Design a site like this with
Get started

Nailing Jell-O to the wall: Why women don’t report sexual assault

Lina AbiRafeh

That’s right. Women do not report sexual assault. And we’re flooded with stories explaining why, again and again and again.

#WhyIDidntReport isn’t a new hashtag, but it seems to endure — because the situation doesn’t change. And women are NOT reporting. Because… why would they?

The first time I was harassed and tried to report it, I was 21. I was living in Morocco, working on women’s rights — or trying to. Most of the time I was dodging the special attentions of a colleague who liked to pass by my office several times a day and say “You do know you’re beautiful, yes?”

I remember how he made every effort to touch me, long arms reaching out to grab whatever part of me was closest — caressing my shoulders when I was at my desk with my back to the door, touching my thigh as we sat next to each other in a meeting. His hands, I thought, were like the metal arm of the claw machines at amusement parks. And he was everywhere, there was no avoiding him.

“You are beautiful — even if you do not smile very much,” he would say.

One day I finally decided to report him. I was young, naive, and wasn’t sure of the proper procedures or what might come of it, but I had already endured many months of his tentacle-like behavior and I could not take one more minute.

I went to the director to complain. It might have been 27 years ago, but I’ll never forget the dialogue.

“There’s something making me uncomfortable,” I fumbled, while trying to explain that I was harassed on the streets, near my home, and, on top of it all, in the office.

“Oh Lina!” he responded, “but you’re Arab, you should understand how Moroccan men are!”

My face went blank. He continued.

“You see, this is your first experience in The Field…”

Somehow, The Field is a place where all actions are excusable. And where my plea for a safe workplace was a lost cause.

“Ah, Lina. You’re young yet. This is all part of being a woman working abroad.”

“But surely I don’t have to — ”

“What do you want me to do, Lina?” Before I could answer, he continued. “Shall I confront him?!” He chuckled. Was his response funny?

I wish I could say that I was surprised in that moment. It was a response I could have anticipated. Perhaps I had been naïve in hoping for an ally. And some concrete action.

“OK, Lina. So let’s say I confront him. No man would admit to it!”

“It would be…” he paused for a second, as if searching for the right thing to say. “It would be like nailing Jell-o to the wall.”

Nailing Jell-o to the wall. I had never heard that expression before, but I’ve never forgotten it.

This isn’t just Morocco, isn’t just my office, isn’t just one “bad guy”, but rather everyone, everywhere, all the time, from the obvious to the hidden — even the “nice guy”. Even that guy can have a creep living inside.

And why don’t we report? Well, that would be like nailing Jell-o to the wall.

I took this to the TikTokers, with a short rant about why women don’t report.

And, in true TikTok fashion, the comments came in all over again. Comments like “RIGHT” and “Exactly” and “That’s so much truer today.”

And more…

They spoke about having to relive trauma. One person said, “Once that trauma is over, then you have to relive it again and be degraded every time you tell them. That “second crime” haunts me as much as the assaults.” Another added, “I did report my second assault at the age of 21. It was the most humiliating experience I’ve ever gone through.”

A common refrain was the unacceptable and insignificant consequences for the perpetrator. “Totally pointless,” said one comment, “because nothing will happen to the man, only the woman,” said another. Sometimes the perpetrator knows the police, or is able to bribe them. Yes, this actually happens.

One comment expressed the views of many who believe that “this poor young man’s life” will be ruined, while she will “live with the trauma for the rest of her life.” Indeed, perpetrators get very light sentences — if any. And even less if they happen to be white. There’s an undeniable racial element here as well. The lack of justice in the case of the Stanford rapist-who-also-swims is an egregious example.

And even when we do report, what happens? Usually nothing.

“I did report my abuser, my grandfather, when I was 8. He had been a serial rapist and pedophile and had abused almost every woman and child in our family since the mid 50s. No one stood up with me and backed me up. They all lied for him… In the years since, dozens of people… have come forward and confirmed everything I said. So he made it to 66 before he was “caught.” He didn’t have any legal ramifications…”

And the statistics back this up. In the US, for every 1000 rapes, 995 perpetrators will go unpunishedRape Crisis UK reported that only 1 in 100 rapes recorded by the police resulted in a charge that same year. The organization also highlighted that 5 in 6 women who are raped do not report. And it’s not just women. Four in 5 men do not report either, citing embarrassment, humiliation, and lack of trust in the police.

In short, justice systems are failing us. Because, in the words of one TikToker, “the ‘justice system’ isn’t just, so what’s the point?”

Predictably, the element of shame came up because, shockingly, we still shame and blame the woman.

“A trusted adult told me not to say anything because “my parents will never look at me the same.” Another person said, “I remember not telling anyone until I was 50. I was 8. Teach your kids to trust you.”

Another reason was disbelief and denial, “or because the issue would be shoved under the rug, dismissed or the victim shamed to SHUT HER UP.” Another added, “I asked for help to get a manager to accept rejection and quit trying to woo me. They rallied as if I filed a fake sexual assault claim. I eventually resigned.”

And another: “It took me 8 years to be heard… No one cared.”

Why don’t we report?! One person summed it up: “Because I didn’t want to be told it was my fault.”

Anyway, no matter how many women do report, and how many do experience sexual assault, there will always be one guy who claims it’s fake. False reports are significantly overestimated, yet receive a huge amount of media attention. Studies reveal false reports are “consistently very low” with rates ranging from 2% to 10%.

So yes false reporting of sexual assault does occur, as with any crime, but it is incredibly rare. And anyway, what’s the satisfaction, really? Perpetrators hardly ever face justice, they are seldom given strong sentences, and they continue with their lives — perhaps even gaining notoriety and celebrity status. Meanwhile, women are ostracized and blamed and shamed and shunned. And slammed on social media.

Ultimately, the real rates of sexual assault far outnumber the reported rates. This happens far more frequently than we know. To all of us.

Accurate statistics are incredibly difficult to get — because women don’t report. According to RAINN, an American is sexually assaulted every 68 seconds. Yet, rates of reporting do not reflect this.

A study found 63% of sexual assaults are not reported to police. The NSVRC — National Sexual Violence Resource Center — found that 40% of rapes and sexual assaults were reported to police in 2017, but only 25% were reported in 2018.

Rape is the most underreported crime. In the US, it is estimated that only 19% of rapes, completed or attempted, are reported annually. Globally, there are vast discrepancies between laws, definitions, implementation, and reporting mechanisms.

Even though reporting services are abysmal, societal responses are poor, and many women feel a certain degree of hopelessness, one commented, “It’s time we take over and change things.”

