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 that was later found dead. 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

Meet Alice: the feminist activist fighting for change

Alice Ackermann is twenty years old – she’s the youngest IPPF executive committee member. Her convictions on women’s rights and sexual health are visceral. “I am angry,” Alice says when asked what drives her, “but, it is a positive anger.”

An Early Introduction to Injustice

Alice was born in Strasbourg, France to a Jewish Orthodox family. “It was so obvious to me, from the onset, that my three brothers and I were not treated in the same way,” she says. She explains how the religious rites of passage – circumcision and bar mitzvah – gave importance to the different stages of her brothers’ development. For girls, there was nothing.

Her elementary education in a Jewish school was delivered in the same spirit: “we were considered lesser pupils.” She rebelled from a very young age – before she turned ten she was called a feminist as an insult. Alice says this experience shaped what still drives her today: a clear conception of the injustice that is done to women and their rights.

She was later, at her own demand, transferred to a secular school. Here, she was confronted with “something more violent.”

“When we were teenagers, my friends were sharing their experiences of being kissed without consent, and so many girls talked about being raped, but were not calling it that because it was so hard to put a name on it,” Alice recalls. After hearing about her friend’s experiences, she was determined to do something about it.

Starting a Feminist Club

When the local sexual and reproductive healthcare organization gave a sexuality education session at her school, Alice asked if she could join as a volunteer but was told she was too young.

Never one to be discouraged easily, Alice began organising demonstrations and awareness raising campaigns in Strasbourg on topics such as street harassment or the different shapes and sizes of vulvas.

When she started high school a year later, she created a feminist club and organized debates and open conferences on the history of the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) movement. That’s also when she started doing peer-to-peer sex education with other student members of the club. It was immediately effective: “the students felt free to ask questions, debate among themselves and talk about what they witnessed.”


Peer-to-Peer Education Works

Alice says the reason peer-to-peer education works so well has to do with empowerment. “When you are young and being discriminated against, you are very vulnerable,” she explains. “What happens with peer-to-peer is that people look at you and realise that they can take action and have knowledge too. Every time I do a session people come to me afterwards and say ‘you are so young, how can you be doing this? How can I do it too?’.”

The sessions worked so well that the local sexual and reproductive healthcare organization in Strasbourg got on board. They provided her with training and she became, at sixteen years old, their youngest volunteer. Alice continues to work as a comprehensive sexuality educator and she holds a paid job as a counsellor at one Le Planning Familial’s call centres in Paris.

SRHR on a Global Scale

At last year’s G7 conference, Alice worked with other feminist activists to influence the recommendations put forward by attending governments. “It’s hard,” she admits. “What’s harder is that, on the global scale, things don’t always appear to be changing for the better.”

She says during the G7 conference, American and Italian governments were not interested: “it’s really simple, if you talk about SRHR during a meeting, they just walk out. Donald Trump did it in Canada last year.”

As someone whose commitment to feminism is motivated by her own life experience, Alice is acutely aware of the importance of coordinating international advocacy to a grassroots approach. That’s why she’s not considering quitting counselling or peer-to-peer education anytime soon.

“I wish I were less of an exception, we need to have more young people involved in every level of the organization.” As a newly appointed IPPF executive committee member, she is on a mission to change that.

As a regional youth representative of IPPF and a member of several feminist organisations, Alice Ackermann advocates for women’s reproductive rights and youth empowerment at the national and international level. She’s also studying history at Paris University.

The Pattern of Domestic Violence

Like every tsunami, it starts small. A slap here, a hit there. Nothing to worry about. He apologizes, says it will never happen again.

But it does.

It happens again. Harder this time, perhaps a punch or two. It becomes a pattern.

Beat, repent, repeat.

The physical abuse.

The pattern.

OR

It is completely inconspicuous. Almost invisible to the outside world and sometimes, to the victim, too. Charming dominance turns into irrational jealousy and possessiveness. Endearing neediness becomes suffocating. You find yourself trying to stay out for as long as you can. You know it’s coming.

