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That's My Issue: Ending Rape

Friday, August 17, 2012

That’s My Issue is WNYC’s election-year project to gather stories of how your life experience has shaped your politics. Share your story and create your custom badge, read all the stories in the archive, record an audio story directly from your computer, and see much more about the project at the That’s My Issue homepage.

I’ve been a journalist in New York for more than a decade. In that time, I covered a lot of remarkable issues close to home. I ran down stories about the Catholic Church abuse scandal, spoke to dozens of 9/11 survivors, ironworkers, and family members, and investigated the disappearance of a strange sculpture of cherubs at the top of the city’s Flatiron building. It took a woman in West Africa, however, to make me care more about a beat than I ever knew possible, and to make a terrifying connection between what goes on in my own backyard and the greater world at large.

I was the senior editor of the Committee to Protect Journalists at that point in my career. An attack on CBS correspondent Lara Logan, a CPJ board member, in February 2011 focused my attention on sexual attacks on journalists. I began exploring the issue, putting out feelers to journalists all over the world—have you ever been sexually assaulted in the course of your work or heard about such a case?

“l got a story about myself,” read one early reply. “But l find it so difficult to tell the story to anyone because of stigma and the psychological effect this has always had on me.”

I asked the woman outright whether she’d been raped to try to understand what kind of story I might be dealing with.

“You know what it means to have four men at a straight, accompanied with slaps and beatings,” she wrote.

Slowly, over weeks, the woman told me what happened to her. She had only ever told one person before, her doctor:

Armed members of a rebel group gang-raped her in the course of her reporting. She then witnessed a superior officer shoot one of her attackers after he had come upon the scene. But she chose not to tell her editor for fear it would harm her own reputation. She could not report the attack to police, she believed, because they would not take it seriously—they may even mock her or solicit a bribe. She felt empty, terrified, and traumatized. Years later, she still did. She spoke only on condition that her name and other identifying details, including her country, be withheld.

This was my introduction to the dark fear women feel after rape—how it can haunt your being and work for years, as for this woman. It also showed me how painful it can be to continue to live and work in the same place where such a horrifying attack occurred. This woman’s story became the springboard for what has become my life’s work: documenting and sharing stories of sexualized violence in conflict.

Soon after I published my CPJ report on sexual aggression against journalists, I left to become the founding director of the Women’s Media Center’s project Women Under Siege. Originated by the journalist and feminist activist Gloria Steinem, the project has been dissecting how rape is used as a tool of war from the Holocaust to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where one study suggests that 12 percent of women had been raped at least once in their lifetime. Gloria’s idea was that if we had known what we know now about rape in the Holocaust, perhaps we could have prevented what later happened in Bosnia, or Rwanda.

Figuring out exactly how sexualized violence is wielded by governments and militias as a weapon is only one aspect of my work. Another is trying to think anew about why men rape, and why women suffer in silence. As Gloria and I wrote in The Guardian: There is a particular “cult of masculinity” at play in much sexualized violence, and it “is a drug pushed by gangs and the culture of wars in order to make men act violently and risk their lives against their own self-interest as human beings.” It is this unhealthy addiction to control by some men that creates the conditions for rape, whether it is in a warzone like Syria, in the streets of New York, or in the tree-laden byways of West Africa.

It is with this knowledge and the acquaintance of a woman there I now call a friend that I pursue an issue that affects us all: women, men, entire communities, our country, and others. I am fighting for basic human rights. Until we put a stop to the constant violation and subjugation of women, we betray ourselves as a people. That this journalist feels she must stay quiet because a man violated her—and the system she lives in will hurt her for speaking out—this is why I strive to stop something as ubiquitous as sexualized violence. Guilt and shame have no place following rape, and I would like to see a world in which people condemn it, acknowledge its horror, and not assume it’s “natural” and can’t be stopped. We owe my friend in West Africa, and ourselves, more than this.

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