Another added that “there should be advocates that stand by victims to help fight with them, like taking your big sister with you.”

“Exactly,” one person said. “Never underestimate the power of women.”

Read full article here.

You don’t have to go far to do good: In conversation with Julia Gillard

Lina AbiRafeh

I recently had the honor of being interviewed by feminist pioneer and former Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard. She is now the Chair of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London, where I am a member of the Advisory Council. She is also known for delivering her famous misogyny speech — a lesson in how to fight back, because we all should be offended by sexism.

The full conversation can be found here. Below are some highlights.

Now you’ve described yourself as born into conflict and always comfortable with chaos. Can you tell us about the early years that enabled you to say that and how they set you on the path for the work you do today?

Being born a woman already means facing a certain amount of conflict, realizing at a certain age that the world views you as less than, as second class. So for me that is already a type of conflict. Also, I am Lebanese and Palestinian so I have two war zones behind me. And I was raised between Saudi Arabia and the United States, so I’m all sorts of hyphens and complications, which means I really had to figure out who I was and what I stood for. For me, being a woman, being a fighter, feeling very strongly about social justice before I could even put a label on it — Feminism was my country. That’s where my loyalty is. And that’s really how it all started.

Now you’ve dedicated your career to ending gender-based violence. How did you first get involved with this work?

It takes a while to understand that this is something ingrained in all of us as women and girls, we’re constantly told to be careful and to watch what we do, where we go, who we interact with, what we’re wearing. From an early age the message is that we’re unsafe, and that safety is our responsibility. And so you feel this burden, the idea that your freedom, your mobility, your voice, your choice are constricted. Your opportunities are limited because the world views you in a certain way, and you are constantly at risk.

That message comes across very clearly to young girls, and certainly came across to me. I was 14 years old, in high school, and I signed up for a class called Comparative Women’s History. The class wasn’t about women’s history as much as the history of violence against women, from the foetus to the funeral, and everything in between. And in every single country, including here in the US, everywhere, all the time, in every place and space.

For me it was overwhelming. I had never heard anything like that. I could not imagine the magnitude of intimate partner violence, or how we used to break our ribs to fit into corsets, body image and mutilations fueled by patriarchy, female genital mutilation, bride burning, acid burning, rape as a weapon of war, all forms of violence.

I was furious. It was that anger that got me going. I realized then that nothing is possible for us, as women, as long as this continues, as long as I feel that restriction on my freedom and my possibilities, as long as I have to constantly worry about my safety and feel like I’m always at risk, how can I ever achieve anything in my life? So that became the starting point for me. Fix that first and then let’s talk about all the other stuff. And we’re still fighting the same thing.

Sounds like you didn’t imagine back then that the pathway was going to be this long, if it was fix that first, that sort of implies you thought we’d get this done?

I was 14 and angry — but also hopeful. This new knowledge was as devastating as it was fueling. And now, I’m old, and I’m still screaming until I lose my voice. But I look at younger women, and I wonder what world we are leaving for them? Every day there are new cases, new incidents at the micro and the macro level. I have a niece who is 8. How do I look her in the eye and say, “I tried to make things better for you. But I’m sorry, I failed.”

What more can women do who are listening to this podcast? Using their social media presence is good, and amplifies the messages, but are there practical things people can do?

There are always organizations to support. I write a blog every week and try to point people towards concrete action.

It’s one thing for us to not be aware, although I think that there’s no longer an excuse for that. We’re hyper aware of what is happening in the world. Then once you are aware, you should be angry — or you’re asleep. It’s impossible to not care about these things as they go on around us — and happen to us. It’s impossible to say, well, that’s just other women, or that’s over there. Not me, not here, not now. No, we all are responsible. It is here and it is now. Every single time I write about any country, I say here’s what’s happening, here’s why you should care, here’s why we should be angry, and here’s what we can do about that anger. I like tangible action and want to promote credible organizations. They need our support.

We know that one in three women worldwide experience gender-based violence. As someone who’s advocated for women’s rights globally, how do you persuade people who think it’s someone else’s problem?

Look at intimate partner violence, the most common form worldwide, affecting so many more women than we know. Women are mostly silent about it because what incentive is there to speak out unless you’re going to be protected, with access to security, with the possibility for justice. Too often, everywhere, women don’t have those things. Intimate partner violence is a silent pandemic.

Look at sexual harassment. Certainly the #MeToo movement made some great strides in exposing the magnitude of the problem. And everybody with connectivity, with certain resources, was paying attention. Everybody was MeToo-ing, everybody has a story. When you stop and listen to that, it was overwhelming. Every woman I know a story. I certainly have a story.

When we have those conversations, we realize the painful ordinariness of this. Look at how we talk to our girls about where and how they move in the world — on the street, with keys in their hands, and so on. Whatever types of restrictions we place on the freedoms and mobilities and choices of women and girls. Even the fear of violence is a form of violence — and we have all internalized it.

Look at young women when they’re out saying “come with me to the bathroom” or “call me when you get home” or “be careful” or “don’t talk to him” or “keep your eye on your drink all the time.” It’s exhausting having to live with all of that fear. For me that is already a crime. Women know this, they know how common it is. And we all have accepted this as part of what it means to be a woman. I say no, that is not the way to live. That is not the way any of us should live.

Our right is to be free, and to have respect, and dignity, and equal share of space and resources and opportunities — but we don’t. We live very small. When people start to see those things and talk to each other, then it becomes a different conversation. We talk about things like the increase in sexual violence and intimate partner violence in the aftermath of an emergency. The emergency is right here! Hurricane Katrina was right here in our backyard. COVID is a great example. The assumption that “stay home” means “stay safe” was naive. Home is not safe for far too many women. I get chills just telling you about it — and I talk about it every day. It is just so unbearably common.

Lina, you’ve got an incredible energy, how do you keep your spirits up? Decades into this work, I can feel the power of that energy, even as we work on Zoom. How do you keep doing it?

Oh, it’s the anger. It’s the feeling that things should have been better by now. This constant shock I have every morning waking up to these stories, as if it’s happening all over again. And the weird thing is, it’s gotten harder for me, not easier, in terms of my level of frustration, and fury, and sorrow. I look at girls and I think we should have done better for you. Not that the onus was all on me or on us to fix everything, but the idea that the world shouldn’t be like this. And it’s that sense of injustice that I can never swallow. And that’s how I keep going.

But now I’ve morphed, I do it in different ways. I used to be in the field in the thick of it, in an emergency. Now, in the last couple of years, I do this from New York. A little bit of distance for self preservation. Still, I will scream until I lose my voice. I do it now, through advising, and blogging, and speaking, and just howling into the void. And if one person listens, that’s already good.

