The Silent Scream

My usual upbeat weekend demeanor has been replaced by a deep melancholy today. My morning started with me reading on the BBC news website that Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan quietly passed into law a husband's right to starve his wife if she refuses to have sex with him. That is apparently an improvement from the previous bill that condoned rape within a marriage. The Afghan elections for president are around the corner and a largely unpopular Karzai desperately needs the support of these deranged fundamentalists to win. So I guess for him politics trumps morality and human rights. After that in the New York Times I read about two young Kashmiri women, 17 year old Asiya and 22 year old Nilofa, who on their way to tend to their family's apple orchard were gang raped and beaten to death by apparently the local police who desperately and unsuccessfully tried to cover it up.
What kind of human being does this to another?

What I didn't read in the newspaper today with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton having wrapped up her trip to Africa, but remains in the forefront of my mind is the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Far from democratic, over 200,000 women and girls have been raped and mutilated in the Eastern Congo since 1996, according to the United Nations, as a by-product of the war. Some have named this area the rape capital of the world. Rape is so rampant and pervasive, that according to Dr. Michael Van Rooyen, director of Harvard's Humanitarian Initiative, it is becoming part of the culture. There are endless reports of women who are even nine months pregnant and pre-pubescent girls who are abducted and gang raped repeatedly. When Hillary Clinton stopped in Goma early last week, she pressured the government to address this crisis and to punish the perpetrators. These are after all crimes against humanity. But when the rapists include military generals and other top officials a significant re-education and shift in how women are treated and valued within society is critical for any long term change.

Unfortunately, the extent of the violence in the DR Congo is not unique. 20,000 rapes were committed in the war in Bosnia and there were 500,000 rapes in Rwanda. I remember reading the stories about these women, what they had endured and their fight for survival and crying myself to sleep, horrified and dismayed. Thankfully, I was nowhere near these locations and was safe in my home but I felt so extremely hurt and violated as a women.

These gut wrenching stories of rape however, are not only a result of the madness of war.

In a recent survey by the Medical Research Council, 1 in 4 men in South Africa admitted to committing rape.

For the past 16 years, in the northern Mexican town of Cuidad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas thousands of young women aged 12-22 have gone missing. Hundreds and hundreds of them wind up dead, their lifeless bodies, showing signs of sexual abuse, torture and mutilation discarded with yesterday's trash. For sixteen years this has been going on, movies have been made about this, songs have been written, and yet the Mexican government has made no effort to solve these crimes. Apparently as young students and poor factory workers these women are not significant enough to warrant the manpower.

For those in the U.S., who think that these are the problems of distant under-developed countries, or war or religion or overly machismo societies - think again. One in six women in the United States, according the 2004 U.S. Department of Justice's National Crime Victimization Survey have been a victim to sexual assault. In 2007, the updated results from the same survey estimated that every two minutes someone is sexually assaulted in America.

Is this a world gone mad?
I often wonder when I read these articles in the newspaper or see it on the news why there isn't a deafening global outcry against this sexualized violence against women. These rapes are not the actions of a freakish few in insignificant countries far away. It touches every corner of this planet. This is violence that is being perpetrated against half of the human race.

Why are women who bare the children, nuture and support their families, who make significant advances in science, business, art, society, culture and politics so undervalued and easily dehumanized in our global society?

During her trip to Africa, Clinton pledged $17 million in a new U.S. fund for victims of sexual violence. That is indeed a good start. The perpetrators also have to be brought to justice. Their actions are profoundly evil and they rot the soul of humanity. Rapists not only dehumanize the victims, they dehumanize themselves by turning themselves into savages. This cycle must end. However, ultimately the most transformative force can only come from education. Girls need to be raised with the awareness of their own value and importance. Boys need to be raised with the knowledge and respect that they are one part of a greater whole. And both boys and girls have to be raised with a respect for each other. The human race has been on this planet for over 200,000 years now - one would have hoped that we would have evolved for the better by now.