Let’s talk about sexual and physical violence — about how it violates the body, how it violently strips self agency of women — and the anger, powerlessness, silence, confinement, strength, abruption, dreams, hopes, dance that it elicits. We can also talk about the serious health consequences — the short- and long-term physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health problems that survivors must deal with after and because of the violence experienced. Recent WHO figures show that immediate consequences of intimate partner violence and sexual violence include unintended pregnancies, induced abortions, gynecological problems, and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. A WHO 2013 analysis found that women who had been physically or sexually abused were 15 times more likely to have a sexually transmitted infection than women who had not experienced partner violence. Intimate partner violence in pregnancy also increases the likelihood of miscarriage, stillbirth, pre-term delivery and low birth weight babies. The link between violence and its impact on health does not stop there; health effects also include headaches, back pain, abdominal pain, fibromyalgia, gastrointestinal disorders, limited mobility and poor overall health. Does this list seem long? Let me remind you that 1 in 3 women globally will experience intimate or non-intimate partner physical and/or sexual violence. Now read the physical, emotional and psychological effects of violence again, keeping in mind that this is what a third of girls/women on the planet will go through at least once in their lifetime.
This is the world we live in today and it seems like we are beginning to become desensitized, almost complacent to the proliferation of violence against women. Unfortunately, my story is not unique. I will tell you about my girlfriend who once told me about being 8 and being “played” with by her uncle while growing up in our home country, Sierra Leone. I want to tell you about the upheld strength in her eyes as she laughed at the absurdity of it all, quickly going on about other things. I want to tell you about the sexual violence case that gripped Sierra Leone in September, when the former deputy Minister of Education was charged with allegedly raping a 24-year-old university student. For a moment there it was all everyone could talk about. Some recounted their own personal experiences, many glazed through the topic, others were enraged and yet, I will tell you about how the media tore her apart, and how hearsay made many people unsympathetic to her story and how influential men started to have their “guard up” about the women they chose to have affairs with. I could also tell you how society’s response to this high profile case will deter many from speaking out again.
Gender violence affects health; beyond that, it destabilizes the emotional and spiritual core of a girl, of a young woman — as it did to that calm 9-year-old girl, to my girlfriend, the 24-year-old who spoke out against being raped and to millions of women worldwide. As we continue to commemorate 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, better work needs to be done to assign responsibility to gender violence that destabilizes health systems, social ecosystems and economic systems. Better work needs to be done by us Sierra Leonean women in becoming bolder and louder about our stories. These experiences do not make us weak — the experience of violation does — we need to become more comfortable in sharing our own personal stories of physical and sexual violence while making sure that government, society, the laws that be increasingly become more uncomfortable in maintaining the status quo.