The emotional abuse.

The pattern.

According to the World Health Organization, almost one third of women who have been in a relationship report that they have experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner in their lifetime.

Not everyone has the courage to fight back against abuse and violence. It’s not simply about being ‘brave’ – it becomes almost impossible to have courage if you don’t have a voice. Sometimes, even those who do are stifled by the fear of humiliation and social stigma surrounding gender-based violence.

Not everyone has a loving family or friends to fall back on. Not everyone can simply wake up one day, decide they have had enough, and leave. It’s not that easy, oh how I wish it was, but it isn’t.

Although, it’s also not impossible.

You might wonder, why must they stay? Is it the children? Or the familiarity? Or worst of all, the tainted love? It’s generally an amalgamation of all of these reasons along with many more. Of course, none of them can ever justify the destruction of lives, hearts, and a place that now detestably resembles home but is far, far from it.

The more you take, the less you can give to yourself or those you love. You deserve a safe environment. Children deserve a safe environment.

Make a safety plan. You can break the pattern and protect yourself and others. It will be hard, but it will be worth it.

“Break the pattern before it breaks you.” – Colleen Hoover, It Ends With Us

Read more on Girls’ Globe

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.   

The Victory of Imelda Cortez in El Salvador

Content note – this post refers to sexual violence.

I hope that by now you might have heard the name Imelda Cortez. On Monday, the 20-year-old from El Salvador was found innocent and released from prison following almost 2 years in custody awaiting trial.

Imelda was repeatedly raped by her stepfather for 6 years. She became pregnant without realising, suffered an obstetric emergency but delivered a healthy baby. There was no evidence indicating that she had attempted to end the pregnancy or harm her baby. Regardless, she was charged with attempted homicide and faced up to 20 years in prison.

Yesterday, a judge dismissed all charges against Imelda and she was allowed to return to her family. 

This is an amazing victory in a country widely considered to have the most extreme abortion ban in the world. But Imelda’s story is a reminder of the misogynistic justice systems we live in.

This joyful news deserves to be celebrated. But we must also continue to fight for justice. Justice for the dozens of women who remain in prison in El Salvador, and for all of the women around the world facing death, imprisonment and irreversible psychological damage as a result of extreme abortion laws. 

Imelda’s attorney, Ana Martínez, said: “This vulnerable young woman survived sexual violence only to be pursued for a crime she did not commit. Imelda goes home to her family today and will finally be able to meet her daughter and attempt to rebuild her life. We wish the same, and soon, for the women still jailed for obstetric emergencies. The women of El Salvador deserve better.”

And they do. There are at least 20 women currently imprisoned in El Salvador, accused of attempting an abortion. But what I want to share with all of you is that these outrageous cases are not exclusive to one country. This is happening all around the globe. 

I live in Mexico, and every day one woman is reported to the authorities for having an abortion. Every single day! In the past 10 years there have been 228 women sentenced, 83 in pre-trial detention and 53 in formal imprisonment. Mexico’s sanctions for abortion depend on the state penal code, but vary from 15 days up to 6 years in jail. Fines go from 20 to 300 times the national minimum wage.

Sometimes people ask me, how will one blog post make a difference? This week, Imelda Cortez’s victory answers that question.

Our voices matter, our voices have an impact on society, and our voices really can help to change the world. I invite you to join me in using yours!

Standing outside the courtroom, Imelda’s grandmother Julia had a message for all those who helped to put pressure on the government of El Salvador: “I give thanks to everyone, every single person, who has fought for Imelda’s freedom today. When I was visiting Imelda in prison she would tell me how grateful she was for the many, many women fighting on her behalf, even though they didn’t know her personally.”

Join us in speaking out against injustice to help every woman who has been deprived of her human rights. We won’t stop fighting for girls and women’s freedom. We are not going anywhere.