by Stephanie Koehler
How many rapes will it take to bring to our consciousness the devastating consequences inflicted on both rape survivors and society? How many more rapes do we need to hear about to make this plague our own personal problem? The 2009 National Crime Victimization Survey, conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice, reported approximately 79 percent of sexually assaulted women were attacked by a current or former husband, cohabitating partner, friend, or date. Strangers committed only 21 percent of the assaults counted in this survey.
According to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, one out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. The same is true for about three percent of American men. Approximately 15 percent of sexual assault and rape victims in the U.S. are under age 12. These horrifying numbers only reflect a fraction of factual rapes as most go unreported. And in countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the vast numbers of women affected by sexual assault defies accurate reporting.
I became aware of WfWI after reading Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Founded by Zainab Salbi, WfWI’s mission is “to provide women survivors of war, civil strife, and other conflicts with the tools and resources to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency.” They operate in eight war-ridden countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Through WfWI, I was assigned a “sister” in the Congo who I support with a $27 USD monthly donation. In a yearlong program my sister attends rights awareness education classes and receives job skills training so she can continue to support her family. A portion of my monthly donation is a contribution of direct aid so she can provide her family with basic necessities. I also write personal letters to my Congolese sister to provide emotional support and encouragement.
According to the International Rescue Committee, 5.4 million people have been killed in the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since its beginning in 1998. Two out of ten children die before the age of five. Women are gang raped, tortured, and mutilated daily as part of the war. The fear women in the Congo live in, the rawness of the war, and the very real threat of repeated rape, torture, and loss of loved ones are difficult to fathom.
Remarking on the financial cost of the excessive sexual violence, Thompson tells me, “Women who are attacked are often not only forced to cope with severe physical and psychological damage, often without health or legal services; they are also unable to work or participate in public life.” She cites a 2003 report from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention that estimates that the cost of intimate partner violence in the U.S. exceeded $5.8 billion USD per year when both direct medical and health care services and productivity losses due to absenteeism are included. “As we confront this global challenge, it is critical to remember that sexual and gender-based violence does not just affect women’s health and well-being,” says Thompson. “It also impoverishes whole families and communities while stymieing productivity and economic growth.”
My Congolese sister’s name is Esperance. Sometimes I think of her name as a daily reminder that this is all she can hang onto – hope. She is 19 years old, has one child, and lives with her family. Esperance will be graduating from the Women for Women International yearlong program next month. Through her class she is now connected to a community of women who support one another in their healing process and personal development.
In 2009 I felt compelled to support women in my local community who had experienced sexual assault, and I became an advocate for the local Rape Crisis Center. I started advocacy training and became a certified sexual assault counselor. Since that time, I have accompanied several young women and one 5-year-old girl during their forensic examination as part of a SART or Sexual Assault Response Team consisting of law enforcement, a sexual assault forensic examiner, and an advocate from the Rape Crisis Center. The primary role of an advocate is to offer emotional support to the survivor, and to provide information about medical care, counseling, police intervention, and other services available. The advocate enjoys full confidentiality, which helps create a sphere of trust for the survivor. To meet women under these circumstances is difficult and yet honors them at the same time. As an advocate I am often the very first person to whom they can relate and express their emotions unfiltered. If I am only able to take the survivor’s mind off of the incident for a short period of time, or to listen to their fears and flashbacks, I feel I have made a worthy contribution.
It takes courage to report an assault and more so to endure the long hours of investigation and forensic examination. Survivors often relive the atrocity of that traumatic experience and no guarantees can be given as to whether the assailant will ever be brought to justice or whether the case will even go to court. However, I have learned that breaking the silence is one of the most important steps in the healing process – and that it is never too late to report, even years after the incident. I have witnessed how reporting empowers the survivor to take charge and stand up for her or his rights. Even though the outcome of any reported sexual assault cannot be guaranteed, the more often it is reported, the more likely it is that repeat perpetrators will eventually be caught and brought to justice. In addition, the more women and men who speak up and make it clear that such assault is unacceptable, the less tolerated it becomes.
I believe the hurt and devastation experienced during sexual assault is similar whether it takes place in the Congo, here in the U.S., or anywhere else on the planet. I believe the immeasurable fear, helplessness, and emotional and physical pain are wounds that run far deeper than the physical body. Rape destroys relationships and creates often seemingly insurmountable barriers to building new and healthy ones. Rape shatters trust and belief systems and shuts down the ability to express loving kindness among people. Rape is an insult on a cellular level that brings victims to their knees. And, as Lyric Thompson remarked in our exchange, “In this era of an increasingly globalized community, violence against women is a violence to everyone.”
Last month I met Lisa Shannon, founder of Run for Congo Women, and a fantastic example of how one woman can make a difference. After watching a segment about WfWI on The Oprah Winfrey Show, she raised $28,000, an amount which can support 100 women for one year. Determined not to ignore what is happening in the Congo, she continued her efforts, and Run for Congo Women has evolved into a worldwide movement and raised nearly seven million dollars. Lisa mentioned that many Congolese women carry the letters from their sisters in a pouch around their neck as a daily reminder of their support. To know that my personal notes can mean so much really touched me.
As a photographer, my vision is to raise awareness by presenting images of female survivors of violence. It is my intention to capture the heart, soul, and spirit of these women, to show the beauty within each of them and to let them tell their story.
It is high time! We as a human race cannot allow sexual assault to continue. Rape is never pretty, nor is there an easier or worse assault. What it boils down to is very simple: every single assault is wrong and devastating in its own personal way. Every human being, regardless of her or his ethnic background, age, religious belief, and sexual orientation deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.
“Courage,” an anonymous author once said, “is not the absence of fear or despair, but the strength to conquer them.”
About the Author:
Stephanie Koehler is an artist, professional photographer and the founder of Heart-Filled Productions. Born and raised in Germany, she earned her Master’s Degree in Linguistics from Bergische Universitaet & Gesamthochschule Wuppertal, Germany and moved to Spain at age 27. She has lived and worked in various countries and now resides in California. Stephanie is an advocate at the Monterey County Rape Crisis Center and also works on a photojournalistic project that focuses on female survivors of violence. Some of her photography can be seen at Heart-Filled Productions.