As we work towards the elimination of gender-based violence during these 16 Days of Activism, we cannot forget to care for those who have already experienced it.
Helping women heal from trauma is one of the most important steps to building safer communities for women.
In many places around the world, I’ve seen how violence against women lingers even after the act. Women are forced into literal isolation, where they must endure the wrongs they’ve experienced alone and in silence. When women try to share what happened to them, they face social stigma that can even lead to them losing their homes.
That’s why our program brings women together as a group and cultivates spaces where they can come together to heal and rebuild their lives.
Many women who come to our program have never experienced places free of sexual harassment or violence. Many have their freedom of movement limited. In a peaceful and safe environment, women are finally free to speak as themselves and for themselves.
Women can share with each other the violence they’ve experienced. When a woman talks about her life, she begins to realize that she is not the only one: She is not alone.
In these spaces, women become each other’s emotional support. They become friends.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is sometimes called “the rape capital of the world.” Solange joined our program in the DRC and shared with us that she had been raped four times. One of those times, her husband was shot by Interahamwe, militants leftover from the Rwandan genocide.
Rather than receiving help, Solange was ridiculed for being raped and bearing scars. But through the program, she has found support. “I have made good friends at Women for Women International because we train in groups and none of us discriminate,” she said. “We all accept each other.”
Knowing its importance, Solange passes that support onto other women and girls.
“There are many young girls who come from my village who are rape victims. When they come, I try to encourage them, telling them that if they rape you and you don’t die immediately, you still have life. You still have value. I tell them they should hope for the future.”
Stigma, silence, and shame are powerful forces used to isolate women, hurt them, control them. Women learning to overcome these together by giving voice to what they have experienced and heal each other is just as powerful.
I learned this power in Nigeria from women in our program.
It was the height of the #MeToo movement, and I was attending a training of our Change Agents – women who have graduated from our program and are taking the next step to becoming leaders. I asked them what they thought of the #MeToo movement and not only had they never heard of it: Because of the stigma attached to experiencing gender-based violence, they didn’t feel it was the right action for them.
“There is no way it would help to put our stories on social media here in Nigeria,” they told me. “But it helps to share our experiences here, to each other.”
Through their group, they formed strong bonds and became each other’s support. In realizing they were not alone, they realized that many other women were also living as survivors of conflict and gender-based violence.
So they took steps to right those wrongs and end gender-based violence in their communities.
Change Agents are community advocates and leaders. These courageous women have gone on to intervene when other women are being attacked. They set up meetings with mullahs—respected religious leaders—and other community leaders to discuss and develop steps to stop violence against women.
They are a testament to the strength of women and their bonds. During these 16 Days of Activism, I encourage us to not forget that healing from gender-based violence is a necessary part of eliminating it. Because each of these women show us that not only are they survivors, they are leaders in the process of making a more peaceful world.
There’s still time to take action: 16 Days of Activism ends on December 10, Human Rights Day. See how you can help stop gender-based violence.