Along the dusty roads in Bukavu Eastern Congo (DRC), tiny women walk huddled over with 30kg loads of firewood. They are human beasts of burden forced into this tough work because they are victims of poverty and violence. Many have been raped, some are widows, which means they face social rejection as well as pain.
Armed militia (and the army) have rampaged through eastern and northern DRC for a generation – they are themselves brutalised by the war and turn against anyone who is more vulnerable: women and girls have been raped, mutilated and forced to see their families killed; their crops are burnt and everything stolen. Even though the conflict is meant to be over, 40 women are raped every day around Bukavu and the actual figure is bound to be higher because there is strong stigma against women who tell their story.
Attacks against women are also common in Egypt. There is very little sex education in villages but girls understand that forced sex is a danger and that it is they who will be blamed, not the boys or men, if they get pregnant.
When sexual violence and religion are mixed together, my heart is crushed.
Last week, Soad, a 70 year old grandmother in a village in upper Egypt, was stripped naked and paraded around her village. Her ‘crime’? It was rumoured that her son, a Christian man, was having an affair with a Moslem woman. Seven homes of Christian families were burned down on the same day.
Different forms of violence and terror, all aimed at women and girls.
I am horrified by the extent of violence but I am also concerned about how we respond to these incidents of sexual violence.
There is a hierarchy of concern common in all media. To put it bluntly, young women or girls get more sympathy than older women. There was an outpouring of sympathy when 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria were abducted by Islamist militia. It was indeed a terrible crime but it also fitted with a narrative of Moslem terrorism so it received massive coverage and hashtag sympathy (#BringBackOurGirls). But over 2000 women have been abducted by Boko Haram since the Chibok girls went missing and there has been hardly a murmur in the West. Are we embarrassed that we have not defeated evil? Are we tired of the same stories? Or has ISIS taken over as the major story about Moslem extremism?
Our blinkered take on sexual violence shows up when we consider acid attacks against girls in India, often related to marriage or stalking. They do not attract mainstream outrage. According to the BBC, over 1,000 girls and women in India suffered acid attacks last year. And it is troubling that some people blame the victims and say their suffering came because they behaved badly!
There seems to be a limit to our compassion – we get fatigued by poverty, disaster and violence and care less than we ought. We want quick fixes – based on money and some prayers. We don’t want to acknowledge that healing and restoration can take many years of hard work and persistent prayer. The conflict in DRC has been going on for a generation, so the media and our hearts have moved on to the next disaster.
We also allow sex and sexual violence to pervade our screens and maybe that makes us de-sensitised to the reality of suffering that women and girls endure. Pornography is everywhere, often in the guise of drama. Detective shows seem to compete in a race to be more and more explicit about violence against young, naked female victims.
In Game of Thrones, a blockbuster TV series, rape and sexual violence are an almost casual part of the storyline, used to impose power, but also to titillate and improve ratings.
Apparently the author of the books on which Game of Thrones is based, says he was trying to “convey an accurately medieval sense of how the powerful prey upon the powerless, including men preying on women”. Even if that’s true, the TV show has gone further just for the sake of showing more violent sex, that has little to do with the original plot.
So are we complicit in promoting the very behaviour and attitudes that we say we abhor?
When sex is a monstrous terror used to frighten and destroy, we should be shocked and we should act.
We should be ‘innocent as doves’ so that our response to sexual violence is never dulled.
And to encourage us that women are responding to the issue, let me tell you about Nabila Nakhla, who heads up the work of women in evangelical churches in Egypt. She is a strong woman of faith. She and her husband could have left for a safer home many years ago, but they feel that God wants them in Cairo. She and her team work with teenage girls, educating them about sex, relationships and self worth. Now she is extending her work to widows and the first course begins this week on June 28th at a safe house outside Cairo.
Pray for this work that is done by churches in Egypt, for the work done in DRC and India – that those who refuse to give in to despair will have strength and hope.
You can donate to Tearfund UK’s work in DRC with vulnerable women here
You can donate to the work of the Women’s Commission in Egypt here. Please click on Women’s Commission in the dropdown menu.