Who are the women who have inspired you along the way?

I was raised by feminists, even though they wouldn’t label themselves that way. My late grandmother on the Palestinian side fought for an education, managed to go to college, and today her 1938 diploma hangs on my wall. She is a reminder of what women who push boundaries can do. I was raised with that story and that legacy of strength. My parents reinforced those messages of financial independence and didn’t let me play with dolls “because I could do much more,” my mother would say.

But there are so many women who inspire me all the time. Young women, women whose names we don’t know, who are out on the streets, or in their classrooms or in their homes, pushing those boundaries. They are more clear about what is not acceptable about the lives that they want and about the rights that they have.

In your fabulous TED talk, you talk about this expression, ‘start where you stand.’ Can you tell us the story of how you came across that phrase and what it means to you?

Oh, that was such a powerful moment. I was deployed to Nepal after the earthquake in 2015 to work on sexual violence prevention and response, trying to provide support and relief and recovery and looking at the systems and services to get women to safety. That was actually my last emergency.

I was walking to the UN office where I was stationed at five o’clock in the morning, and came across this graffiti. And that’s what it said: Start where you stand. And I thought, this is exactly what I’ve been wanting to say my whole life, but could not have put it better than this spray painted piece of wisdom.

Because people ask me all the time what they can do. They say “I want to do something, but I don’t want to go to Afghanistan or Chad or places you went.” I tell them that they don’t have to, because, unfortunate for us, this problem is everywhere, all around us, all the time.

If you look at the space you occupy — your home, or your school, or the street or the market, or your office or public office — whatever space you have, whatever platform you have, you can take that space and make it feminist.

There are opportunities for work and there are violations of rights everywhere. So by Start where you stand, what I thought my graffiti artist was trying to tell me was that we don’t have to go far to do good. The need is so overwhelming that it is all around us. And if we all took responsibility for our little spaces, then maybe that effort is contagious. Maybe we will see some change in our lifetime.

You don’t have to go far to do good. I love it.

Virginia Woolf says, As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, I want no country, as a woman, my country is the world. The wonderful Lina says…

For me, being a woman is the most important aspect of my identity. Feminism is my country, and no loyalty supersedes this. This is the most important role I have, the most important space I occupy, it is what I love, what I believe in. It is what I hope by now I am good at. And it is my duty to do it. If I can do one good thing for one young woman or make one tiny dent, then I have done something. And that for me is enough.

Full article available here and Podcast available through Spotify or Apple.

When was the first time… ??

Lina AbiRafeh

So this week I got on TikTok. Yes. Am I the last person to join?! Probably.

Here was my first blip:

Do you remember the first time that you were touched or spoken to in a way that made you uncomfortable? In a way that you didn’t consent to? I do. I was 7. Now I’m 47 and I’m still angry about it.

So why don’t you tell me your stories? I’m gonna put something together because I think that everyone needs to hear it, because it is about all of us. It’s everyone, everywhere, it’s all the time. And I’ve had enough.

And then the floodgates opened.

First time I remember, I was 3 … but it started at birth. I’m 41.

Had this little boy in the neighborhood that would punch me if I didn’t kiss him. It starts young.

I was 5. Now I’m 55 and I’m far more than pissed. Many times it starts at home.

I was 7 and this boy kept bothering me. He was kinda the definition of a nice guy. He would never leave me alone tho…

And so many more. How many stories do we need, I wonder? We often say “even one case is one too many” — I still believe that. But we also need a thousand — or a million — cases to ignite ourselves into action, it seems.

The stories wouldn’t stop coming in.

Around the same age. What I also feel sorry about, is how even when I was a lot older I still ‘let it happen’. Internalized the ‘it’s the victim’s fault’-rhetoric and was more worried about what would happen to me than him if anyone found out.

And so we say again, again, again: there’s only one person to blame here — that’s the perpetrator. No one else. Ever.

And just as I had finished posting on TikTok, a friend sent me this:

Omg perfect timing a guy just stopped while I was waiting to cross the street to make pussy licking gestures at me and i just yelled at him to leave women the fuck alone and stop being a disgusting impotent pervert.

And another one sent this:

I was 14 and working in an Italian restaurant with 3 other friends. The boss would frequently come downstairs from the attic with his trousers undone which made us all terribly uncomfortable. There would be the odd brush of the hand in inappropriate places and always finding excuses to stand pressed against us. One day I had written “maths homework” on my hand in pink pen. He came over, took my hand and slowly licked all over the writing. I was so shocked and terrified I stood rooted to the spot.

There’s something wrong with the world when EverySingleWoman has a story, right?!

I want to be constructive here, to provide ideas on how to teach consent, on talking to kids about safe vs unsafe touching. In a previous blog, I interviewed my now 8-year old niece to get her thoughts on what it means to be a girl or a boy.

My sister — her mother — explained to me that they started teaching her about consent from day one:

We started giving her the right messages from the very beginning. “Nobody can touch you,” we told her. On the first day of preschool… “nobody can touch you.” In kindergarten… “nobody can touch you.” Do mothers of sons say the same? I hope so. And do they also tell them it’s inappropriate to touch girls? No, they probably did not. So you’ve left it to me to have this conversation with her over and over and over for the rest of her life, because it’s always going to be her responsibility to manage her own security, and her fault if she doesn’t.

My niece responded:

[Boys and girls] are exactly the same and equal… we get the same respect and we need to get the same peace.

She gets it.

But still, I worry for young girls. I want to believe that my niece is far smarter than I was at age 8, but she is inheriting a fundamentally unequal world, one where her body and her rights are not her own.

What can we do?

We cannot make any assumptions about the availability and quality of sex education in schools. Actually, it’s probably safe to assume there’s not enough of it. At the same time, we need to teach children about their bodies — and about their agency. Conversations about personal responsibility, boundaries, harmful gender stereotypes, harassment have to start young. And have to start at home. And start young. Develop a vocabulary that is clear and consistent. Explore emotions — and normalize their expressions. Introduce consent in a relatable way — and discuss it often.

There’s research and evidence for this, of course. It’s critical for prevention — if we ever have any hope of prevention, that is.

What’s my point here?! There are more stories than we can manage. And yes it’s everyone, everywhere, all the damn time.

In response to that, someone wrote:

If it’s everyone everywhere all the time why even try to change it… I’m not saying it’s not wrong, I’m saying we can’t fix it.

