"I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." Ellie WieselAs I sat across her on Friday last week (13th November 09), I wondered if there is anything I could say that would make it right. I wondered if there is anything, I could say that would make her know that I understand that I cannot empathize enough, but I wish I could. I cannot even claim to feel with her, to understand her, however much I try. Aisha had been in Kenya for some time, and I knew she had gone through a lot. I had wanted to see her, but I knew that I needed to fit her at the most appropriate time, not after work but a time that she would be comfortable traversing Nairobi. We had planned to meet for some time, but I seemed too busy to get the time. As I sat outside the one building that she had said she could trace in Nairobi, I wondered if she would come after all. I looked at my watch and being the time conscious person I am, wondered as I realised she was 30 minutes late. I tried to get myself busy, went to a Bata shoes shop, shopped for some shoes and went back to sit outside Hilton Hotel, and felt more uncomfortable. I tried keeping myself busy with reading, but this was not it, yet I could not leave before I saw her. If not today, it would take some time before I managed another free afternoon. I went to a coffee shop and just as well the waiters were slow in serving me and after ten minutes went to an ice cream shop, where I felt she would trace easily.
As I sat there savoring the ice cream, my mind was blank. What would I say to her? I had no idea, but I knew I wanted to let her know that I am there for her. I could not make out the conversation I would have with her, so opted to stare blankly as I wondered on the unfairness that she was going through. I had met Aisha in Addis Ababa during a two weeks training in December 2008 for the African Women’s Leadership Institute (AWLI). The participants were drawn from different countries in the East and Horn of Africa, and within the two weeks we bonded in sisterhood and had been in constant communication since then.
Finally, after waiting for close to two hours, Aisha stepped in. As I watched her step in, I could not help but look at the beautiful young woman and think, ‘you need some sunshine girl friend!’. Her face was almost white; I could tell she had not enjoyed much sunshine.
“I will share with you my sister”, she started and without many words, shared with me what had happened to her on that fateful day some 5 months before in her home in Somalia. She had been sexually abused and physically assault by people who are supposed to be protectors of the citizens; soldiers. She struggled for a long time, and it is a wonder she did not lose consciousness as the two repeatedly beat her with guns. It left her emotionally and physically traumatized. After receiving medical attention, she was transferred to a Kenyan hospital thanks to the organization she works for that has supported her throughout. Aisha had been working on promoting the sexual and reproductive health and rights for girls and women in her region, now she was suffering the same violence.
As we sat and started talking, I wished there is something more than a hug that I could do to help her. I was not sure if was saying the right thing, ‘you will be okay’…would she? It was difficult to see light at the end of the tunnel for her. I fully understood when she said she rarely left the house she was staying indoors and one could tell she does not have much sunshine for some time. The counseling sessions were doing her good, but it was still difficult, and only time, not sure what amount of time, would come close to healing her.
To add salt to the injury, her anguish did not end with the abuse that tore her apart physically and emotionally, but it the abuse was made worse by the social stigma. She was unwanted in her community and her children have to suffer not only the pain of having their mother away from them, but also the taunting of the neighbours kids (who had learnt from the adults of course) that something bad had happened to her. She is an abomination in the community hence even other children did not want to be associated with her children. Nobody would want to be associated with a sexually abused woman and her family! This made and still does make my heart churn, why should she be the one treated like such a shame and not her perpetrators, who are still walking scot-free and probably abusing many more women? My heart bleeds for her and other girls and women not only in her community and country but also all over the world. It is not ‘she’ who should be having with the label! Her children should not be stigmatised over and over again, the unfairness of it all. She should be getting support for crying aloud, not being scolded.
I could not bring myself to imagine what she was going through as she tried to figure how to end the ends meet in her for her young kids, yet the pain of her experience was still fresh in her mind. When would she go back home? When would she see her children? Not only had her life’s dignity been torn apart, but also now, she did not have a place to call home. Her work with the girls in her community could not go on, for she could not go back home yet. As we parted, I could only hope and pray that she finds the strength in her to continue moving on. I could only tell her that I hold her in my heart. I believe she will be okay, she has been strong so far, and she will pull through. Her life will never be the same but I was optimistic that she would make the best of her life, in time.
It is saddening that she is just one of the many girls and women who have been undergoing the same. Many of the stories go unreported and unknown to many apart from the survivors of the violence. Many women and girls live in constant fear, with their hearts bleeding in hurt, not speaking out, not knowing if anyone cares or understands. Their insides are torn, yet they have to keep up an effort to appear normal. In the African context, women are expected to persevere, and part of the expectation of a woman or girl is to have enormous strength, so how does an African woman or girl afford to break down? How does she speak out against her abusers without being labelled? Without having the world turn the table against her?
Many of us opt to keep quiet and not speak out. We opt to remain neutral, and just watch as evil continues.
Sometimes it gets frustrating and feel like the work is too difficult, but we can only do our best, a step at a time, and hope to put to an end similar kind of experiences. If everyone can do something small, in the small space they have, such experiences can be outdated. There is still a long way to go, but we cannot give up. I cannot give up.