I work globally with adolescent girls. My work is often very sad.
I work for and with married adolescents, girls who were married as young as eight years old to adult men. Sometimes they were married off by tradition, as often adolescent girls are considered promiscuous by default. The sad rational is that it is best to get rid of a girl before she shames the family- and shame can result from an act as innocent as flirting. Sometimes the marriage is fueled by poverty and inequality, with parents trying to alleviate economic pressures by reducing the size of their family. Yet other times parents arrange a marriage to protect a girl from sexual assault and violence, as adolescent girls are a target for rape. This is especially common in cultures where laws and social norms blame the survivor and not the perpetrator. Still, there is a tragic irony in marrying a girl as a form of protection, and in the Child Protection Information Sheet the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF) calls child marriage “the most prevalent form of abuse and exploitation of girls.”
I work with other girls too. I work with girls who were trafficked for sex or domestic slavery. I work with girls who have never gone to school. I work with girls who literally eat table scraps, as their value is measured by how much water they can haul; they are rewarded with food accordingly. I work with girls who think that, if a stranger gives them a piece of candy, they are obligated to have sex with him. I work with girls who do not have the tools to navigate their environment, girls who are vulnerable to physical and sexual violence and believe that a man has the right to beat his wife is she burns dinner.
But that’s my professional world, you might say, when you work with adolescents violence against girls just seems to fall out of the sky. But yet my work represents a microcosm of reality, a reality we eliminate by shutting our eyes. If we ignore violence against women and girls, if we shame survivors into denial, if we distort truth through victim blaming and continue to perpetuate a status quo which enables and excuses such actions, then it is easy for us to pretend that such occurrences are few and far between. We can imagine that violence against women and girls happens to those other people, not our daughters, mothers, sisters, aunts and friends. We can pretend that it doesn’t happen to us.
But yet 7 out of 10 women in the world will be raped or beaten in their lifetime. You see, it does happen to us. In fact, it happens to most of us.
In a community I know and love, a community I considered safe, an 11 year old girl was recently married. There was a bride price involved, meaning that the man paid her parents. She cost him less than a new cell phone.
I have friends who have been raped, beaten, circumcised, abducted and forced to marry. These friends are from North America, Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. But they could be from any country in the world.
Last month I visited an orphanage and saw babies saved from female infanticide. One nanny shook her head and told me that “this culture is cruel to its daughters.” I have heard similar phrases in every country I’ve worked.
When I was en route to Ethiopia from a recent US trip, a young Indian-American woman sought me out at our transit hotel. She wanted someone to talk to, as she was traveling alone and intimidated by the journey. Within minutes she confessed that she was on her way to India for a forced marriage arranged by her parents. “They are taking my life,” she whispered as rung her hands, “maybe I should just jump out of my hotel window tonight.”
These issues are complex and, when working as a white western woman in a host culture, I speak from a position of privilege. While I believe that my education and professional background play a role in curtailing violence against girls, I recognize that my experience is worthless without indigenous leaders. Moreover, the guidance of those who have survived violence and who navigate the specific context of their community is priceless. And men are fundamental in creating change, as violence against women and girls is mostly, though not exclusively, perpetrated by men. There are many pieces to this puzzle and being one small piece- and an outside piece that fits a bit oddly- is daunting. Still, I continue because I dream of a world where no girl lives in fear.
And then Eve Ensler comes along and tells us to dance. What? All of these atrocities, all of these tragedies, and some playwright wants us to listen to music and go artsy for the day? I’m up to my neck in early marriage and she is dancing? Well, forget her. I’m going to put my nose to the ground and create change, not fluff. I don’t have time to dance.
Then her movement sinks in and I get it. If I want the girls and women with whom I share my life to rise up, then I need to do some serious rising myself. I know women who have risen up amid the impossible, the horrible, the atrocious and the insurmountable. I can’t tell girls to rise if I myself, a grown woman, haven’t risen. Dancing and listening to music and smiling and laughing and striking and sitting in and sitting out are all ways that we can resist. We resist the violence. We resist the dehumanization. We resist the victimization. We resist the stifling of laughter and love that rape and female genital mutilation set out to accomplish. Instead of falling silent and motionless, we stand up tall and loud. We sing. We dance. We recognize that we are enough.
Today I am rising. And I’ll rise again and again and again, I’ll spend the rest of my life rising because there’s only one way up.
The time is now. And there are so many reasons to rise.