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The silent violence

In the Solomon Islands, known for its world-class scuba diving and the famous WWII battle of Guadalcanal, an 18-year-old young woman recounts what happened to her while collecting water:

“On my way back with the water, I met boys up the hill. It had gotten dark and they began to harass me. One of them said that they could carry the water for me. When I said no, he got angry and said that I had insulted him. He demanded that the only way to compensate for that was to have sex with him. I refused and he punched me in the stomach. The others then grabbed me and carried me to the bush where I was raped. They each raped me and then left me there after threatening to kill me and my family.”

{mosads}Hers is one story among millions that don’t make headlines like the violence perpetrated by ISIS or the Taliban or Boko Haram who caught the world’s attention when they kidnapped several hundred girls from a school in Nigeria. In fact, the perpetrator in these cases of violence against women will surprise you. She continues: 

“I vowed not to tell my family, because it would bring shame to them. I took the water home and didn’t tell my family anything. I couldn’t trust the police, because they will not help me. I have to live with this shame for the rest of my life. I still walk to the pipe to collect water.”

An ocean away in Sudan, 82 percent of rapes occur during daily tasks, including collecting water. In India, a senior police official from the Indian state of Bihar told the BBC that 400 women would have ‘escaped’ rape if they had toilets in their homes. ‘Sanitation-related’ rapes, making up nearly 50 percent of rape cases, mostly target newlyweds and unmarried girls, as they are more likely to suffer silently: “the newlyweds fear divorce, while parents of unmarried girls are worried about their daughter’s marriage prospects.”

For women and girls, the “perpetrator” of daily and unspeakable violence is the lack of WASH — safe WAter, Sanitation and adequate Hygiene. Mothers will helplessly watch their children die because 50 percent of all malnutrition is caused by unsafe water. Girls are denied an education when they must spend hours every day collecting water, often along deserted paths that lead to filthy ponds and rivers that make their families sick. Unsafe water burdens families with illness, lost workdays, medical expenses, and permanent physical and mental disabilities. The lack of WASH keeps hundreds of millions of women and girls shackled to lives of poverty. And humiliation. And what isn’t spoken of, violence.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a country festering in a long history of violence and civil war, but this 12-year-old’s terror was the result of simply walking home from the market:

“Since the only place to go was in the forest, I told the others not to leave me. I entered to relieve myself and quickly returned to the path, fast on their heels. But my hour of darkness had come. Suddenly a group of men appeared behind me. One of them grabbed me by the hand. I screamed, but my frightened companions were already running away.”

“The pain was like having knives plunged inside my body as they raped me in turns. I do not know how to forgive these people, or how to forget. When they were done they left me there bleeding, moaning in pain, until a group of women found me slumped on the ground. One of them carried me on her back until we reached a health centre. Her entire back was covered in my blood. Another woman from my village went to inform my parents. That night the entire village came to the health centre to see the damage: feces and urine flowed out of the same opening in my body. After a week at the health centre, I spent another three weeks at home before being taken to the hospital in Goma for surgery. I can now control my bladder, but not completely my bowels.”

There is plenty wrong with violence against women, and we certainly don’t know how to solve it all. But we do know that when women and girls have access to safe water and the dignity of basic sanitation, they are safer.

From faith-based and secular organizations to Congressional funding, WASH has got to be prioritized and woven into all global health and development work if we wish to see real and sustained change for the most vulnerable among us.

To learn more:

Henderson is president of Auburn Seminary, a multi-faith leadership development center where she spearheads innovative initiatives in the multi-faith movement for justice. She is author of God’s Troublemakers: How Women of Faith are Changing the World. Henderson is ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  Barnett is a former award-winning network news producer; she continues to produce documentary films and is a strategic media and communications consultant to nonprofits, working at the nexus of media, faith and social justice. She is founder of Faiths for Safe Water and Impact Communications.


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