Spacey to Roy Moore, the past couple of months have been an explosion of sexual assault accusations. This isn’t about just one man and one woman. It’s about dozens of men and countless women across industries both near and far.

Marginalized voices – women and children especially – have been and continue to be vulnerable to abuses by powerful men.

Since The New York Times published an investigation into accusations against Harvey Weinstein, there has been a growing list of powerful men accused of sexual misconduct of all forms. As I scrolled through the list, I could not help but notice that every person on the list was male-presenting, white, and in positions of power.

The wave of testimonies is shocking in terms of sheer numbers – if this is how many people have made accusations, how many other painful abuses remain in the shadows? While all of the men on this list are primarily based in the United States, it would be foolish to think that this problem is a national one.

All around the world, powerful men take advantage of vulnerable people. It is a global phenomenon. And it terrifies me.

As an eighteen-year-old woman in college, I go to class everyday preparing to enter the ‘real’ world around me. I take classes about market economics and international politics and listen as people try to impart knowledge to me, but I cannot help but think that I am so wholly unprepared for this big, scary world. Part of me does not want to believe that sexual assault is so widespread. Every day I turn on the news to see another powerful man has abused his power, and I think about how scared and afraid and disgusted I would feel if I was ever faced with a situation like that.

We must not let fear get to us. We cannot stop fighting for our sisters and brothers who have experienced the pain and trauma of assault.  It is on all of us to be allies and to support the people around us. Gender-based violence is not just a women’s issue, it’s a people’s issue. We have to be role models and teachers for our children, to tell them and show them that abuse, violence and harassment are not okay.

In an interview with Vanessa Stair earlier this year about parenting in color, Vanessa talked with me about teaching her five-year-old daughter Peyton the important lesson of consent. She said that it can be as easy as “no, means no.” But that only works if all children are taught the same thing.

As well as teaching our children, we must also listen compassionately and learn from one another. We all carry biases, expectations, and opinions; by thinking about ourselves and engaging in challenging dialogues we can better understand the world.

This is not easy work. It takes time, energy, and an emotional toll to think about the misogyny, hate, and abuse around us. While we must continue to fight, we also much continue to take care of ourselves and those around us. A mentor of mine recently told me, “we must live in the needs of the present”. So we continue to fight to elevate the voices of women globally, work to eliminate gender gaps and discrimination, love to heal our pain, and hope for a better tomorrow.

Girls’ Globe is publishing opinions and ideas on tackling gender-based violence from our global network of bloggers and organizations during each of the 16 Days of Activism. We’re also crowdfunding to be able to continue to raise the voices of girls and young women in 2018 – voices like Grace’s. Donate today and help us to continue building a safer, more equal world. 

What Kesha’s Case Really Reveals

On February 19th, outlets published a photo of singer Kesha sobbing in a courtroom as a judge revealed she’d ruled against her. In a much-publicized case, the singer had been trying to get a preliminary injunction to allow her to stop recording with her producer, Lukasz Gottwald (better known as Dr. Luke). Kesha has said her producer abused her physically, sexually, verbally and mentally from a young age, allegations which Dr. Luke denies and claims are an attempt at extortion.

The ruling sparked an outcry from Kesha’s fanbase as well as support from celebrities like Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande. Amid the frenzy of lawsuits, countersuits, hashtags and Hollywood, we’re ignoring the deeper meaning of Kesha’s case.

In a case that boils down to he-said, she-said, as Kesha’s does, even strong advocates of feminism have to leave room for a sliver of doubt.

What is troubling is who consistently gets the benefit of that doubt.

A Big Ask

“You’re asking the court to decimate a contract that was heavily negotiated and typical for the industry,” said Supreme Court Justice Shirley Kornreich to Kesha’s attorneys. Which is indeed true. However, if you flip the sentiment and examine its alternative, Dr. Luke’s attorneys are asking the court to discredit an allegation of deeply painful abuse, on multiple levels, in favor of a business contract.

The record label, Sony, did offer Kesha the opportunity to continue recording under a different producer. Kesha’s attorneys argued that without the presence of Dr. Luke, Sony would not market Kesha’s music as heavily, which is vital in the short-lived life of a pop star. The judge, however, did not find this sufficiently believable.

In a perfect world, a simple switch of producers would be the optimal solution. However, in the modern work environment, which has been known to demote or dismiss women for offences like being “too aggressive“, “too attractive” or for having the audacity to have a child, it isn’t hard to justify a fear of being indirectly punished for villainizing a highly profitable producer – a job which has a much longer lifespan, and therefore more potential for profit, than a singer’s.

A Woman’s Worth

The Hollywood Reporter stated:

Kornreich heard arguments that Dr. Luke had invested a substantial amount — $60 million in her career — and that the producer had agreed to allow her to record without his involvement. The judge told Geragos that “decimates your argument,” adding, “My instinct is to do the commercially reasonable thing.”

The judge’s instinct to prioritize commercial losses over perceived slight may make financial sense, but stands on shaky moral ground.

From a financial standpoint, there is little to be gained by granting this injunction. From a human standpoint, there is little to be gained by denying it.

Ruling in favor of Kesha, Dr. Luke could gradually recoup his financial losses, innocent or no. Kesha, on the other hand, could not so easily recover a sense of well-being, a full recovery or arguably, a career, if he were guilty.


Burden of Proof

“What disturbs me is a lack of facts,” stated the judge. As it should. But once again, we should ask the question – a lack of facts supporting which argument? 

As it stands now, sexual assault cases must prove that there was indeed inappropriate activity, rather than the opposite. Yet sexual encounters are, by nature, intensely private affairs. With the added factors of shame, abuse, skewed power dynamics, deliberate attempts to conceal, and fear, coerced encounters are even more shrouded in doubt and denial on both sides.

That isn’t to say there is no merit in due process. But what it suggests is that perhaps instead of focusing on proving something did happen, we should be working equally to prove something didn’t.

Dispassiontely viewed, there is no way to know who is telling the truth without hard evidence. In cases like these, someone is going to lose without irrefutible evidence that they deserved to. That isn’t in question. What we should question is why in the overwhelming number of cases, the loser is the victim.

When the judge ruled against Kesha, she ruled for a system that continues to doubt victims of violence over their alleged abusers. That, on it’s own, is injustice enough.

Cover photo credit: Peter Neill / Wikimedia Commons