And before I had a chance to respond, this rebuttal came flying in:

Are u kidding? Yeah u can by teaching people (mainly boys) from a young age about consent and just raising them right. Why should we just accept it?

Now… relax everyone. I’m not saying that this only happens to women and girls. But, damn, it happens to women and girls a whole lot more than it happens to men and boys. And this is a fact. We know it to be true from ample research and anecdotal evidence.

I decided to ask a few men the same question anyway.

Why are you asking me this weird question? One said.

Look, I get your point here, and I’m sure it’s happened to boys, but it hasn’t ever happened to me or to any men or boys that I know, another one explained.

I guess that’s where the church comes in, another man said. And he laughed.

Do you tell your son to be careful, to tell you if anything happens, to learn about consent, to understand the difference between safe and unsafe touching… and all that stuff? I asked a father of an 11-year old boy.

No, we didn’t. We told him to not keep secrets from us but that’s about it. If anything happens, I think he’ll tell me.

One man wrote to me with a vastly different response:

Your question really bothers me. Whenever I’ve seen anything like this, just like your answer, most women give an age younger than 10. The worst part is it’s someone who had regular access to them — uncle, older cousin, brother’s friend, parents’ friend, etc. It’s really sad and disgusting. Being a girl can be difficult.

So my story is about a girlfriend I had in high school. We started dating when she was 15. I later found out that her dad had been molesting her and her sister since she was 8. This was my first exposure to what rape is, and at my age (16), I had no idea what to do or say.

Want more stories?! No. Enough.

Listen, I’m sick of it. I’m sick of the stories. I’m sickened by the stories. And I’m sick of having to share our stories over, over, over and to still not be believed.

Read the full piece here.

“Humanitarian Day”… and we’re still harassed

Lina AbiRafeh

Today is World Humanitarian Day, a day we celebrate people who help people. I used to be one of those people, so I’ve got a lot to say about it.

Firstly, the backstory. World Humanitarian Day was born out of tragedy. On 19 August 2003, a bomb attack in Iraq killed 22 humanitarian aid workers. In 2008, the United Nations designated 19 August as World Humanitarian Day.

That’s today. Again.

Today we’re supposed to renew our commitment to advocate for those affected by crisis — while also not compromising our safety and security in the process. And we are at risk — this is undeniable.

In 2021, 460 aid workers were attacked: 140 killed, 203 wounded, and 117 kidnapped.

But there are other risks, too.

Three years ago, a group of female humanitarians — friends, colleagues, women I admire whose work has spanned decades and regions — got together to discuss. The result was an impromptu social media poll with over 600 responses in a matter of days.

What challenges do you face in the field, we asked?

41% of respondents said sexual harassment was their biggest concern.

We couldn’t leave it there. Individually and collectively, we four had been working to promote women’s rights and gender equality in the countries we’d worked in — and within the system itself. And in all our experience, we continuously argued that aid agencies should be — claim to be! — champions for gender equality but that female employees face violence and discrimination from within the system.

This isn’t just us — there’s tons of research to back this up.

We had spent hours, days, years in the field lamenting the “cowboy culture” of our humanitarian work, where women are told that they must “handle” the harsh realities of the work — or find a job elsewhere.

We released an article on 19 August 2019. That year, World Humanitarian Day was dedicated to women — the “unsung heroes”. We argued that praise rings hollow without real change — and even more so when the women they celebrate are victims of the system.

Our article — Praise for female aid workers rings hollow when harassment is pervasive — is now three years old. It’s worth asking… What has changed?

In our article, we noted that respondents — our colleagues — felt that the system rewards sexism and discrimination and hides abuses, while simultaneously paying lip service to “gender equality”.

Violence and discrimination exists within aid agencies — it exists everywhere. But aid agencies lack safe and confidential reporting mechanisms.

More than 400 women shared stories describing a culture of sexual exploitation and discrimination — where they are mocked for arguing in favor of their own safety and forced to tolerate the “boys club” culture that pervades. They shared being denied opportunities like equal pay, benefits, and protections — simply because they are women.

We noted that the discrimination we face is layered. National women and those with intersecting marginalized identities face much greater obstacles than expatriate women.

Some women were told they were “too young and too pretty” to be managing complex emergencies — and perhaps should serve as the admin instead.

Gosh! What do women want?!

Our article outlined solutions. Like equal treatment, greater leadership, and, ultimately, a shift in the humanitarian culture.

We want to dismantle the unequal distribution of power.

We said it then — and we still want it.

Read the full article here.

Afghanistan One Year Later — and the story of one Afghan woman

Lina AbiRafeh

One year ago today — on August 15, 2021 — Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. Again.

We all know the story of how Afghanistan, after two decades of aid and military support, unfathomable amounts of money, numerous elections, and many feeble attempts at peace, returned in 2021 to where it had been in 2001 — under the suffocating rule of a regime known as the Taliban.

I will, however, tell the story from the perspective of women, the ones who have been — and continue to be — most affected by this story. Here, we will begin with a so-called peace deal that betrayed women, bargaining their rights away. A deal made between men, all with blood on their hands. It is a story that, for Afghan women, came full circle.

Last year, as Afghanistan was falling, I reached out to my friend Aziza, women’s rights leader and partner from my time in Afghanistan. I asked how she was, and how the women’s movement would fare. The full conversation was published in my 2022 book, Freedom on the Frontlines.

On 11 June 2021, Aziza wrote:

Things are not going to get any better. We feel stuck in a vicious cycle and fear from this precarious situation. Aid has ended and NGOs have long been closed. We will not have achieved what we had hoped. What we set out to do. What we started to do. And now we have to adapt to whatever that may come in order to survive.

On 16 June, I published a piece on CNN arguing that the US rhetoric of liberation that animated their invasion nearly 20 years ago had fallen short of its goal. This built on an argument I made in my 2008 doctoral thesis and later in my 2009 book, Gender and International Aid in Afghanistan. There, and again here, I argued that the status of Afghan women was used as the barometer to assess social change, and that the promise of freedom had fallen short.

The $780 million the US spent to promote women’s rights in Afghanistan was about to go to waste, I explained, as the hasty withdrawal of US troops would likely lead to greater human rights violations, more school closures and increased violence against women. The voices I heard from Afghanistan were fearful. Women’s rights were hanging in the balance. Again.

Two decades of investment in women undoubtedly did achieve many goals: schools reopened for girls, giving them access to education, including university. Women had access to employment. They worked, flew planes, joined the military, became government ministers, and more.

But gains were patchy. Progress was perpetually met by major backlashes, a resurgence of a fundamentalist order, and more violence against women. Rural women still lived in Taliban-controlled areas, under severe restrictions. They did not benefit from these improvements. Opportunities for work, health care, or education never reached them.

