By: Jaimee SwiftPhoto above: Ambassador Catherine Russell and Maureen Phiri
“I was raped, got HIV from the rape, and when I tried to tell my family, they told me to shut my mouth.”
Those chilling words were spoken by 20-year-old Maureen Phiri from Lilongwe, Malawi. As one of the speakers at Together for Girls’ (TfG) “Every Hour Matters for Post-Rape Care” event, which was in collaboration with the World Health Organization at the United Nations Women’s Commission on the Status of Women in March, Phiri courageously spoke about her sexual assault at age 11 and her advocacy to end sexual violence in Malawi and beyond. Sitting alongside representatives from various governmental and UN agencies including Malawi’s Minister of Gender, Children, Disability, and Social Welfare, the Honorable Patricia Kaliati and United States Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Catherine Russell, Phiri told the audience that the man who assaulted her took advantage of her because her family was poor.
“Madame Minister [Kaliati], that man took advantage of me because my family was not well-doing”, she said, her voice breaking, as she was overcome with emotion.
“I was only 11 years old, Madame Minister, only 11,” Phiri said. “He would buy my family food, and I lived with him and his wife, but when she would leave, he raped and harassed me.”
“I kept it to myself, and did not tell anyone but then I was found living with HIV,” she said. “I did not get HIV anywhere else but through rape.”
After telling the audience the horrific details of her experience, Phiri was met with a standing ovation; her story moving many in the room to tears, with Minister Kaliati rising to hug Phiri in a comforting and emotional embrace.
Unfortunately, Phiri’s story is a very common one; as hundreds of millions of people — with some data indicating that the majority may be children under the age of 18 — are subjected to sexual violence. According to the World Health Organization, one in three women has experienced physical and/or sexual violence in her lifetime.
Every Hour Matters is a global campaign, launched by the Together for Girls partnership to raise awareness awareness about the critical importance of post-rape care to prevent potentially lifelong health problems. The campaign aims to inform both the public and community leaders that survivors of rape have 72 hours to receive post-exposure prophylaxis that can prevent HIV and 120 hours to receive emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy. Together for Girls also shares information on other care that should be provided, including mental health support, prevention and treatment for other health issues such as sexually transmitted infections; and treatment for physical injuries depending on the circumstances.
Data shows that in every country where its Violence Against Children Surveys (VACS) have been conducted an estimated 25 percent of girls’ first sex was forced, and the majority of cases happened before the age of 16. In the United States, an estimated 11 percent of high school girls report that they have been raped.
Regardless of the context, the majority of rape cases go unreported and few survivors ever tell anyone about their experience or access health services or mental health support to help them heal. For example, the VACS found that less than 5 percent of girls and boys who experienced sexual violence ever obtained services to help them recover. Most people are unaware of the many services that can help survivors heal from the trauma of rape.
“Preventing rape and violence against women and children is certainly the top item on our agenda,” said Director of Together for Girls Michele Moloney-Kitts. “However, it is equally important that in the unfortunate circumstance of rape, people have access to post-rape care services, as well as psychosocial and mental services.”
Gary Cohen, founder of Together for Girls and the executive vice president of BD (Becton, Dickinson and Company), echoed Moloney-Kitts’ point that the prevention of rape is important, but also the critical need for survivors to have access to services to prevent other health issues such as HIV.
“The first reproductive right is the right not to be raped,” said Cohen.
Cohen said girls who experience sexual violence are almost at four times greater risk of getting HIV than girls who don’t experience such violence.
“We need to make sure our girls get access to these services as soon as possible to ensure that they get all the help they need.”
Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, care is not available, and if it is, people may not know where to get it. Even when services are available, the stigma and self-blame associated with rape often stops survivors from getting help. All of these issues are compounded for children and women which is why the Every Hour Matters campaign requires a multi-sectoral approach to address these issues.
Every Hour Matters calls for national governments, organizations and community leaders to 1) ensure comprehensive post-rape care services are available in every community; 2) raise awareness about the benefits of rapid access health care after rape; 3) promote a safe environment and spaces to talk about rape and ensure survivors have access to justice and that laws against perpetrators are enforced; 4) reduce barriers to care by enacting policies that are supportive to survivors; and 5) invest in prevention to end all forms of sexual violence.
“We need to end the stigma and discrimination surrounding rape and we need to educate our communities about where to get help and access to post-rape services.” said the Honorable Patricia Kaliati M.P., Minister of Gender, Children, Disability, and Social Welfare. “One stop centers for post-rape care can be critical. Phiri added that it’s also important to provide more information that post-rape care exists, particularly to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. She said we need this message “at every corner, at every health facility in every community to prevent HIV in that window period after rape.”
While Phiri initially thought that her rape was her fault because of the discrimination she faced from her family and her community, she now knows that she is not to blame for anything that has happened to her. By sharing her powerful story, Phiri teaches other young people who have also suffered rape and sexual assault that they too, are not at fault and that they also can break the silence surrounding rape.
“I am even more ready to stand to break the silence by telling the world my story. I am no longer ashamed of it. I hope that by breaking the silence, other children will share their stories as well,” Phiri said. “Let’s stop rape together and remember that every hour matters.”