When Sexual Violence is a "Normal" Way of Life: Helping Victims, Educating Communities
Last summer, 40-year old Mary (not her real name) attended a discussion group in her village about gender-based violence. While listening to the talk, Mary realized that she herself is a victim of sexual violence and needed help.
When Mary was 10 years old, her parents gave her to a local chieftain for marriage. When she was 12, the chief asked her to start going to bed with him. Mary didn’t want to and resisted his demand. But her parents were dependent on the chief to finance their farm, so they came and restrained her so that she was forced to have sex with him.
Mary started having problems when she began spending her nights with the chief. When she had her period she would bleed for more than a week. Thinking that this was not out of the ordinary, and with no one to talk to about her condition, she did not go to a doctor or hospital.
When the discussion group finished, Mary decided to approach one of its facilitators, Gertrude Garway, a gender-based violence coordinator with the International Rescue Committee in Liberia. When Garway heard Mary’s story she sent her to a nearby clinic, which examined Mary and immediately referred her to a hospital.
“We brought her to the hospital that very day,” Garway says. “They took her in as an emergency case since her blood was very low, so she needed a transfusion right away.”
Mary received three liters of blood and the doctors decided to remove her uterus. “When I was leaving, she was going back to her village to inform her husband about the surgery. If the womb wasn’t removed she would just continue to bleed from time to time and she might die,” Garway says.
Gender-based violence takes many forms and includes rape, sexual exploitation, sexual assault and abuse, domestic violence, trafficking of women and girls, forced prostitution, sexual harassment and discrimination. It also includes forms of sexual violence specific to cultures and societies, such as female genital mutilation and forced marriage—as in Mary’s case.
The IRC-led discussions are often eye-opening experiences for the women and girls who participate as well as their communities. Educating a community about the roots and consequences of gender-based violence not only helps women become more aware but also empowers them to stand up for their rights.
Like Mary, most of the victims of sexual violence that Garway and her team encounter during their talks are not conscious that they need to seek help. And they often live in communities that are not sensitive to their plight.
“They would tell us ‘I don’t know where you people are coming from—you just jump into our villages and help us solve our problems that we thought were our normal way of life,’” Garway says.
She says raising community awareness forms a large part of IRC’s gender-based violence program in Liberia, where most people are just learning about their rights and women have to struggle to assert their own.
IRC counselors include men, youth and children in the discussions to stress that gender-based violence affects everyone. “Only if there’s a little girl (involved) does it gets people’s attention, but if it’s a woman they think it’s okay because it’s their way of life,” Garway says.
The IRC also reaches out to communities through small focus groups and by training community leaders to conduct awareness events in their own language. IRC counselors use creative techniques such as dance, poetry, artwork, role-plays and music to encourage the community to participate.
“Generally, people are more interested in role-plays and songs. I try to explain any topic by just putting it into a song so that people may hear it and be able to recognize it,” she says.
Aside from conducting community education sessions, the IRC also operates drop-in centers and identifies referral networks to provide medical, psychological, protection and other support for survivors of sexual violence and their families. Some of the survivors have been awarded scholarships by the IRC to go back to school. The IRC also supports projects initiated by local communities themselves, such as vocational skills training for vulnerable women and girls.
Since the program in Liberia began in 2001, the IRC has worked to improve the physical and psychosocial well being of women and girls in Liberia’s Bomi, Montserrado, Nimba and Lofa Counties who have been displaced by civil conflict. As of December 2005, IRC counselors in Liberia have assisted more than 2,600 victims of sexual violence. Approximately 250,000 people have attended IRC awareness-raising events all over the country.