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.   

Denis Mukwege & Sexual Violence in Conflict

I recently had the honor of attending a speech by a truly inspirational person, 2018 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Dr. Denis Mukwege. 

Dr. Mukwege has devoted his life to the rights and health of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). For more than two decades conflict has been tearing the country apart, and over those years rape and sexual violence have been used extensively as weapons of war. Sexual violence has been used throughout history and continues to be used to this day as a weapon of destruction (anyone can be a victim, although it is most often women and girls).

Dr. Mukwege recognized not only the health-related consequences, but also the psychological and social devastation, that sexual violence in conflict was causing in the DRC. As his country continued to go through turmoil, his medical practice in the city of Bukavu turned into a refuge center.

Thousands of sexual violence victims targeted by armed militias came to him. Women and girls of all ages sought his help.

During his talk, he showed the audience an image of a very young child who was brought to his practice after being brutally raped and disfigured. It is an image I will not forget for a long time. What I realized at that moment is that our emotions of disgust and anger around sexual violence in conflict are minuscule in comparison with what women and children have gone through and the pain they have experienced.

In 2012, Dr. Mukwege gave a speech in front of the UN assembly in which he denounced the violence against women and girls in his country. Shortly after, his home was attacked by armed men who held his family at gunpoint and killed one of his closest friends inside his home, and in front of his friend’s own children.

I can still hear the doctor’s voice, coloured by sadness and grief, as he told this story. His emotion was so raw, as though the tragic incident had just happened.

After the attack, Dr. Mukwege and his family were forced to flee the country, leaving the women of the DRC behind. Their vulnerability did not prevent them from taking action.

Dr. Mukwege relayed the women’s courage, strength and persistence in finding creative ways of getting their doctor back.

They first wrote to authorities but received no response. People urged them to give up hope that he would ever return. Dr. Mukwege shared the women’s words:

“We took a decision, we [are] going each Friday to sell fruit and vegetables and bring the money here at the hospital until we get the total amount to buy the ticket for him to come back…”

“If no one wants to give him security, we are thousand[s] of women…each night, 24 hours, we will get 25 women around the house and we will be around him so if someone want[s] really to kill him [he will] have to kill 25 women before killing him.”

Dr. Mukwege was so moved by their efforts and bravery that he returned to Congo in the midst of all the chaos and the threats to his life. The admiration he had for these women overshadowed all his doubts: “This was very strong…when I was treating them, I could say that they were weak but there, I was weak, and women were strong, and they brought me back in Congo,” he told us. 

I had tears in my eyes as I listened. I don’t think there was a single individual in the room that day who was not moved by Dr. Mukwege’s story.

He portrayed the strength of the women of the DRC through his words. I believe that women worldwide are the epitome of strength and resilience and Dr. Mukwege’s story clearly portrays that resilience.

It is from these very convictions that we at the Swedish Organization for Global Health – along with so many others across the world – work towards achieving our goals and aspirations for women’s health, safety and empowerment worldwide.

At times when we feel utterly defeated and consumed with our own worries, when our own uncertainties take over our thoughts and conquer our emotions, it is people like Dr. Mukwege and the brave women of Congo who put life back into perspective. We are a force when we come together! We can, without a doubt, overcome all obstacles and injustices. 

Listen to Dr. Mukwege’s amazing speech and read more about his efforts and work here. Read more about The Mukwege Foundation and the wonderful work they do.

Noble Peace Prize Awarded to Nadia Murad & Denis Mukwege

In the same week as Brett Kavanaugh’s sexual assault case, Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege were awarded the Nobel Peace prize in recognition of their efforts to end sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.

To recognise their work is to recognise the fight against sexual violence everywhere.

Sexual violence in warfare is not random – it is a tactic, and the reality of that is terrifying. Countless communities have been destroyed across the world and the perpetrators often walk free. But Nadia Murad and Dr Denis Mukwege are examples of those who cannot and will not stay silent on this issue.

Nadia Murad grew up in the Sinjar region of Northern Iraq, which was attacked and occupied by Isis in 2014. The people of the region – the Yazidi – have been very heavily persecuted.

Nadia’s commitment and determination to spreading awareness of sexual violence in warfare comes from her own incredibly harrowing experience.

She was captured by Isis and kept as a sex slave. However, she managed to escape, and despite everything she is determined to tell her story. Even though it means she has to relive the trauma of her experience, she continues to show her face to the world:

“Whereas the majority of women who escaped refused to be named, Ms. Murad insisted that she be identified and photographed, and her advocacy helped to persuade the United States State Department to recognize the genocide of her people at the hands of the terrorist group,” reported the New York Times

By doing this, she is showing that she has not only survived, but is now a voice and champion for many women who have suffered like her. Yazidi people deserve a voice, women deserve a voice and Nadia Murad is yelling out to make her voice heard. Nadia is the second youngest recipient of the award – Malala Yousafzai was only 17 when she received it in 2014.

