[Trigger Warning: This post contains details about sexual assault that may be disturbing for some readers.]
Right now, survivors of sexual assault are speaking out about their experience louder than ever before. The rise in cultural awareness surrounding sexual violence means survivors have a more supportive environment in which to disclose their experiences and they are more likely to be heard and believed – not blamed. That is welcomed progress.
But it’s important to remember that this progress remains uneven globally. We must commit to strengthening the momentum of the #MeToo gender movement and amplify the voices and stories of survivors who are not yet being heard.
Through our programming, we encounter unimaginable stories of sexual assault from the women and girls we work with. Some have been child brides or sold into domestic slavery; others have been taken hostage or exploited in times of conflict. Their stories are hard to hear, sometimes unbearable, but this is the reality for millions.
According to Statistics Canada, 1 in 4 girls in Canada are sexually abused by age 18. Globally, the United Nations estimates that 1 in 3 women globally will experience sexual violence at some point in their life. The statistics are dire, but we’re at a pivotal moment in time that is seeing a shift in behaviour, accountability and understanding of gender-based violence.
See below some powerful results from a survey conducted by Plan International Canada.
Together, we must use the momentum and positive results of movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up to push forward the elimination of gender-based violence in every corner of the world. And the only way to do that is by listening to, believing and giving voice to all courageous survivors.
“Let’s show society we don’t have to stay quiet.”
To say Girlene has faced adversity would be an understatement.
Her biological father was violent and abusive – shattering Girlene’s collar bone when she was just 10-years-old. When her mother left that relationship, she married a man who seemed perfect at first, but soon revealed a darker side.
“I had enrolled in a dance course at school – I love to dance,” says Girlene. “When I arrived home after class, I went to take a shower. The shower was outside and there was no door – just a shower curtain. As I was showering, my stepfather barged in and put his hands on my mouth and forced himself on me…I was 13.”
“To this day, I have flashes of that moment even though I’ve tried to erase it from my memory.”
When Girlene tried to tell her mother what had happened, she was called a liar. The abuse continued and eventually Girlene was forced to leave her mother’s house and live on the street – that’s when she met social workers and started participating in workshops run by Plan International.
“I learnt about sexual exploitation, my rights and youth advocacy,” she says. “I finally found the strength to tell one of my social workers what happened to me when I was 13.”
Through the years, Girlene has used her love of dancing to overcome the pain from the past and to help her feel empowered and strong.
“Dancing helped me fight this big monster that’s been at my side. When I danced, I grew bigger and stronger than the monster,” she says. “Dancing has set me free.”
Today, Girlene is an educator and the owner of her own dance studio in Brazil. She says that speaking up and having others believe her story made all the difference and enabled her to not only believe in herself, but also to realize her potential and achieve her dreams.
“To all the girls and women who have suffered like I have, please, speak up! Don’t let anyone get away with it. Talk to someone you trust, who believes in you – and someone you know can make a difference. Let’s show society we don’t have to stay quiet.”
“I told my mother and she told me not to say anything”
Fleeing attacks by Boko Haram in Nigeria, Amatou*, 14, along with her parents and sister, arrived in a refugee camp in Cameroon.
There, her parents had no choice but to leave their daughters alone for the day while they went out in search of work.
One day, when Amatou was at the market, she ran into a family friend who tricked her into helping him shop for groceries.
“He took me to his house and told me to come inside while he got his money,” she says. “When I entered, he forcefully undressed me.”
Amatou was violently raped by the family friend, leaving her with internal injuries.
“I felt so much pain after he did what he did to me. When my parents came back home, I told my mother and she told me not to say anything to anyone else.”
This silence enabled Amatou’s abuser to continue taking advantage of her.
After the third time, she told her father, Moussa, who did not notify authorities; instead he asked the parents of Amatou’s abuser if their son would take Amatou’s hand in marriage. They refused, and so Moussa turned to a local NGO who referred him to Plan International.
Upon hearing Amatou’s* story, child protection staff quickly rushed her to a health centre where her internal injuries were treated and she was referred to psychological support services.
Today, Amatou is still recovering from the horrors she endured, but is happy to be in school.
“I am very happy to go to school. I learn so much and I have fun with my friends,” she says.
In addition, Amatou’s rapist has been brought to justice and is currently in jail, thanks to the collaborative efforts of Plan International, partner organizations, social services and the police.
Moussa also has regrets about how he handled his daughter’s ordeal.
“If I had sent my daughter to school earlier, all of this would not have happened,” he says.
“I won’t suffer again.”
In Togo, thousands of young girls are trafficked to work as unpaid domestic servants. These girls are lured from their villages to the big cities with promises of a better life, including access to schooling and income opportunities.
Such was the case with Bella*, 16. She left her home in search of an education, but found herself working as a domestic servant in a family with an abusive man who eventually raped and impregnated her. He then forced her to have an abortion.
“Sometimes when I think of what happened, I become very sad,” she says. Eventually, Bella was able to run away from that abusive situation and return to her village.
“I vowed never to go there again,” she says. “I won’t suffer again.”
Bella is now getting a second chance to exercise her right to an education and income opportunities by participating in Plan International’s business skills training program in Togo. She is studying the art of hairdressing.
“Now that I am learning a trade, I feel better than before,” she says, adding that her goal is to eventually own a business and provide for herself.
“I want to make money, open a shop and take care of myself.”
Ending sexual assault and violence against girls and women
Plan International tackles the root causes of gender-based violence by working with girls, boys, communities and partners to ensure girls aren’t held back.
Through our Safe Cities program, we’re working in urban centers around the world to empower girls to speak out on the issues they are facing and provide input into the development of inclusive cities where they can live free from gender-based violence.
We’re also working to create safe school environments. Safe schools not only allow girls to make the most of their education, but also establish tolerance and understanding between boys and girls that can be carried forward into society.
Working with boys and men is also fundamental to our approach. By supporting boys and men to understand the importance of respecting girls, and by ensuring they play a leading role in ending gender-based violence, we are transforming behaviours and creating lasting change.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the survivors.
Plan International Canada, in partnership with Hill+Knowlton Strategies, conducted a scientific survey of 3,000 Canadian adults in anticipation of International Women’s Day.
The research examined the attitudes and behaviours of women and men towards a variety of issues and within a range of settings, including the workplace, public places, and in the home. Our survey also looked at how Canadians are perceiving and reacting to the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.
- The research consisted of an online survey of 3,000 adults, including 1,000 men and 2,000 women. The survey was conducted from February 16th to February 23rd, 2018.
- The data was weighted to Census data to ensure representation by age, gender and region of Canada.
- The margin of error associated with a probability based sample of this size is +/- 1.79% 19 times out of 20.