United We Shall Stand in South Africa

Content note: this post contains references to sexual violence.

South Africa is a fascinating country with integrated cultures, beliefs and traditions, painted with exquisite coastlines and majestic mountain ranges. But there is a very dark and complex shadow following this fair face.

In South Africa, a woman is killed by an intimate partner every eight hours.

In 2015, 55.5% of South Africans were living in an appalling state of poverty, with no food, clean water or proper housing. That’s 13 million children living in poverty. The sad reality is that many of the South Africans who could make a difference are too far removed and unaware of the dangers that exist in our townships. We believe we are faced with the issues on a daily basis, but are often oblivious to the reality of the circumstances and brutality people are facing around the country.

All around us, women are the victims of sexual crimes. All around us, women are being murdered. Earlier this year, a student was brutally raped and murdered on the outskirts of a very elite town, and the whole country was up in arms. Influential and successful people spoke out against the crime.

But, my fellow South Africans, this has been happening for many, many years to girls and women all over our country. The only difference is that there is no funding, media outlets or organisations willing to help when the victims live in poverty. It is deeply disturbing that privileged South Africans only start realizing the severity of a problem once the monster creeps into their own circle. I too am guilty of this.

Why don’t we hear about the little girls who are abducted and raped while walking home from school, or the countless victims of gang-rape in the townships? I’ve struggled to find accurate statistics for this blog, as the government has not funded any research for years.

Gender-based crimes need to become a priority in South Africa.

Last month, a spark of hope was ignited when South Africans united in a plea to have all charges dropped against the courageous ‘Lion Mama’. She had caught three men raping her daughter near her home. She killed one and severely injured the other two. Social media was flooded by support and crowd-funding to help with her legal fees.

It’s time to get real. We too often believe that it can’t happen to us, or that sexual harassment has never happened to anyone close to us. Do we subconsciously stay distanced from the ugly reality for our own sanity?

In the light of the recent #MeToo movement on social media, I think many of us were shocked by the scale of sexual harassment that has happened right in front of our eyes, to people we thought we knew well. To me, this is the first step in changing our attitudes –  becoming aware of what is going on around us.

Let’s face the reality of the situation. 

Women and girls are crying out for help. Becoming aware of abuse taking place around us can drive us to make a change and offer a helping hand to those who need one. We each have resources that others may not have, so let’s use our individual privileges to shed some light. To the girls in South Africa who need a safe haven: this country and the authorities might let you down, but I never will.

Interaction, education and communication are golden. So, this is my call to fellow South Africans as well as people around the world: let’s become more aware, get more involved and speak up more loudly about the wrong doings in our communities. Don’t get caught up in your own bubble – there are so many people out there that need us. Let’s stand together and protect each other. Let’s form a united front that nobody can hurt, damage or break.

We are women.
We are powerful.
We are fearless.

United we shall stand – a phrase that can no longer be just a line from our national anthem.

How Smart Phones are Fueling Sexual Violence in DRC

Two words any smart phone user fears: Low Battery. But what if each time we powered up our smart phones, the power of a child who helped to make our devices was taken away? That is the sacrifice that children such as 4-year-old Monica make in the Cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she searches for minerals used to create Lithium-ion batteries.

Exposure to sexual violence and dangerous working conditions are more than just side effects of the demand for smart devices, they reveal a public health crisis powered by international enterprise, armed conflict, and modern day slavery.

According to UNICEF, 40,000 children work in Cobalt mines in the southern Katanga province of the DRC. Unable to attend school, these child laborers are exposed to violence and little-known Cobalt Lung, a potentially fatal disease caused by inhaling hard metal debris.

But what if merely living near a mine increased a girl’s chances of being sexually assaulted? A recent study revealed, “In the Kivus and Maniema, the risk of experiencing non-partner sexual [violence] is particularly high for women that live close to a mine with the presence of an armed actor.” This is the cost of Cobalt.

While job responsibilities are clearly divided between girls and boys, with boys working deep in the mines and girls breaking rocks and sifting through minerals by hand, the rescue efforts that could save these children are gendered, too. It has been brought to the attention of the World Trade Organization “that girls are rarely rescued as they play the multiple roles of scouts, porters, sexual slaves and soldiers.”

You may be surprised to learn that one electric car requires approximately 10-20 pounds of Cobalt. In an effort to cut costs, some companies are shifting towards working with deregulated suppliers. Deregulated mining operations pose the greatest risks to children, as they do not enforce minimum standards or impose safety requirements.

However, with pressure mounting from International Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), several tech companies have pledged to remove child labor from their supply chains. Companies’ responses to supply chain inquiries have been published by the Washington Post, so that we, as conscious consumers, can determine whether we stand behind their corporate ethics.