On 22 June, Aziza told me this:

We could have predicted this. Patriarchy is so embedded in the culture and roots. There is need for gender awareness, education, and prolonged efforts to change what generations of men in power have created. The work that was done during the last two decades was not enough to change the fundamentals. It provided a short-term relief to what women had suffered during Taliban, but it could get worse when there is no more intervention.

On 24 June, I was invited to speak on CNN, building from my article. I was asked how serious things were for Afghan women. Very serious, I explained. At that point we had already heard of greater human rights violations, more school closures, increased violence against women. It was just getting started — things would get worse.

At that time, despite gains made, two-thirds of girls remained out of school, 70 percent of Afghan women and girls still could not read or write, and more than 80 percent of Afghan women and girls experienced abuse. Most of this took place in the home. Women’s security in the home is a reflection of the security in the country. If women cannot be safe at home, they’re not safe at all. And if women are not safe, then no one is safe. This, I have long argued, should be the barometer by which the entire intervention is judged.

Afghan women are incredibly strong. They have always demonstrated that strength, along with incredible courage and resilience. They always had strong voices and the ability to use them. But, are we listening? They have powerful voices, but they have no microphone. Did we do all we could to amplify their voices as they articulated their own needs? Did we even meet those needs?

On 10 August, US intelligence warned that it would take 30–90 days for the Taliban to topple the government and occupy Kabul. The city fell five days later.

Aziza wrote to me, explaining that progress made through international intervention was patchy — and only for the urban elite. Rural women’s lives hardly changed. If anything, Aziza explained, “financial aid may have fed their families, but the patriarchy remained.” And, she added, “today they are under the same abuse — or even worse.”

On 15 August 2021, the Taliban reached Kabul.

Read the full article here.

Body Negative To Body Positive:  Shaking Off The Effects Of Social Media’s Body And Beauty Ideals

Kate Eisenreich

Sometime in eighth grade, when I was about thirteen, after begging my parents for the longest time, I was finally allowed to join my friends on the popular photo sharing social media app, Instagram. I loved being able to connect with my friends. I loved watching videos of social media influencers trying the latest makeup trends. I loved being able to finally understand internet meme culture. Using the app was really fun for me. I shared photos of myself and looked at pictures of my friends on it. It was, however, also the first time that I really thought about how I looked. When you like a post on Instagram, the app is designed to show you more of that content and similar content in your feed. Because I liked fashion and makeup, I was unknowingly pushing women, using tons of photoshop and plastic surgery and claiming it was natural, into my feed. Comparing my posts to those of  these influencers and models made me feel inadequate. The app showed me posts claiming to fix my perceived inadequacies and make me more beautiful. These posts encouraged viewers to go on unhealthy diets, workout to change the shape of one’s body, and monitor the amount of calories one consumed. Still quite young and quite impressionable, these things affected me and when I looked in the mirror, and I wondered if I was good enough, pretty enough, and skinny enough. I began to worry about what others saw when they looked at me in real life.

 Luckily, around the same time the body positivity movement, a social movement preaching self-love and acceptance of different bodies, sprung up. I began to see women’s bodies highlighted positively and realistically, sans filters. I began to realize that the internet had warped my perception of myself in an unhealthy way. I slowly began to patch over my fissures of Instagram-instigated insecurity and learned to love myself and my body. Despite my own healing, I still saw many of my peers struggling with body image. I watched a distant friend of mine receive treatment of an eating disorder. And she was not alone. Globally, from 2000 to 2018, the percentage of the population with eating disorders increased from 3.4% to 7.8%. Around two-thirds of those diagnosed with eating disorders are women. 

Scientists have linked social media to eating disorders. A study found that Facebook users who compare themselves to others while using Facebook are more likely to suffer from disordered eating or body dissatisfaction. Interestingly, a user who does not engage in unhealthy comparisons while using Facebook is also more likely to suffer from disordered eating or body dissatisfaction. So, whether you believe that content displaying body or beauty ideals is affecting you, by simply consuming mainstream media, your brain will begin to adopt these beauty standards.  Researchers found that on YouTube, around one third of content discussing anorexia can be described as “pro-anorexia”. Additionally, there is a directly proportional linkbetween the amount of time a user spends on social media and their risk for an eating disorder. This link becomes even more apparent when the sample is limited to only teen girls and young women, who, as a demographic, are more likely to engage in social media usage for longer periods of time and more often. Worldwide, the average amount of time spent on social networking sites by internet users has increased from 90 minutes to 147 minutes a day. The increase in amount of time spent on social media will likely result in an increase in low body satisfaction and eating disorders if we do not change our exposure to the way social media portrays body and beauty ideals. 

From encouraging dangerous cosmetic procedures, to causing a global uptick in eating disorders, to pushing western beauty ideals to larger audiences, social media can be a dangerous place for perception of body image. And while social media is slowly becoming more diverse and realistic, this is only true if a user actively seeks more varied representation their feed. The idea that thin white cisgender able-bodied people are the epitome of beauty still permeates much of the content we consume. To protect all social media users, especially young women who may be more susceptible to social media’s influence, we must help to create and promote content that portrays a variety body types, does so realistically, and holds influencers accountable for not being transparent about cosmetic procedures and photoshop.  And ultimately, we must undo the negative effect social media has already wrought by actively fighting against rigid, unattainable body and beauty ideals within our own communities.

Contact the Eating Disorder Hotline if you are struggling with an eating disorder.  

Sexual violence in conflict and everywhere

Lina AbiRafeh

The last few weeks I’ve been talking about violence against women both in conflict and humanitarian settings and also in everyday life post-COVID. Actually, I’ve been talking about violence against women for over 30 years. And we’ve been dealing with it since the beginning of time.

I often wonder if this talking is actually doing anything. But then again, silence certainly isn’t an option. So here we go.

Sunday June 19 was the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict.

Why do we need a day for this?

There is a day for just about everything — including World Toilet Day. Yes, really.

International days or anniversaries are important times to raise awareness, reflect on progress, show solidarity, mobilize political will, and collectively howl into the void about how far we have yet to go.

Secretly, I hate these days. I wish we didn’t need to have them. And this day to eliminate sexual violence in conflict most of all.

The UN Security Council first recognized sexual violence as a weapon and tactic of war in 2008 with resolution 1820. In 2015 the UN officially declared June 19 as the day to eliminate sexual violence in conflict.

The definition of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV) includes “rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilization, forced marriage and any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity” and can be perpetrated against women, men, girls or boys — directly or indirectly linked to a conflict.

