Silence should not be spoken here
Silence should not be spoken here!
For more than 10 years of professional work, I have had opportunity to interact with many young women and young men in mentorship and life skills. My first job was as a trainer on life skills and in this way got to interact with thousands of young boys and girls, primary and secondary school students in various parts of Kenya. These young people have impacted my life; and I hope too I have impacted theirs in enormous ways. However, among the thousands of young girls that I have had the privilege of interacting with, one girl remains edged in my mind. That was in 2002, ten years ago and I was very new in the field of guidance/ life skills. I still recall her, because she is one girl that I failed in a big way. After giving lessons to a form two class, the young woman asked to speak to me in private. I readily accepted, but what she told me left me confused. She was a victim of defilement and incest and she needed my help. I had only had minimal experience and I felt this was too huge a responsibility and I asked her if I could refer to my supervisor who was more trained in counseling than I was. She refused; she was only comfortable speaking to me. I remember trying to explore options with her while my head was hitting more blanks! The abuser was her uncle who she depended on for her upkeep. She was the first born in a family of four and her parents had passed away, leaving her under the mercy of her relatives. The uncle was ‘taking care of them’ but of course nobody knew he was taking care of himself. The uncle paid her fees and that of her orphaned siblings, and generally ensured they were well provided for. However, as a ‘favor in return’ he was sexually exploiting her.
According to Joyce* the uncle threatened her that if she ever spoke out, he would not take care of her and her siblings in any way. To add salt to the injury, the uncle was a well-known and respected pastor! “People are not likely to believe me and my family will treat me as an outcast if I ever speak out” she said. This was one of the most difficult issues to come across in my early career life. She was not ready for ‘public’ action, but she knew what was going on was wrong and she needed this to stop. She did not know how. The only person she would have considered disclosing to was her auntie, her mother’s sister. However there was a fear that the auntie could not face the uncle or the family. She would be seen to be interfering. The respected, well respected pastor was her late father’s brother. Her auntie would be seen to be interfering in her in-laws’ family yet this family was influential.
I have never felt so helpless.
By the time I left the school, my head was spinning and she was not ready to disclose to anyone else. It was a burden I carried for some time and I still remember her years later. How did her life turn out? Did she ever manage to get help? Did she ever break the cycle of violence? I will never know. She was a victim of silence.
During my work on issues of gender based violence, I have come to belief that one of the major causes of sexual violence and other forms of gender based violence is ‘the language called silence.’ Issues of gender based violence are usually treated as ‘private’ hence allowing violence to continue. While community mechanisms have been known to work in curbing violence and other vices gender based violence is often not seen as community agenda. If two brothers are fighting in the homestead, the likelihood is that neighbors will come in to separate the fighters. However, if a man and wife are engaged in a fight the “those are domestic issues” is often used to ‘not interfere’. In many cases where a spouse has killed the partner and often children, we often see in media neighbors giving ‘evidence’ on “how the two have been quarreling for some time”.
Sexual violence is even more sensitive kind of violation and the language of silence is even more rampant. Various forms of sexual abuse exist, and sometimes are not recognized but someone who has been abused in always knows it has happened. The UN declaration on elimination of Violence against women adopted in 1993 defines gender based violence as “any act of gender based violence that results in or is likely to result in physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women including THREATS OF SUCH ACTS”. Sexual gender based violence in particular affects different communities across class, age, race, religion etc.
World statics on violence is shocking, according to UN, between 15 and 76 percent of women are targeted for physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime, with data varying in various countries. Most of this violence takes place within intimate relationships, with many women (ranging from 9 to 70 percent) reporting their husbands or partners as the perpetrator. In addition, it is reported worldwide that up to 50 percent of sexual assaults are committed against girls under 16 years. (http://www.endvawnow.org/en/articles/299-fast-facts-statistics-on-violen...) Many girls are also abused in the family setting and other familiar grounds. This may seem like mere statistics but for the woman or girl who has experienced violence, this is a life time scar.
The UN definition of violence acknowledges the not only the violence but also the “threat of such acts”. The emotional scars and fear caused by the threat of such kind of abuse, impact individuals in different ways. I recall an experience I underwent in my childhood that has remained edged in my mind. I still recall that beautiful morning (possibly a Monday) when I was excited to start a new phase in life. I was 7 years old, and voila, I was getting to the ‘big school’ as we referred to the primary school. I was wearing my pink dress that my auntie had bought me and it was yes a big day, rarely did I get to wear ‘Sunday on a week day. A certain man who was from the neighborhood was walking along the road and at a young age it was always a pleasure to see an adult for company. He started some chit-chat and I responded. In my young mind he must have been ‘a friend’ after all I had seen him say hi to my mother! When we reached a junction he suggested a path that when now I think of it had less people passing through. A few meters later he started looking side by side and somehow I became alert. He entered a certain farm and asked me to “come”. I don’t know how but my 6th sense knew I was in trouble and I ran faster than I had never ran in my life. I don’t remember making a stop till I reached school, panting but not in tears. I was quite shocked. Even at that age I knew I had escaped something disastrous. To date, I don’t remember crying (which is unlike me). When the shock started wearing off, fear came in. I had a lot of ‘what if”, what if I had not ran fast enough, what if he had grabbed me…what if.
For some reason I never told anybody. I knew it was something ‘embarrassing’ and more so I was not sure if anyone would believe. I feared that if I mentioned then the ‘adults’ would have thought that maybe I had actually been sexually violated and I could not imagine such kind of attention. (I would not be surprised if anyone reading this believes I am being economical with the truth! Such is the quagmire with gender based violence; you are dammed if you do, damned if you don’t). My fears were confirmed when about a week later, a girl from my neighborhood was defiled by a different person. There were a lot of hushed discussions about her, and it was traumatizing for her, having to face the public curiosity. I later learnt this man was a serial rapist and he defiled a child who was a few month’s old. This never became a public advocacy around these but hushed discussions as he sent to jail and came out; defiled other children and the cycle continued. The experience was traumatizing at that age and for some strange reasons silence seemed the best option, after all ‘nothing happened’. I never spoke about it till my adulthood and this is the first time I have put down a word about it. Why? In gender based violence silence is the language spoken.
Many women and girls, and even men and boys have faced gender based violence but chosen not to speak about it. But what are the consequences of speaking out? The blame often put on the survivor makes it not worth the effort. Questions are often raised about the survivor character where the issue turns to be more about the survivor than the perpetrator. The one assurance that a victim of silence needs before speaking out is to know that, we the society will believe her; to know that we will not look at the so ‘straight CV’ of the perpetrator to judge if she is telling the truth or not. In addition, it is good to realize that children hide when violated due to threats. They are made to keep silence and only a high level of trust will make them speak out. There are other forms of abuse like exposure and attempted sexual abuse that affect children, but it is rarely acknowledged. A child knows/ feels when they have been violated, even when they cannot explain what happened.
As we commemorate the 16 days of activism on violence against women, I know one thing must happen; silence should not be spoken here. As a society we can play a role in addressing this. As we get into the political campaign period in Kenya ahead of 2013 general elections, I pray that women aspirants will be spared political based gender violence that many have experienced in the past.
*not her real name