Our mission is to document and analyze how sexualized violence is used as a tool of war—inherent in that is advocating against it. Women Under Siege’s founder, Gloria Steinem, wanted to ensure that we never again ignore what happened to women in war in such a tremendously callous way as was done after the Holocaust. Gloria was inspired to start Women Under Siege after reading an anthology called Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust and a book called At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance—a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power.
As a journalist, a woman, and an advocate, I deeply believe we must document and talk about a problem in order to fix it. Women’s suffering is historically silenced—through shame, stigma, and cultural ideas that what women endure is somehow lesser than what men do—yet today women and children are the central victims of war. It’s an irony that actually keeps me up at night. That our suffering goes unnoticed, and women who are brutalized are dismissed.
The World Health Organization and the UN Security Council have identified that there remains a crucial lack of analysis about how rape is used as a weapon of war: Its methods, its applications, its fallout are just not easily seen, and therefore not easily fixed. My hope is that Women Under Siege helps us better understand the means, patterns, and motivations behind these mass atrocities. Until we realize that this is a global public health crisis—and a human rights issue for all of us—we’re not going to see the end of it.
You are one of the first people to seriously document sexualized violence against journalists. How did you come to the work that you are involved in?
Could you talk a little about your work at the Committee to Protect Journalists?
Lara Logan was sexually assaulted in Egypt while I was senior editor of CPJ. She was on our board and when we heard what had happened to her, I felt our collective stomachs drop. I chose to write about what happened the next morning. I looked back through our files to see what kinds of cases we had on record that were similar. There were nearly none. Every day at CPJ I’d written about beatings, jailings, kidnappings—never rape. I started wondering if that was because sexualized violence wasn’t happening much to journalists, or if we weren’t hearing about it. It turned out to be the latter.
I embarked on intensive reporting interviewing more than 50 journalists around the world—both local and foreign correspondents—to figure out what kinds of sexualized violence they were dealing with and why no one was talking about it. The answer was reporters are being sexually attacked at all levels—from groping to gang rape—in the course of reporting in dangerous places, in detention, and as retribution for what they cover. They haven’t been talking about it because they fear they will be thought of as weak and lose assignments.
Women have fought so hard to gain equal footing in journalism, and revelations of sexualized violence, they told me, weren’t going to get them ahead. I heard story after story in which this was the actual truth—that women had lost jobs and assignments for speaking about their attacks.
Rape is a tool of war but it is also a tool of coercive social control on a global level. How are crimes committed in Darfur for example connected to the seemingly unrelated "personal" crimes against women committed in the developed world?
Violence in the home normalizes violence in the street and in foreign policy.
We are forced to fight against not just the mass atrocities of rape in war, but against the attitudes of men in the developed world who are still blaming women for the violence they endure. As long as a large part of society thinks it’s our fault that we’re raped, then we are shouting for change at a brick wall.
You write about some of the most horrific crimes that have been committed against women and you yourself have been a target of harassment for bringing these crimes to light. How do you keep going? What do you do after a long day of researching and writing about misogynistic (and often socially sanctioned) violence. How do you deal with feelings of discouragement and anger?
There are days I don’t realize how deeply I’ve gone into the rabbit hole of horror, and I forget to take care of myself. After 10 days in Central America recently talking to survivors of rape and other kinds of violence, my body gave out in a sudden panic attack. I didn’t see it coming, but it was my body’s way of telling me that when you do this work, you have to be mindful of your own health. It took me a couple weeks to recover my stability after that incident, and ever since, I’ve tried to pull back at the end of the day and step away from the computer, the phone, and the thoughts of what I’ve been reading and writing.
It’s hard though. It’s very hard. Because you do feel that whatever you are hurting about is nothing in comparison to the women you are reporting on—and it is your duty to honor their experience and the trust they have placed in you to tell their story.
What can women do right now to get involved in ending violence against women?
Since I started this work—examining sexualized violence in the media and now in conflict—I’ve seen a shift that I think is worth highlighting. Around the time I was at CPJ doing reporting on all this, Karestan Koenen was fighting to change protocols for reporting rape in the Peace Corps. (She eventually succeeded.) Also, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Anthony Weiner were in the news. On top of that, the media was covering rape in the military more than ever. What I’m saying is that there appears to be a shift toward talking about all this. Women have stood up and made clear they aren’t going to quietly take it anymore, whether in journalism, the military, the Peace Corps, or politics. That’s significant, and tells me that we have momentum we should use to go further.
I would tell women who want to get involved to speak out—and speak loudly. First, educate yourself about how rape is used as a weapon of war, or in the home, or on the streets, or in policy. Then write about it, talk about it, and then talk about it again. Let the world know that you, too, aren’t going to take it anymore. We are half the population. We need to become at least half the voices calling for change, and an end to violence against women. And let’s add some men to this: Their voices against rape can be powerful alongside ours. We need to let them know they’re welcome in this fight.