This gruesome form of violence usually targets civilians and inflicts lifelong trauma that rips at the social fabric of already precarious and fragile societies.

CRSV is rife in humanitarian settings given political disruption, the breakdown of law, unstable economic conditions, rising inequality, increased militarization, and the disintegration of social security nets.

In short — chaos.

It can happen to anyone — but women and girls are disproportionately affected. And women peacebuilders and human rights defenders are often specifically targeted because of their visibility — and their work.

Why does this happen?

Unfortunately, the reason is the same everywhere, all the time — whether in conflict or not. We live in societies that are overwhelmingly patriarchal, and where deeply-rooted gender discrimination and systemic inequality persist.

This isn’t just conflict — it’s everywhere. And it’s not just “over there” — it’s right here.

say this time and again.

The global statistic 1 in 3 women and girls will experience some form of violence in their lifetime is not only true, it is likely underestimating the reality. And most of that violence is intimate partner violence.

It is an everyday experience for most women everywhere.

Conflict situations serve to compound existing forms of violence — especially sexual violence and harmful practices like girl-child marriage. But we can do better to prevent these things from happening — or at least to mitigate the risks faced by women and girls. And if we tackle this before conflict, we reduce the likelihood of its occurrence during and after conflict.

So… exactly how much progress have we made in eliminating sexual violence in conflict?

Crimes often go unreported due to fear and cultural stigma, lack of trust in authorities, or because of the disintegration of safety and services. It is estimated that for every rape reported in conflict, 10–20 go undocumented.

But we do know that it happens. And the list of places where sexual violence has been used as a tactic of war is LONG.

From Bosnia to the DRC, from Haiti to Rwanda, from Iraq to Sudan… I could go on, but you get my point.

Given the prevalence of systematic sexual violence against women in ongoing conflicts — TigraySyriaUkraine, and Myanmar to name but a few — it would seem we a) have learned nothing and b) are nowhere near its elimination.

Take Ukraine just as one example. According to a study, in Ukraine 62% of displaced women experienced intimate partner violence at home while 1 in 5 experienced violence at the hands of armed men.

The International Committee of the Red Cross maintains sexual violence in conflict is seldom an isolated issue. Sexual violence is part of a larger pattern of violence that can include torture, killing, looting, and child recruitment. It can also result in the emergence of new forms of violence, such as survival sex and trafficking.

We do a lot of talk about sexual violence in conflict. We read a lot of media reports gasping in horror — and often re-victimizing those they claim to be helping. We hear a lot of ‘condemnations’ through UN resolutions and reports. We see a lot of violent images. We know that such violence is punishable under various international laws.

So far very little of this has resulted in concrete change on the ground. I know this because I spent decades working in this field.

And so far, this crime continues to happen, very often with total impunity.

So, where does that leave us? Another international day and not a lot of progress. In the end, these international days come and go — and they are just one day, after all. But for women in conflict, sexual violence is not isolated to a day, or a tweet, or a UN condemnation or a petition to sign. It is a constant fear. A daily reality. A frightening byproduct of war — wars waged by men on the bodies of women.

It is not an International Day. It is every damn day.

And I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to sit around waiting. We need action.

It’s so much bigger than me, I hear you say. Yes, it is. It is big.

There’s no way I can possibly help, I hear you say. Nope, that’s not true.

There is always something you can do. And — we all have to do something.

So, what can we do, like, really?!

Click here to read what you can do.

We think COVID is over… but not for women

Lina AbiRafeh

Last week I wrote about surviving a crisis. I shared my learnings from work in emergency humanitarian aid over two decades and how it might be relevant in our daily, hopefully less urgent, lives.

At the same time, in January of 2020, we were all in it together when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared an international public health emergency. Whether or not you feel this was warranted — I know the jury is still out on how we all responded to this crisis — the reality is that over 6.3 million people have died, a disproportionate amount of which have been in the US.

Most people would argue that COVID is over. We are, in many ways, in the era AC — After COVID. But for whom is it over, really? And who is going to bear the brunt of this pandemic for years to come?


For whatever you might think of our almost-normal lives, women (1) have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and (2) will continue to pay a significant socio-economic toll.

Let’s start with the gender gap. That’s the distance we’ve got between men and women for equality — looking at health, education, politics, and the economy.

In the era BC, Before COVID, the gender gap was 100 years. Meaning, we’d need 100 years to achieve equality in those areas I mentioned. Now, we need 136 years. The gap has increased a whole generation because of COVID. And it’s even wider at the regional level, where inequalities are magnified.

Overall, the pandemic led 97 million more people into poverty in 2020. The virus, increasing inflation, and the Ukraine conflict will lead to an additional 75 million to 95 million people in extreme poverty in 2022.

That’s a lot of millions of people. What does that actually mean?! Poverty means a lack of access to basic needs such as food, water, housing, healthcare, and education. In terms of measurement, according to the World Bank extreme poverty is measured as the number of people living under $1.90 per day.

In the economy, divisions are stark. The pandemic resulted in lost jobs for women — who already hold the majority of insecure, informal and lower-paying jobs. An estimated 740 million women work in the informal economy. During the first month of the pandemic, it is estimated that informal workers lost an average of 60% of their income. Informal jobs are the first to disappear in times of crisis and as one example, 72% of domestic workers worldwide lost their jobs as a result of COVID.

Globally, women already perform three times more unpaid care work than men. As a result of the pandemic, men and women both report an increase in unpaid work but it is women who continue to be burdened with the bulk of it. And more specifically, when schools closed, 61.5% of mothers took on the brunt of additional care work — it’s been called a “momcession”.

Formally, women are the majority of healthcare workers and frontline workers. They constitute 70% of the world’s healthcare force which has exposed them to greater risk of infection and other health issues.

In the first year of the pandemic, the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25%, prompted largely by the unprecedented levels of stress caused by isolation measures. Also linked was loneliness, fear, grief, and people’s inability to work. Or to function productively. Data indicates that women were more severely impacted than men, with mental health issues that will take a long while to address. In the US, Total Brain — a self-monitoring mental health platform — found 83% of their women users reported a significant increase in depression, compared with just 36% of men. And 98% of women are at risk of general anxiety disorder compared to 67% of men.

In terms of education, an estimated 10 million children may never return to school as a result of the pandemic — more girls than boys. Girls face a vicious cycle of risk, impacted by all forms of violence — particularly forced marriage and teenage pregnancy — which increases the longer they are out of school.

