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Setting Yourself on Fire to Keep Others Warm: Why I Fight for Women’s Safety

I heard the screams before I saw her face. Deep, ancient howls. The agony of all women since the beginning of time. My stomach turned, knotted. I did not want to see, but I had no choice. I did not want to know, but somewhere deep, I knew.

I gently pushed aside the partition of plastic bags strung together, held up by twine, tied together at the corners, dust-coated and frayed, quivering at the slightest breeze, ready to disintegrate. Even as the bags shook, the air was dead-still that day.

I handled the grocery-bag barricade carefully, delicately. Like someone’s laundry on a line. But they were not clothes. I did not want to be the one to destroy what had been deliberately constructed — a shield to allow the woman whose voice I heard a sense of dignity, of privacy. To allow her to feel safe.

This plastic was the only protection she had from the outside. The protection I now compromised.

“We need to see where that sound is coming from,” the journalist said.

“We need to know what is going on,” her photographer said.

“You said you’d line this up for us, Lina,” she added.

Yes, this was my job. I worked in humanitarian emergencies — wars, natural disasters, the world’s worst stuff. In those tragedies, I worked with women. And not just any women — women who were survivors of rape. Or at risk of rape. Which in fact is all women.

And yes, part of my job was to work with journalists, reporting what we do, and how we do it.

“You said you’d line this up…” she repeated, as if I needed to be reminded that the journalist was there, in Haiti, to report on rape after the earthquake.

I wondered what, exactly, I was supposed to “line up”? Women who were raped — for them to be revictimized by the international media? This was a part of my job, yes. But it was a part that I despised.

Her howls continued, growing louder. Guttural. Plastic bags now aside, I finally saw her. The girl. The girl behind the howls. She was lying in the dirt, writhing, face contorted, sweat-soaked in her once-white cotton gown, a scrap of fabric that was now brown and tattered on the edges.

The dirt had turned to mud where she lay. A small patch of mud, created by her sweat. Created by her pain.

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