In her book Unbowed,
Kenyan Nobel Prize Laureate, Dr. Wangari Maathi, shares the story of
when she and other mothers demanded that the Moi government end the
systematic disappearance of dissenters, so many of whom were the beloved
sons of these mothers. After three days of protesting the government’s
policy of disappearance and demanding to know whether their sons were
alive or dead, the mothers watched as hundreds of police officers descended
onto them. At first, Dr. Maathi and other mothers thought that the police
officers would only try to intimidate them, without the use of any force.
But the officers raised their billy clubs and handguns to these mothers.
And the mothers stripped. Against the cold metal of billy clubs and
guns, held by men the same age as their missing sons, the mothers stripped
off their clothes to show the police — these boys — their breasts, to
say to them, how dare you raise a hand to the very sacred body and flesh
that fed you when you were a baby, when you didn’t have words, when
you only crawled, and when your hands were not wrapped around guns but
around our bodies for comfort and love.
How dare you dishonor the sacredness
of our bodies.
Yet our bodies are constantly
desecrated. Girls and women, in the US and abroad, between the ages
of fifteen to forty-four are more likely to be maimed or die as a result
of male violence than by cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war
combined. At least one out every three women has been beaten, coerced
into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime, here in the United States
and worldwide. We are subject to honor killings, sex trafficking, and
extreme violence, in our homes and communities. In places of conflict
and war, our bodies are too often turned into killing fields of sexual violation
and traumatic injury.
There are no borders or boundaries
that protect women and girls from gendered violence.
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Here in the United States,
where the privileges and constitutionally protected rights of freedom
and equality define our history of struggle, American women and girls
do not possess a freedom to live out our full potential — unencumbered
by violence. Despite the progress of America as a nation, American women
and girls are still subject to sexual and physical violence that deprives
us of our full personhood.
According to the Rape, Abuse,
and Incest National Network (RAINN), girls ages 16-19 are 4 times more
likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted
rape, or sexual assault. 7% of girls in grades 5-8 and 12% of girls
in grades 9-12 report that they had been sexually abused. 1 in 3 girls
by the time she reaches 18 will be sexually violated. Women who experienced
childhood molestation are more vulnerable to mental health disorders,
suicide, substance abuse, and obesity.
And how violence plays out
in the lives of vulnerable women and girls is especially life-denying.
When women and girls with economic privilege are subject to violence
they are most likely to interact with the mental health system — which
is not necessarily a healing experience. But vulnerable women and girls
hurt as a result of physical or sexual violence are tossed to the criminal
Sexual and physical violence
is central to girls’ journeys to detention and incarceration. A study
on delinquent girls revealed that in California, 81 percent of chronically
delinquent girls reported being physically abused and 56 percent were
sexually abused. The overriding reasons for girls’ arrests are for
the gendered offenses of running away or prostitution. Many girls charged
with runaway offenses are escaping from homes where there is sexual
and or physical violence directed at them. Girls engaged in prostitution
are often already victims of abuse and they comprise the majority of
youth detained for prostitution.
Most women behind bars are
there for non-violent drug felonies, and most are untreated addicts
who are victims of violence. Their drug addiction is often connected
to repeated injuries of sexual and physical violence. Women, especially
mothers, struggling with addiction were first victims of violence: addiction
to meth, crack-cocaine or marijuana is often a desperate attempt to
self-medicate from the untreated trauma of repeated sexual and physical
violence committed against them, often since their childhood years.
According to the Bureau of Justice’s research, half of the women in
jails and half of the women in state and federal prisons experienced
physical or sexual abuse before incarceration. In jails and prisons,
women and mothers are forced to give birth in shackles and suffer the
removal of their children.
These women and girls are left
behind, the integrity of their bodies discarded and the need to heal
from the searing injuries of violence disregarded. They are not perceived
as victims of violence but instead criminals, whores, or girls who are
out of control. But, they like so many other American women and girls,
are victims of violence, for whom violence eclipses their basic rights
to liberty and equality.
Freedom from sexual and physical
violence is a fundamental human right, and it is rooted in our Constitutional
narrative of individual rights. That the right to live free from gendered
violence still eludes American women and girls, especially in vulnerable
communities, must be addressed in the context of how our nation has
yet to fulfill its greatest promise to its citizens. As long as gendered
violence is accepted, tolerated, and construed as an inevitable consequence
of being female, the full promise of individual liberty and the equal
worth of every person will be denied to women and girls.
When I think about the story
of Dr. Wangari Maathi, and her sisters insisting on the sacredness of
their bodies against the threat of violence done to them, I often ask
what is the act, symbol, document, or ritual that would make unequivocal
the sacredness of all women and girls’ bodies in the US. What reminds
of us of the inherent, natural rights possessed by women and girls to
live free from the tyranny of gendered violence? I can’t help but think
that it’s our Constitution.