What is happening to the women in this world?
I have wondered through many countries on this earth, from Ethiopia in Africa, to France in Europe and Venezuela in South America. I have explored islands of the pacific, roamed through the deserts of the Middle East and found myself in and amongst the islands of the Caribbean. I have been from Bangladesh to China, Mexico to Chile, Poland to Bosnia and even as I write this, I am in the small town of Pavlodar in northern Kazakhstan, enroute to Mongolia. I have taught former child soldiers from the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, attempted to cross the infamous Darian Gap, traversed the Yemeni desert under the guise of being the wife of an Omani and meditated for days on end with Burmese Buddhists. The incredible diversity in cultures that I have found as I have travelled the world has been fascinating, the rich culinary delights, the array of colours that adorn temples of worship, the diverse architectural designs and the incredible variations in traditional dress and costume. From drinking Kava with remote jungle tribes in central Vanuatu to discussing politics with Omani air force pilots in Oman and tasting fermented horses milk in a market in Kyrgyzstan, my travels have shown me that the world has an incredible amount of delight to offer. Though despite this incredible diversity and wonder that lights up our world, there is one particular shadow of darkness that I have found in all corners of this planet, in fact, I have not been able to take a step in this world without coming across it, the shocking amount of violence and discrimination against women.
Its difficult to know where to begin with my story and how to explain why initiating Project MonMa has been so important to me. There have been so many experiences, so many stories, so many looks of sadness that that have come to shape my own understanding of the problem and so the only way I can think of to attempt this is to share some of the experiences is to tell them as I have experienced them. I’ll begin with a wonderful woman I met while travelling through Amazon. I had been waiting on the Brazilian/Bolivian border for more than a week for a cargo boat that was to take me down the river to the next village on the Bolivian side. The journey took a week. I was at the back of the boat and had my hammock strung up next to a lovely Bolivian lady who was in her 70s. We spent the week chatting about numerous topics, including her life. She had married young, like most Bolivian women and had 12 children. The first 9 children were to her first husband who was drunk and abusive. Because any money he earned he spent on alcohol she had to go out to work to earn the money to feed her children. She eventually left him, which I greatly admire as a rural woman living in Bolivia, a society that stigmatizes divorced women and does not provide support and protection for women affected by violence. It is also a society, like most in the world, that does not provide protection to women affected by sexual violence. As I was told numerous times whilst I was there, unless you are part of a rich family, they do not give importance to these matters.
In Sri Lanka, I had decided to travel up the east coast not long after the government had reclaimed the land back from the Tamil Tigers. I didn’t encounter any problems though the air was plagued with uncertainty and the land most certainly by poverty. I stopped off in a small village on my way to the north and stayed in the home of an elderly Tamil lady who had numerous stories of life in war. She also had a little granddaughter who seemed fascinated with me and though we couldn’t speak the same language, we became friends and she would accompany me on walks around the village or to the beach. On one of these walks we encountered a government soldier, there were many at this time. At this time, I had learned to stay away from any kind of law enforcement, I steered a path around him. Though he followed us and began to ask me some questions though I couldn’t understand what he was saying. One of the first things I noticed was the little girls face, she was terrified. When we arrived back at the house later that day I asked the elderly lady why the little girl had been so afraid of the soldier. She replied casually, well that’s because the soldiers rape the little girls around here. I remember that this was one of my first experiences of shock that a man of law would rape a little girl but also at the casualness of which the elderly lady had mentioned it.
During my time in the Philippines, I was introduced into the dark world of the sex industry. It was one of the first times that I began to understand the true horror of how poverty could make one vulnerable to the prey of others. I was working with a small NGO called Child Hope who worked with street children in Manila. They asked me to prepare a report looking at why girls went to the streets, and this involved going through the slums with one of the local field workers. I heard many stories, of young girls being sold into the sex industry by a member of their family, or being tricked. One girl that I spoke to was kept as a prisoner in a bar that had open access to the street. Not in an underground dungeon or anything like this, but an average bar that anyone could walk into. It seemed that the kidnapping of young girls to become sex slaves was so normal, that nobody seemed to question it or even be bothered by it. In the beginning I couldn’t understand how this could happen, until I interviewed another little girl. Her eyes were already dead, she had been abused so many times, her story was harrowing. Though it is a story she had about the police that stuck with me. She said that one day she was picked up by the police on the streets and they took her back to the police station. They told her that they were going to gang rape her. She begged them not to and said that they could beat her, anything but that. For some reason they agreed with her, beat her and then placed her back on the street. I began to understand that when violence against girls and women is as pervasive as this, when the very men who are meant to protect are the ones persecuting, that violence is able to continue with absolute impunity and so can the abuse of little girls who have nobody to protect them.
