Girls in North Darfur marched earlier this year to celebrate International Women's Day. Photo credit: UN Photo/Olivier Chassot
The relationship between women and men, and girl and boys needs to change. Did you know that women and girls ages 15 to 44 are more likely to be maimed or killed by men than by malaria, cancer, war or traffic accidents combined?
There are over 150 million instances each year of sexual violence against girls. This includes girls as young as 2, 3, and 4, and would you believe -- even 2-and-a-half-months old!
Can we really continue to allow ourselves to live in a world where we are violating each other with such inhumanity?
One major factor that perpetuates this cycle of violence is that the girls who have been raped can't speak up for themselves (because they are babies or very young children) and those who are old enough to speak up, are afraid to -- for many good reasons.
Take for example, TaJoe, who New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof met in Sierra Leone and wrote about in his Sunday column this past weekend. TaJoe is a 13-year-old seventh grader who ranks third in her class of 18. One evening, TaJoe went to use the outhouse that was some distance away from her home. On her way back, she was grabbed by a businessman, thrown to the ground and raped.
TaJoe was ashamed about what had happened and she also felt afraid. So she didn't tell anyone. But then she developed a sexually transmitted infection that caused a raging fever. She stopped eating and her health deteriorated. When her family took her to a clinic, the doctors discovered the problem, and she, as Kristof put it, "confessed."
Can you guess what happened when TaJoe said it was this particular businessman who raped her (who, by the way, was suspected of raping two other girls in the village)?
The police detained TaJoe and her mother, accusing them of sullying the name of a respected member of the community.
Unfortunately TaJoe's story is not unique. All too often girls are blamed for the inhumanities of the men who violate them.
"Ultimately, the only way to end the epidemic of sexual violence is to end the silence and impunity and send people to prison," said Nicholas Kristof in his column.
I would agree with that -- accountability is crucial -- but I also think there is deeper work for us to do.
More of our conversations in the media, in our communities, in our spiritual centers, in our schools, and in our homes need to be about how we as women and men, girls and boys, truly feel about each other. Do we respect each other? Why? Why not? What are our assumptions about one another? What are our misunderstandings? What do we wish were different? What have we wanted to ask or say, but have held back? And most importantly, how can we live and work together in full respect and dignity to create a world of peace and prosperity for all human beings?
Tomorrow thousands of girls will be raped by men or boys who will not go to prison or be held accountable for their horrific actions. Because no one will question them or sit them down to talk about why they did this, the cycle of violence will continue. These young girls will be infected with sexually transmitted diseases and will suffer in sickness, or as many do, will die from internal injuries. In most of these cases, the girl will be blamed. And for what?
For being a girl.
That is the reality we are living in at the moment. Girls are being punished simply for being girls. They are sexually violated, forced into marriages as young children, trafficked as sex slaves, denied access to education, denied access to health services, and denied access to economic opportunity.
There are two things that we all share as humans -- whether we are a woman or man, girl or boy. These are our desire to learn and grow, and our desire to love and be loved. If we can work together on these things as human beings on the same team, we have a lot to look forward to.
Here are some things you can do right now to improve the lives of girls, boys, women, and men in your community and around the world:
- Bring the issue of violence against women and girls to the forefront in your community. Whether in your home, your school, your spiritual center, your workplace, or on the Web, expose these issues that are not usually addressed and find a way to discuss them.
- Encourage the U.S. to pass the International Violence Against Women Act. This will raise the profile of the violence being committed and demand accountability. The domestic version, Violence Against Women Act, helped the U.S. take domestic violence seriously.
- Use your voice to make sure UN Women gets fully funded. UN Women was created to hold the UN system accountable for its commitments on gender equality, and to support programs that promote women and girls human rights, and their economic and political empowerment.