Girls are left behind to take on greater roles at home, and also to get married. The pandemic means we will see an additional 10 million girl-child marriages because, in order to offload the economic burden, families will have no choice but to sell off their girls. Female genital mutilation is also increasing, with 2 million additional cases likely to occur as a result of COVID.

Adult women are also severely impacted by COVID-related violence. Since the outbreak, data and reports show how all forms of violence against women and girls have increased. We already know that 1 in 3 women worldwide will experience some form of violence in their lifetime. We already know that this figure drastically underestimates reality.

Worldwide, the most common form of violence against women is intimate partner violence. Isolation measures meant many people were trapped with their abusers. Increased demand for services exposed the weaknesses in current support systems. They were never strong enough to begin with, even BC. Ultimately, the global health crisis took priority, reallocating already-scant resources for women’s health and safety. In any emergency, these are usually the first to go, and the last to return.

This “shadow pandemic” has been extensively documented all around the world, with more stories still emerging. And this type of violence doesn’t just go away once the pandemic is declared “over.” In fact, intimate partner violence happens in a cycle because it is hardly ever “over.” Over the long term, poverty and lack of education will drive this up even further as people get locked into cycles of poverty and cannot leave situations of abuse.

And, despite the fact that we restricted our mobility, stayed home, and masked up, we were still catcalled. Still.

Catcalling got worse during the pandemic?! Yes.

Some argue it is a way for perpetrators to channel pandemic-related frustration — unemployment, loss of power, isolation, and so on — and get attention, vent, or reclaim power.

Masks did little to reduce catcalling. Unsurprisingly, men still find ways to make women uncomfortable, even when their faces are covered.

Not only did catcalls increase, but women felt less safe in public due to empty streets and increased vulnerabilities. Safety in numbers, they say. And streets felt less safe. A UK-based survey found that during lockdown, 52% of girls felt less safe because there were fewer people around to help, and 43% felt there were fewer public places to go to feel safe.

The same survey found that less cases of catcalling were reported than in previous years, due to the fact that 26% did not feel that it would not be taken seriously. And 23% believed this was due to a different priority — the pandemic.

Meanwhile, despite the data — in BC or AC — the challenges faced by women and girls continue. And the response continues to be gender blind.

Even as we hope to be AC — After COVID — It’s hard to remain hopeful. Pandemic or not, women everywhere deserve better.

Read the full post here.

Guys, Guns, and Gender-Based Violence

Lina AbiRafeh

There’s a lot being said about mass shootings these days. A lot of anger and despair at yet another senseless killing. So far in 2022, we’ve had 214 mass shootings in the US — more shootings than the number of days of this year.

We all know the numbers — they’re astronomical. And while the US criticizes the human rights records of many other countries, this country is among the worst in terms of gun violence. We’re not as civilized as we claim to be. Americans are 25 times more likely to be killed in a gun homicide than people in other high-income countries.

America loves its guns. We’ve got more guns than people, in fact. When it comes to civilian-owned guns, the figure is 120.5 firearms per 100 residents. Excessive?

What’s worse, gun violence kills more women and children. Since 2020, guns have been the leading cause of death for American children and teens.

Not disease. Not road accidents. Guns. A man-made problem. Quite literally, man-made.

Because men are overwhelmingly more violent than women.

Not all men! I hear you say.

There are some women who are violent! I hear you say.

Yes, sure. Some. But saying so, while politically correct, is statistically incorrect. In fact, women who murder often do so to defend themselves from abusive men.

I’m writing this because I want to think about the link between men who perpetrate mass violence and men who perpetrate violence against women.

Read Gavin de Becker’s book The Gift of Fear if you need a reminder of the overwhelming reality of violence in our lives. Yes — all of us. Here’s what he says about women to bring the point home:

In (sad) fact, if a full jumbo jet crashed into a mountain killing everyone on board, and if that happened every month, month in and month out, the number of people killed still wouldn’t equal the number of women murdered by their husbands and boyfriends each year.

There’s a connection between violence and sexism — it’s the space where I live, unfortunately. And we have ample evidence of this — trust me, I’m not making it up. I wish it wasn’t so. But I wonder if we’re paying enough attention to it?

Between 2015–2019, more than 11,000 women in the US were killed with a gun. Every month, an average of 57 women are killed with a firearm by an intimate partner. This — the deliberate murder of women — is called femicide. It’s not a word we often hear in the US. Our failure to recognize and use this term means that this hate crime too often goes uncounted. What we don’t measure, we don’t see, as they say. What we don’t see, we don’t act upon. So — femicides continue, without adequate prevention, protection, and policy responses.

There are common personality traits to mass shooters — a profile and a pattern that emerges all too clearly. The shooter is likely to have experienced early trauma, often in the form of bullying, which builds into despair and isolation. Rage and suicidal thoughts are part of this pattern.

And another thing, routinely evidenced but almost always ignored: patriarchal structures that breed toxic masculinity.

Here, unfortunately, is the root of the problem. Take patriarchal values, add notions of masculinity that dictate that men must be tough (and other heteronormative ideals), and voilà! a dangerous ideology of “honor” built from the need to cover up vulnerability through violence.

So it comes as no surprise that mass shooters tend to be men. And these are men who tend to also hate women.

In fact, sociologist Michael Kimmel found most school suicide-murder shootings after 1990 in the US have been carried out by young white men. Studies on school shootings in particular have found a pattern where this imagined manhood “cultural script” becomes a blueprint for perpetrators to regain so-called respectable masculinity.

There is another common characteristic to these mass shooters. Most have a history of domestic violence fueled by misogyny.

There’s research for this. Those who commit mass shootings also commit violence against women. In an analysis of 749 mass shootings between 2014 and 2019, “60% were either domestic violence attacks or committed by men with histories of domestic violence.”

Mass shooters suffer from “aggrieved entitlement”, what Kimmel describes as a fear of having their rightful place — as men — challenged.

Hegemonic masculinity has taught them they have this “rightful place” simply because they are male, or white, or straight, or able-bodied, and so on. The dominant cultural structure — the patriarchy — teaches boys that their “rightful place” is above women, people of color, immigrants, and other marginalized groups. Above everyone, in fact.

Jackson Katz speaks well to this. He works at the intersection of gender, race, and violence and is a pioneer in promoting equality and preventing violence against women. Dr. Katz’s 2006 film, Tough Guise: Violence, Media and the Crisis in Masculinity, draws an explicit link between toxic masculinity and mass shootings.

Because, well, the link is so incredibly explicit! Violent masculinity is a cultural norm, he explains. And the media certainly bears responsibility for the normalizing of this violence. We just don’t see enough of the alternative.

