My active interest in women’s rights and the fight against domestic violence only really became acute after one of my scenes from season five of Game of Thrones aired. It was a scene in which my character – a 15 year old hostage – was raped by her captor. There was a huge response and not a particularly positive one: People were boycotting the show, multiple articles were being produced online and it was a trending topic on Twitter.
To be completely honest, my initial reaction was satisfaction: That rape, domestic violence and systemic sexual inequality is something we are capable of talking about; that we are capable of creating and sustaining a visible public dialogue. I don’t think it’s easy to overstate the importance of that dialog; if, by seeing us tell that part of Sansa’s story, 10 survivors of sexual violence felt empowered to talk about their experience, I’ll happily put up with the Twitter storm in a teacup.
But this initial satisfaction gave way to frustration and, eventually, anger. Frustration that there continues to be such a taboo surrounding rape, given that the WHO estimates that more than one in three (35%) women, globally, experience physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. Anger that it being depicted onscreen was seen as vulgar; whilst the brute fact that, by dint of having two x-chromosomes, because of a set of genitalia determined long before I was born, there was a 35% probability at the point of birth that I would be victim of domestic and/or sexual violence. I found it vulgar that talking heads online had decided that Game of Thrones – known for its unflinching depictions of incest, slavery (sexual and otherwise) and a brother’s reproductive coercion of his sister – ought not depict rape. It would be a vulgar failure on our part as storytellers, to be happily silent on a matter that affects our sisters, mothers, daughters, nieces, cousins every day, all over the world. I’m proud to be part of a show that won’t be content to give unproblematic accounts of being a woman in a patriarchal society; if it falls to a fantasy show to portray the reality of domestic and sexual violence, so be it.
From this starting point, I wanted to get more actively involved, to go out and hear these stories personally, and to see the work that’s being done to bring about change. I decided to team up with Women for Women International, the charity which helps women survivors of conflict, and travel to one of the places where they focus their efforts; Rwanda.
The first day in Rwanda was a crash-course in Rwandan history, particularly the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Although I was familiar with this horrific chapter in Rwanda’s recent past, it was difficult to reconcile the violence with my initial impression of Rwanda; that it seemed, frankly, calm and serene. While there appeared to be few noticeable scars from the atrocities, our guide, Serge was quick to show us just how much the people had been affected, and continue to be, by the genocide.
In just 100 days, following the assassination of the President Habyarimana (a member of the Hutu-dominated MRND party), around one in every seven Rwandans was slaughtered by fellow civilians; one million citizens murdered by their friends, neighbours, work colleagues due to the divide between Hutus and Tutsis – ethnonational identities that were themselves a hangover from Africa’s colonial past. Amongst the many places we visited on that first day was the Sainte Famille Church. The church had initially been a refuge from the fighting for both Hutus and Tutsis, but, over the course of several months, the priest delivered hundreds of Tutsis, both adults and children, to the Hutu militias. One of the points that was emphasised during the visit was the role sexual violence played in the conflict. In addition to aiding the militias kill Tutsi refugees, the priest from Sainte Famille Church was convicted of raping the female refugees; one thing that Serge said and that stuck with me, was that the men of the Hutu tribe would claim that by raping these women, they were ‘liberating’ them.
While these broad stories were horrifying, retelling a complete humanitarian catastrophe, we also paid a visit to the Nyamata Church memorial, where the brutal, personal nature of violence was brought to the fore; amongst the clothes and remains of the victims, amidst the bones, discarded shoes and skulls, there was the coffin of a woman who had been brutally raped with a blunt instrument with such force that it came out the back of her head. Words are insufficient, but being there was so graphic and harrowing, I was shocked and sickened into action. These are not issues that we can let slip silently into the background of conflicts and societies around the world.
Our second day in Rwanda marked a distinct change from the day before; we visited and sat in on one of the Women for Women International classes. If the first day was overwhelming and slightly paralysing – bearing witness to the breadth and depth of the cruelty endured by the Rwandan population, particularly the women – the second was uplifting and energising. It was hugely inspiring to see women, often born into difficult circumstances, motivated to empower themselves, to learn necessary, emancipatory skills and to improve their lives. The atmosphere in the class was incredible; the result not only of the dancing, singing and chatting between the women, but of the sense of solidarity and mutuality – it felt like a community rather than a class.
There was a trainer leading the discussion, but she was not the only person talking. The women would help each other out; learning from each other and developing together. Women for women in all aspects.
One of the most stark awakenings I took from the trip was an appreciation for the opportunities I have as a woman from the global North. The woman in the classes were all taught very basic but necessary skills ranging from household saving – each woman who joins the programme is helped to set up a personal bank account and receives a $10 monthly stipend, fostering the beginnings of financial independence – to dealing with domestic violence and the rights to which they are entitled. Women for Women International do a great job cultivating relationships with businesses and members of the third sector in Rwanda and can therefore establish a connection between the women they work with and these organisations, culminating in a placements for the women and the opportunities that come with employment. The course is comprehensive – lasting a year – and each class is made up of in the poorest women from the affected communities; it makes a massive difference to these women and their lives.
Later on we went on to visit the Women’s Opportunity Centre; a place in which a lot of women work in cheese and yoghurt production and also artwork and basket weaving. One of the women I met there was called Immaculée. She was a loving, overwhelmingly positive, successful woman so it was with a familiar combination of disbelief and grief that I learnt about her dark, deeply personal, experience of Rwanda’s recent past. She was a direct victim of the genocide; her family had been brutally murdered and she herself had been captured, beaten and eventually raped. She still had the scars from her beatings on her skin and bumps on her head. Watching the smiling, welcoming woman I had met break down as she recounted her personal history was another devastating reminder that we have a duty to make sure voices such as Immaculée’s are heard. Both her aspiration and her anguish. Through her time with Women for Women International she has developed strong textile skills and now has her own business of making bags and duvet covers; again, words seem a bit insufficient in conveying how proud I was to see someone who has been through as much as her thriving and embracing an opportunity for entrepreneurism that must, at one point, have seemed impossible.
What I’ve taken away from my trip with Women for Women International is just how important relationships are for women. Bringing women together, especially survivors of traumatic experiences, and granting them access to the sort of support system Women for Women International provides has a transformative impact. It’s not merely about healing the wounds of past injustice and oppression, it’s about ensuring women everywhere are put in control of their future – political, entrepreneurial, financial and reproductive. Being a sponsor can change a person’s life for the better; standing with someone, providing support to them under extraordinary circumstances, can make a huge difference for their emotional and their mental health. That’s why I’m sponsoring Felicite in Rwanda through Women for Women International’s year long programme; I want to play my part in ensuring she is given the knowledge, means and encouragement to take control of, and improve, her life.
So please help these women. Here’s how you can.
Join the sisterhood at womenforwomen.org.uk/sisters and lend your voice to create a chain of inspiration. Together we will use the power of our collective voice to support women in war-torn countries, letting them know they are not alone. Join the sisterhood and take a stand against the injustices they face.
Sponsor a sister and help change the world one woman at a time. Your monthly gifts of £22 could help support her through a year-long training programme that will give her the skills to support her family and transform her life.