At the 2019 Women Deliver Conference, Kate Gilmore, the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, said, “the silence with which they would enshroud the story of the unspeakable must be broken.”
And all of a sudden, I think of pink flipflops. I think of a young girl who stared at her pink flipflops as she spoke.
The girl was 13 and forced to marry a man in his 30s. She was suffering from malnutrition. I could have wrapped my pinkie around her wrist. Although poor, they had a farm that produced fresh milk, eggs and vegetables. But she was starving because she was not permitted to eat that nutritious food. She ate only the scraps left on her husband’s plate.
We worked with her on self-esteem, ultimately hoping to empower her to sneak bites of food while she was preparing her husband’s meals. I wanted her to get a divorce and an education. But all I could do was teach her to sneak handfuls of barley.
This memory became personal. I still can’t let my daughter wear pink flipflops. And I don’t want to tell the story. How can I describe this girl’s physical and psychological torture? What words can I apply to child marriage – a practice that Kate has called “marriage not worthy of the name”?
At Women Deliver 2019, Kate Gilmore confessed that she doesn’t want to tell these stories either.
But, she argued, we must. Because if we do not speak the unspeakable, there will be “no end to slavery, no life-saving drugs for people living with HIV, no exposure of sexual violence at the hands of high priests, culture, church and commerce, no land rights for indigenous peoples, no independence from the colonizer, no marriage equality, no universal suffrage, no protection of rights for women in marriage, no protection of rights for children within the family, no Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
I feel a metaphysical camaraderie with Kate because her emotion and conviction reveal that she too has been there. And so, Kate knows how to muster the impossible when encountering the unspeakable. She can conjure smiles for children whose circumstances sicken her. She can focus on the eyes of mutilated women. She can comfort people there and then, and afterwards, almost miraculously, she can put the unspeakable into words.
I was first touched by Kate through a blog post about an encounter with a 14-year-old girl who, married at age 10 to a man aged 60, developed an obstetric fistula that left her incontinent. The girl’s family abandoned her, as did the husband. When Kate met her at a hospital, she longed for human connection, “just as would any of us who has nowhere to belong, no one to belong to, and nowhere to go.”
I felt this particular story in my bones because it brought up memories of mine. No matter how many times I encounter suffering, the tragedy never becomes normal. Rather than becoming desensitized, each encounter feels more and more personal. Each story feels harder to tell.
Kate, though, pulls it together. For years I’ve thought that there must be something she knows, some trick she has, to make it all bearable. I thought she must somehow be able to recover.
And so at the Women Deliver Conference I asked her to share her secret. She told me:
“I hope that each and every one of us who has had any exposure to those stories never recover until such time that those stories diminish in number, diminish in gravity, diminish in their global presence.”
Back at my hotel that evening I cried over her words. I did nothing to deserve my privilege, just as others did nothing to deserve their suffering. And yet our destinies are interwoven. Their stories are a part of mine.
This is my greatest takeaway from Women Deliver, my greatest learning from Kate Gilmore, and perhaps one of the most important lessons of my life. It is our responsibility to carry pain because without it we couldn’t speak the unspeakable.