Here’s more academic backing on the link between sexism and violence. Research finds men that adhere to or endorse rigid codes of masculinity and honor are more prone to violence including domestic violence, political violence, violent extremism, and self-harm. Such ideations are also associated with depression and suicide. Other studies find that individuals who reject gender equality are more likely to display intolerance towards women, other nationalities, minorities, and religious groups. They are also more likely to be rapists.

Well, damn, I hear you (and me) say. What to do about this mess?

This “mess” is a public health crisis. Undiagnosed mental illness, lack of social connection, and entrenched toxic masculinity need to be part of the conversation. The perpetrators are troubled people, but I don’t accept the blanket “mental health” excuse — because there are many, many people around the world with mental health issues (many of whom are women), and they do not address their health concerns with guns. Mental illness may play a role, but too often the perpetrators are angry, resentful, entitled misogynists. Ouf.

So, let’s deal with the gun problem. The US is one of only three countries in the world that gives anyone the constitutional right to keep and bear arms. More guns, more violence. Existing gun control measures aren’t enough. What we have enough of is pushback, paralysis, inaction, excuses.

In some states, it’s harder to register to vote or get a puppy than it is to buy a gun. And let’s not even talk about women’s rights to their bodies. It’s easier to get a gun than make your own healthcare decisions.

Let’s also talk about what guns do to women. Firearms are used more than any other weapon in instances of intimate partner violence.

We’ve got a gun problem. And we’ve got a violence against women problem. So what can we do?

Read more here for what action we can take.

Violence Against Women in the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Lifeline

Rebecca O’Keeffe

The podcast Essential Voices with Wilmer Valderrama recently released an episode called ‘Lifelines’ which discussed sexual and domestic violence and the particular effect COVID has had on this issue. The episode featured essential worker Solange Ramkissoon; actor and advocate Gabrielle Union; and gender-based violence expert Lina AbiRafeh. 

Solange Ramkissoon described her work as a sexual violence advocate with SAVE (Sexual Assault and Violence Education). As part of a sexual assault response team, they operate a hotline for survivors of sexual violence. Gabrielle Union mentioned how, as a rape survivor, she has been using and recommending these services for nearly 20 years and has never heard of them being referred to as essential – even though they are lifesaving. They are the real superheroes. 

Ramkissoon outlined the massive impact the pandemic has had for survivors in terms of juggling health, familial wellbeing, insecurity, and employment uncertainty on top of the violence they may be experiencing. But it should be noted that this issue is everywhere, everyone, all the time – COVID or not. And the statistic is really disturbing as AbiRafeh highlighted:

“One in three women and girls worldwide are going to experience some form of violence, and that’s just what we know. And that’s in the so-called normal times. So let’s bring in a COVID, or a disaster, or a war and everything that happens is going to get much worse.”

COVID has not only created new forms of abuse, but it has amplified and made existing forms of violence – intimate partner violence and sexual violence – so much worse. Women and girls are always the most vulnerable in any crisis, and that vulnerability is just magnified. 

Most notable, however, was the issue of privacy. Union added that due to COVID, some people were in the exact same space as their abusers which presented so many other obstacles, “Where do you find the space to make the call and to speak unedited and to get the help that you need? Where is that space? Where is that privacy?

People were now isolated, confined to home, and couldn’t connect like before. As a result, there was a wave of quietness for a period which was very concerning for the service providers. But we know sexual violence didn’t stop. Survival mode kicked in and getting help was not the main priority anymore.

And this happens on a macro-level too. AbiRafeh, who has worked on this issue for 25 years in over 20 countries, referred to it as the “tyranny of the urgent” meaning already scarce resources for women are reduced or redirected. These are the programs that tend to see funding stripped first and revived last. In this instance, critical resources – shelters or safe spaces, services, support, hotlines, health care – were redirected for COVID. 

But, what could be more important? AbiRafeh continued, “In all the countries I’ve been in, all around the world, you know, there’s really nothing more important than being safe and free and comfortable in your own body, in your own home, in your school, on the street, in the market, in the office, in public office.”

And that’s the thing, sexual violence – as underreported as it is – “permeates every industry, every part of society, every culture, every community”, as Union put it. It is a normalized experience and every woman has a story. All of us are victims because even “the fear of violence is a form of violence”, as AbiRafeh said.

But how many victims will it take before the problem is eradicated? AbiRafeh described it this way: “What’s your magic number right now to make a difference here? One hundred? One thousand? If there’s a number for you, and it’s going to make a difference, I assure you, we’ve got that number and more” Ultimately though, AbiRafeh insists, “even one is one too many, and that’s what we should be saying.”

So what can be done?

Understanding how pervasive it actually is and how it affects individuals, families, communities, and countries will help tackle the issue. The best predictor of peace, prosperity, and progress in a country isn’t about the government, or the economy. It’s about equality. It’s about how you treat your women because that tends to be the most marginalized parts of the community. Everybody deserves dignity, equality, respect, rights, bodily autonomy, safety and security. These are basics.

The way we deal with sexual violence is flawed on so many levels. There’s still a lot of shame around sexual violence and the utilization of services. There needs to be a societal shift where we talk about it, normalize it, and see what work needs to be done – having these conversations is the only way we’ll end it. 

But we need to start young. AbiRafeh recommended normalizing conversations around bodily autonomy and consent, having universal sex education, and seeing rights as rights for everyone:

“This has to be from the fetus to the funeral. You know, it’s your body from day zero. And we really need to see it that way. And for me, it’s not something that I’m willing to tolerate in my lifetime, and I certainly don’t want to hand this on to the next generation. I’d like us to fix it.” 

Union is adamant about using her platform to center the most marginalized people in society, and in so doing, believes it to be the most effective way to combat the issue:

“What this work does is center the needs of the most marginalized in this particular movement, talking about sexual violence, but also in all of the things that I do. That’s just how it has to go. When you sign up for me, you sign up for all the marginalized folks.”

Both Union and AbiRafeh believe listening is vital to responding to sexual violence. Don’t listen to react, don’t ask “What were you wearing?” or “What did you do?” or “Why don’t you leave?” Just listen. But you might also be a resource or a lifeline for someone so ask what it is you can do, how you can be of service, and know that there are services and support available. There is no one way to heal, but we need to support each other through it. It’s about all of us.

This problem is absolutely everywhere. But you can make a difference and it starts in your own little circle, with your own behavior – change the narrative, call out your friends. Whatever you’ve got at your disposal, in your little circle, you can make change there.  As AbiRafeh said, “Start where you stand, wherever you are.”

Listen to the podcast here.