Violence Against Women and The Call for Change
By Natasha Simone Alexenko
I consider myself fortunate to have ample opportunities to engage with women globally. There are times when the borders that separate us seem too vast to traverse. I sit in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, where I am offered freedoms denied to so many of my sisters across the world.
As considerable as our differences may be, there is so much that unites us. Our dreams, things that make us laugh, the love we have for our families – we bask in the light of these joys together. However, another stark reality unifies us that is so much darker. No matter our nation, age, religion, or financial status, we all live adjacent to fear because we are all women.
One of the first projects I worked on as a global team was to reflect upon a 1983 speech by feminist activist and writer Andrea Dworkin, entitled TAKE BACK THE DAY: I Want a Twenty-Four-Hour Truce During Which There Is No Rape. The title illustrates a longing for an effortlessly simple idea–and seemingly impossible in the same stroke. Share this speech’s title with any woman across the world in any language, and they will immediately identify with its notion – we forever reside adjacent to fear.
Speaking Truth to Fear
Ten years after Andrea Dworkin would give this speech, I was raped and robbed at gunpoint in the United States by a stranger who followed me home. I am far from being an anomaly—research from WHO indicates that about 1 in 3 women have been subjected to sexual violence globally. We are constantly recovering from trauma or living in fear, often simultaneously, every moment of every day. To quote Andrea Dworkin:
“We use statistics not to try to quantify the injuries, but to convince the world that those injuries even exist. Those statistics are not abstractions. It is easy to say, “Ah, the statistics, somebody writes them up one way and somebody writes them up another way." That's true. But I hear about the rapes one by one by one by one by one, which is also how they happen. Those statistics are not abstract to me. Every three minutes a woman is being raped. Every eighteen seconds a woman is being beaten. There is nothing abstract about it. It is happening right now as I am speaking.”
And indeed, it is happening right now throughout the moments that pass as you read this. Regardless of how the violence is perpetuated or its manner, power is always used as the weapon. While we are never protected from its grasp, power is always protected. The men maintaining the status quo do all they can to ensure that this hierarchy of harm exists alongside us. They have made violence virtually impossible to indict. And why would we come forward? They use our fear of retaliation, ridicule, and shame against us so that we hesitate to come forward; and indeed, so few of us do. And when we do, and when we receive justice, we often find ourselves imprisoned as well.
Where Are the Real Repercussions?
It appears there are no repercussions for those who commit violent acts against women. They continue to roam free, creating an endless cycle of harm, fear, and trauma. They are lauded and offered more access to power, honing their skill further with each violent interaction. Women, on the other hand, are treated as criminals. We are dismissed, shamed, and encouraged to nestle deeper into the depths of isolation.
I am familiar with the depths of isolation because I lived there for many years after my assault. There are still moments after all these years that I find myself repeating the narrative so deeply engrained into my head – I am less, I am no longer worthy, this was somehow my fault. Intellectually, I know none of this is true. Still, it is difficult to untangle ourselves from the web woven through years of subliminal messaging fed to us by those who fear losing their grip of power.
Despite the pain and the trauma, I have found hope and love; or perhaps they have found me. I have met countless women across the globe whose stories I am honoured to have heard, often for the first time, and we have found strength in ourselves through each other. We find strength in the recognition that though we are tragically bonded, we help each other through love. Men who cling desperately to power will never touch such beauty or feel such depth because the only way to experience it is through the relinquishing of fear. It requires vulnerability and compassion.
I want the entire world and all genders to experience love and compassion. I want to give each the freedom to feel safe in our vulnerability. Andrea put it aptly when speaking out a 24-hour truce where there is no rape:
“And on that day, that day of truce, that day when not one woman is raped, we will begin the real practice of equality, because we can't begin it before that day. Before that day it means nothing because it is nothing: it is not real; it is not true. But on that day, it becomes real. And then, instead of rape we will for the first time in our lives–both men and women–begin to experience freedom.”
No Freedom Until We Are All Truly Free
While there is healing after rape and love after surviving violence, there is truly never freedom as we are continuously stalked by fear. We are not free to speak openly nor travel without caution. Sadly, the onus is on us to always watch what we say, take care not to overreact, and be sure to always mind our surroundings. If something happens to us when we are not following the prescribed rules, we are the ones to blame. Even when we are told it’s not our fault, these “rules” are so deeply engrained that we will convince ourselves that ultimately, we are at fault.
It's long past time we change these notions. Andrea Dworkin gave her speech nearly 40 years ago, and it sounds far from archaic, even today. I suppose the same could hold true for something written even 80 years ago.
It is true that survivors have found each other and connected globally thanks to technology. We have found solace in one another, and we have gained strength together. We have shown the world what women are capable of when we band together as one unified voice. Our unification still does not address the power dynamics that sustain violence against women. This is the elephant in the room that we pretend is not there. When we expect women to heal through bonding with each other or following the lead of other women that have come forward, we are once again putting the onus on us instead of the perpetrators. How about stopping committing violence so that it is just a celebration when we greet each other?
I don’t believe that Andrea Dworkin expected the world to exist without rape for one day. She was trying to say we are tired of being responsible for all of it, and we are ready for a reprieve. The onus is on you.
Natasha Simone Alexenko serves VOICE as the United States Program Advisor where she is presently focused on ensuring women across the country live free from violence and discrimination. Natasha is an author, advocate, and activist who was the focus of the HBO documentary, Sex Crimes Unit. Alexenko lives in New York with her husband Scott, mother Nevart, nephew Alexander, and their dogs Piper and Toby.