Photo: Nicky Newman
A reflection by Tarryn Pegna
Warning: Some readers may find parts of this story upsetting
Deep anguish and righteous anger. Recently, the streets of South Africa rang with the cries of hearts broken. The rest of the world, wrapped in our own current concerns, may not have noticed the violent rape and death of one university student named Nene, but we should. This is not only a South African issue. SGBV affects us all. This voice should be ours.
‘Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) refers to any act that is perpetrated against a person’s will and is based on gender norms and unequal power relationships.’ (UNHCR)
Power. It’s about power. More specifically, the abuse of it. Most often SGBV refers to crimes against girls or women, but it is by no means limited to them. At the crux of it, it’s an issue of bullying and control. It humiliates, defiles and destroys.
It matters because it breaks the heart of a loving Creator God who was willing to sacrifice the most precious prize for the deep love of each one of us, made in His image.
If it breaks his heart, it must break ours – whether we have personal experience of this trauma or not. Wherever we are in the world, whatever our privilege – what will we teach our sons and our daughters? About who they are? About how they are entitled to treat and be treated? To protect and be protected?
Leila* was 14 years old when the trouble began.
Her village in Iraq was attacked and the stable, comfortable life she knew, was over.
‘My life suddenly changed from bad to worse and worse again,’ says Leila. Having lost their home, Leila’s family had to struggle even to find a place to live. Then a 35-year-old married neighbour, a friend of the family, started to harass her.
‘Many times he tried to get close to me...but I refused,’ says Leila.
So, he paid her cousin ten dollars to get a picture of Leila’s face, which he edited onto images of naked women. He sent them to Leila and threatened to post them on social media.
‘I was so afraid,’ says Leila. ‘If my family found out about the problem, I thought they would kill me and that people would blame me and my family.’
Leila was living under his control. He asked her for sex. He asked her to bring him her friends for sex. She continuously refused, but she says, ‘I didn’t know what to do or how to tell anyone.’ She was so scared.
One day Leila was walking with a friend and the man began to call her phone incessantly from where he was watching her across the road. He wanted her friend, he said. Leila, visibly upset, had to tell her friend what was going on. About the man. About the pictures. About the threats.
‘Let him come,’ Leila’s friend said. She stepped forward. She hoped that she could put an end to it all for Leila.
‘He raped my friend in front me,’ Leila says. ‘I know she put herself at risk [for me] because she is divorced and not a virgin.’
Voiceless pain and turmoil
‘After that I tried to commit suicide many times because this thing was on my mind all the time and it followed me.’
Leila lived like this for three years. She didn’t know what to do. ‘He was always teasing me,’ she says, ‘trying to get close to me, to exploit me and have sex with me. ...But that’s when I heard about Tearfund.’
A friend of Leila’s introduced her to an SGBV protection project which was facilitated by Tearfund and run by community volunteers.
Leila didn’t know what SGBV meant, but the group sounded interesting, so she went along.
‘I was listening to the volunteers leading,’ she says. ‘I thought of everything that had happened to me…[and]...I knew that I was not the only one who faced this type of violence.’
Through the sessions, Leila says ‘I learned how to believe in myself.’
Right at the end of the six weeks, she gathered the courage to speak with one of the volunteers leading the sessions. She pretended she was telling the story of a friend, but the volunteer looked at her with compassion and asked her, ‘Why are you silent? Why not defend your rights?’
Leila was learning that she had value. That she had permission to stand up for herself.
‘A few days after our conversation,’ Leila says, ‘he was bothering me again and tried to rape me. He threatened to put the picture with the naked woman’s body on social media.’
It was yet another traumatic moment in what had been years of traumatic moments for Leila, but this time there was a difference. Through the protection project, Leila had been armed with the knowledge that she had rights. That she had power.
‘I was so strong at that time,’ she says. ‘I told him; “You are free to share it, but I cannot be silent...I will call the police...and I can inform an organisation who can protect me from you!”’
The man was shocked. Leila assured him that she meant what she said.
‘Since that moment...he can only watch me from afar, but he cannot do anything to me any more,’ says Leila. ‘Now I am so brave and I hope to support those girls who face violence. After all, I am one of [thousands of] girls who are living with this situation.’
The information and support has made Leila bold.
‘I will never forget how much I have overcome. I now have the courage to inform other people about how to not be silent about their rights when they face violence.’
‘I am so grateful to Tearfund for this fabulous work…’, says Leila. ‘It gives [girls like me] courage not to be afraid of anyone. I hope you will continue to encourage us.... I have become a teacher for my little sisters at home – about SGBV and how to protect themselves from violence.’
Leila’s story is one of triumph. We praise God for her victory and her protection.
An alternative ending
But not every story of SGBV ends in triumph. For many, the conclusion is in a physical or emotional death. That sounds horrific – and we should be horrified. The truth is vicious.
SGBV is a corruption of power.
We are not without power.
With our time, our voices, our prayers and our finances we can – and must – empower and protect those who, for whatever unkind reason – be it war, culture, poverty or crime – have lost theirs.
POWER IN PRAYER
- Praise God for the power of choice. Pray that He will give us, as humanity, wisdom to make choices that empower those around us and do not destroy them.
- Pray for those who feel voiceless and helpless – that He will be their help. That we will be their voice.
- Pray for those who work with people like Leila. That they will be encouraged, protected and blessed.
POWER IN STANDING
- Use your voice to stand up. For you – you matter. For those around you who are unable to stand for themselves. Man, woman or child – you, and they, have the right to be heard and protected.
- Call out injustice where you see it. Do not be silent. (You could look at Restored if you need help with this.)
POWER IN GIVING
- Even your smallest gift can help provide support for people like Leila in Iraq by enabling this type of life-saving, life-changing support to continue.
More information on Tearfund’s work around the issue of SGBV can be found here.
To support Tearfund financially, you can donate here.
For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. (2 Timothy 1:7)
*Name has been changed to protect identity
Picture used with kind permission of the photographer