I have been told countless time girls are worth less than boys, most recently I was told this in both my work places in Mongolia and China. I have heard stories in Morocco that according to the penal code a rapist is allowed to marry his victim if she is a minor as a way of avoiding prosecution. In Afghanistan, half of all Afghan women in prison have been charged with moral crimes, hundreds who are imprisoned for being raped. In Iran a cleric declared that women who wear revealing clothing and behave promiscuously are to blame for earthquakes. These kinds of injustices are not every now and then occurrences, they are not something that happens in those poor countries, violence and discrimination against women is an endemic problem that exists in every country around the world. In Ireland a survey revealed that 41% of men believe that a woman is partially or totally responsible for being raped if she is drunk or takes illegal drugs, 37% believes she bears some responsibility if she flirts extensively with a man and 26% if she wears sexy or revealing clothing. In England the proportion of rapes dismissed by the police as ‘no crime’ varies between 2% an 30%’. In Australia, in a survey on community attitudes of violence against women in 2009, two thirds of men said violence against women was a common problem.
In many cases of violence against women around the world, the authorities fail to thoroughly investigate cases and to bring to justice those responsible. This is partly because top officials are in agreement with the persecutors. In one story I read about a woman in Turkey who was trying to escape an abusive husband. She repeatedly went to the police for help though they always sent her back to her husband. She recalled that one of the police officers telling her husband to next time break her legs so that she couldn’t escape. In May 2011 in Iran, fourteen men allegedly raided a party in Khomeini Shahr near Esfahan, locking the male party goers in one room and raping the female guests. Instead of speaking out forcefully against the crime, the Chief of the Police Detectives Bureau in Esfahan, Colonel Hossein Hozzeinzadeh appeard to condone it, saying, ‘If the women at the party had worn the hijab properly, they might not have been sexually assaulted.’
These stories are not only common, they are normal. It seems to me, that as I have moved around the world the subjugation of women is never questioned, in fact it is considered tradition, standard, acceptable. Often, it is considered the woman’s fault if she is assaulted, raped or harassed. There are a million reasons I’ve heard for this, the way she was dressed is perhaps the most common one, either way, there is always a reason why the man does not need to have any responsibility for his actions. Disturbingly, I have also heard women blame women for their own assault. Not too long ago, I was sitting in my back garden in Australia with a friend who had come over to visit and he told me about two girls he’d met the night before. They were telling him about a young girl who had been sexually assaulted the previous night. ‘She deserved it’, they told him, ‘she was flirting with the guy so what does she expect?’ Throughout my travels, I have been blamed me when I’ve complained of sexual harassment. I’ve been told to think about the way I dress, or have been told if I go there, ‘what do I expect’. I’ve been dismissed, I’ve been told to get over it, I’ve been told to, ‘have more patience’ with the boys and I have been told I’m racist. They have laughed when I’ve recounted stories of assault, as if a man trying to put his hand up a woman’s skirt is a comical event as opposed to a violating one. Little importance is given to sexual harassment and abuse in this world because this is simply ‘what boys do’.
Former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan recently announced that violence against women is the number one human atrocity occurring in the world at this time. UN Force Commander Major General Patrick Cammaert said that it is more dangerous to be a civilian woman than a soldier in many conflict zones today. According to the World Bank, women aged 15-44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war and malaria. The Uks Foreign Secretary William Hague said that sexual violence against women in war is the worst thing happening in the world at this time.
Shutting up about it is simply not an option. We are living in a world that permits a group of men to enter the tent of a woman living in an IDP camp in Haiti and gang rape her, we are living in a world where an average of 1000 women are raped daily in the Congo. We are living in a world where a little girl in Pakistan will be killed because she has destroyed her villages honour by being raped and we are living in a world where a little girl in Uganda will never receive justice for being raped, because she has been told that it was her fault. These kind of stories should not exist, ever, anywhere. We should never, ever have to hear stories about a 12 year old girl who has been sold into prostitution in Nepal, because her family needs to eat. We should never have to hear about young girls being thrown into rivers because they’ve contracted HIV and are no longer of use to the men who have abducted her. We should never, ever have to hear stories about little girls being kidnapped by human traffickers, because there are hundreds of thousands of men, that need young girls to rape. But yet we do, why?
The silence is deafening.
I have made it my passion to talk with women wherever I go in this world, not only to learn about their experiences in this world and the types of violence they have been exposed to. Their stories have shaped me, inspired me and motivated me to be a voice for women who feel that they are voiceless. And many do feel that they are voiceless. They feel they are without the right to speak their minds, that they are without the right to be treated with dignity and they are without the right to make their own choices in life. In fact, it concerned me greatly when recently a friend from Australia told me that we were ‘lucky’, because we are able to make our own choices. What state of the world are we living in where as woman we find ourselves lucky to have rights. It is for this reason that I chose to start Project MonMa, to be active in the movement for women’s rights but also to be a platform for women to give their voices. The time for change was yesterday and our voices need to be hear loud and clear, we will demand respect, we will demand our rights and we will demand that our voices not be shut away.
Please enjoy the following blog posts from men and women from around the world sharing their experiences of this issue.
By Johanna Higgs,
Project Monma director