Discussions between the International Labor Organization and the Congolese government have yielded new commitments to upholding the minimum working age of 15, as outlined in ILO Convention No. 138. The next steps: implementation and ongoing enforcement of international law. Meanwhile, many NGOs and regional partners are continuing to develop comprehensive programs to provide education and vocational training to survivors.

What else can we do as smart device users?

  • Use the hashtag #NotInMyPhone to support Amnesty International’s campaign and ongoing investigations into Cobalt mining practices.
  • Host a screening of the free documentary Maisha: A New Life Outside the Mines

In Conversation with Brisa De Angulo

Content note: this post contains reference to sexual abuse and violence 

“I was raped and tortured repeatedly as a child. When I broke the silence, no one wanted to help me, not the judiciary and not the police. No one wanted to take my case, so I went to law school and today I am suing the government of Bolivia. Today, I also run an organisation which helps other girls where we now have a conviction rate of 95 percent in the cases we prosecute. Researchers need to speak to victims, because no one understands what it is like and no one understands how it hurts when someone touches you.” – Brisa De Angulo

There was great power in the soft yet triumphant voice which filled the room during the opening ceremony of the fifth Sexual Violence Research Initiative (SVRI) forum (18-22 September 2017). The tweet I was putting together felt irrelevant. I put my phone down as I listened with a knot in my stomach. I felt pain hearing the words but also a sense of awe and inspiration as the thirty-two year old woman in front of me told her story, which is truly one of victory.

Before SVRI, I must admit I had never heard this story, nor had I even come close to understanding the dark world so many young women and girls in Bolivia face. Brisa captured the audience with a tale I will never forget: the reality of a young girl repeatedly raped and tortured by a family member – a youth pastor who lived with her family – when she was just fourteen years old.

Brisa eventually broke her silence when she turned seventeen. She simultaneously started a centre for young girls in similar situations and courageously disrupted Bolivian legislation. Today, Brisa stands before us to let us in on her most vulnerable and tumultuous experiences. To tell us about the discrimination she faced, the lack of support from institutions meant to protect citizens, the way her case was referred to an agricultural and livestock court (which deals with animals), how her community burnt her house down to silence her.

But also to tell us how she used these experiences to change laws, to take her case to the supreme court of law, to sue the Government of Bolivia in the Inter-American System. To tell us how she has transformed and continues to transform the lives of so many other survivors.

Brisa (left) with Shakira (right). Photo credit: Shakira Choonara

When I went to bed that night, I could not fall asleep thinking of Brisa’s story. I reached for the conference app (yes, thank goodness for technology) and requested a meeting, to which she agreed enthusiastically. I could not believe it. I knew that this story absolutely had to be told and shared with the world to bring to light exactly what violence against women means, but also as an example of what it will take to tackle violence head on.

Sitting across from Brisa, I could not help but admire her humility, her honesty but most of all her quiet yet powerful strength. Below are excerpts of my conversation with a true activist and change-maker:

“Sometimes I find it difficult to speak about this, other times not so much. My parents took me to the United States to visit my brothers. They could see that something was wrong, but they didn’t know what. I eventually told them what had happened. They didn’t want to go back to Bolivia, but I knew that if we didn’t go back it would mean that the perpetrator wins. It was difficult, I stopped eating, I didn’t go to school, and I tried to commit suicide.

When we went back to Bolivia we had to stay in a hotel. The perpetrator continued to stay in our house. The first prosecutor I went to see was a female and she interrogated me for six hours, she asked me questions, even blamed me. I faced a lot of discrimination that continues till today, I am often seen as less because of my experiences. But my greatest source of strength is my parents. They have always supported me. I started legal proceedings, but even that was difficult. The perpetrator is now a fugitive but is still a pastor, and I wonder how many other girls he is doing this to.

I started an organisation in Cochabamba where other girls with similar experiences could come and find support. Today it is still running and makes a huge difference but funding is a problem. At the end of this year we may lose fifty percent of our funding.

Today I am a lawyer, we ensure prosecutions for over 95 percent of cases, but I still have a huge long-term aspiration: I want to eradicate sexual violence completely. The first step is for each of us to break the silence. But another issue is that we have all this data and research—I was also a researcher, so I know all the data—but I keep asking how will this data translate into impact and change the situation?”

Brisa raises critical questions many of us in the field of sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) need to consider, but I believe her activism offers several important lessons, especially one of the transformation from victim to survivor to leader.

Learn more about Brisa’s story and her work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJdwxgDeay8

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.