In her autobiography, The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State, Murad writes: I want to be the last girl in the world with a story like mine.”

Dr Denis Mukwege is a gynaecologist specialising in treating women who have been victims of rape in Democratic Republic of Congo – a country which has endured decades of violence and conflict. In 2012, during a speech at the UN, Dr Mukwege criticised the government of DR Congo for not doing enough to stop what he described as “an unjust war that has used violence against women and rape as a strategy of war.”

Only a month later, he was targeted by gunmen in his home, and subsequently fled to Europe. It was only after a group of Congolese women raised funds to pay for his return trip home that Dr Mukwege retuned to DR Congo.

“After that gesture, I couldn’t really say no. And also, I am myself determined to help fight these atrocities, this violence….My life has had to change, since returning. I now live at the hospital and I take a number of security precautions, so I have lost some of my freedom,” he told the BBC 2013.

According to Dr Mukwege, sexual violence in war and armed conflict is “not a women question; it’s a humanity question, and men have to take responsibility to end it…It’s not an Africa problem. In Bosnia, Syria, Liberia, Colombia, you have the same thing.”

To end sexual violence we need more men like Dr Mukwege – his skill and care in what he does has changed the lives of so many.

It is clear that once he saw the horrors and atrocities being committed he could not forget them. But we need more men in his position, and higher, who want to stop this. You should not have to see the trauma first hand to know that sexual violence as a tool of war has to be stopped.

Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege have achieved so much already, and having their amazing work and bravery acknowledged is a significant step forward. 

Where are the Syrian Girls?

I recently watched footage of displaced Syrians returning to their homes. Men fought back tears as women let tears flow. Young boys and girls clustered around their mothers, absorbing the emotions of the moment. Adolescent boys stood beside their fathers, looking for social cues to mimic the adults.

But there were no adolescent girls.

I studied the video intently, enlarging the screen and hitting pause. No matter how long I stared, how many other videos I viewed or how far I stretched my imagination (well, maybe that young woman is really a girl…or maybe that little girl is really a very young adolescent), I was not able to identify one single adolescent girl.

In conflicts, adolescent girls disappear from public spaces. When Syria spiralled into violence – seven years ago today – families began restricting the mobility of their daughters. As rape and abduction emerged as weapons of war, girls stopped walking to the market. Some stopped going to school and others had to stop going because their schools were destroyed.

As parents lost livelihoods and struggled to feed their families, some began to see marriage as a way to reduce costs in their household so that that they would not watch all of their children slowly starve, and so girls as young as 10 were married off to adult men. Short contract marriages, informal temporary marriages in which girls are passed from temporary husband to temporary husband, emerged as a way to rationalize trafficking. In most cases fathers are the ones who sell their daughters to man after man.

Whether in the home of their parents or husbands, girls across Syria are besieged. Girls who escape as refugees tend to be slightly better off because they are more likely to have access to humanitarian services, but new vulnerabilities emerge. A taxi driver in Jordan told my colleague that he wanted to marry a Syrian girl because “they are desperate and easy to train”. He didn’t say if he would seek to arrange the marriage or abduct. I’m not sure which would be more traumatic for me: being given away to a foreign man by my own father or being kidnapped by a stranger.

In 2016 I spent months working on child marriage prevention and response in the Syria crisis. Since that same year, I’ve been working on other projects that touch the myriad of issues facing Syrian girls as well as girls throughout the region.

I am so tired of this. I don’t like living in Jordan. I want to go home.

Instead of becoming desensitized by the conflict, I absorb it. I feel the plight of these girls in my bones. The girls who can’t leave their homes without being harassed and groped by men in plain daylight. Girls who are married to adult men. Girls who are trafficked by a phoney marriage.

I persist because these girls persist, perhaps like no other.

Anne Frank, a besieged girl from yet another war, wrote that “a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.” The world may not know it, but adolescent girls are defining this crisis through their invisibility. We don’t notice their absence because it screams at a frequency beyond our ability to hear. It is more powerful than our ability to comprehend. One day we will understand just how epic this failure of humanity truly is.

And yet there is the defiance – a little spark inside of every girl that exists despite it all. I know what this defiance looks like, I know what it feels like and I know what it sounds like. It is inside of every Syrian girl I have ever seen, and I know it is inside of every girl I haven’t seen too.

It is a light, flickering and flashing inside besieged girls living homes made of rubble or tents, that defies the darkness of seven years of conflict. This flicker and flash is how I know that this war will end. It is how I know that girls will prevail. And it is how I know that, one day, these invisible girls will reemerge from their homes and their marriages and shine brighter than the sun.

To help break the invisibility of Syrian girls, share this posts and other information on adolescent girls so that the world can see them again.