What do you do? people ask me.
Women’s rights, I say.
Why? they ask.
Because the world is fundamentally unequal. And women deserve more.
I was 14, an immigrant geek in a liberal all-girls school in Washington, DC. In a class called Comparative Women’s History, we toured the world through stories and images of violence against women. I saw a bound foot, female genitalia after it had been cut, a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre. I never forgot the images. And over 30 years later, I remain a self-titled one-trick pony, committed to ending violence against women — or at least to making gains in my lifetime.
I spent twenty years as a humanitarian aid worker trying — hoping! — to end violence against women, making and un-making homes in twenty different countries, including Central African Republic, Haiti, Mali, Papua New Guinea, and Afghanistan. I have an extra-large passport filled with stamps I can’t read, an unusually strong stomach, and a collection of stories from women whose countries deny bodily integrity to half their population.
When I started this work, we didn’t even have the vocabulary to describe what we do. The term gender-based violence entered our lexicon much later. And today, there is mention of gender-based violence every single day in the news. The media eagerly reports cases of sexual harassment in big American firms as well as the experiences of girls in complex conflicts and natural disasters. Such stories are everywhere. The more we pay attention, the more we see.
Women and girls are still the majority of the world’s poor. Fifteen million girls will never get the chance to read or write. Women hold hardly one quarter of parliamentary seats — and an even smaller fraction are heads of state. In about 50 countries, domestic violence is not a crime (and when it is, those laws are incomplete, unapplied, or ignored). Seven hundred and fifty million girls are married before the age of 18. That’s 33,000 girls a day, or one girl every two seconds.
One in three women and girls worldwide will experience some form of gender-based violence in their lifetime. This violence is the greatest manifestation of our persistent inequality.
Where do you begin to advocate for women’s rights when the world looks like this?
Meanwhile, I’ve spent decades asking myself the same question every day: Where do I begin?
If you think ending violence against women under stable conditions is hard, in an emergency it is nearly impossible. Rape increases dramatically during crises. It’s what we do to each other when we are at our most vulnerable. This is true everywhere — from Haiti to Hurricane Katrina. My first task in the field was always to set up the systems and services that enable survivors of violence to access the support they need.
People used to ask me what a “typical” day “in the office” looked like. There was nothing typical about my day. And there was hardly an office. But my days went something like this:
- Find out if any services existed before the emergency and if any of those services are still available (and not abandoned, destroyed, in an area controlled by rebels, surrounded by landmines, flattened by an earthquake, or all of the above).
- If any of those services do still exist, do they have staff? Stock?
- Once we manage to stock and staff the offices, figure out how to let survivors know what resources are available, no matter what language or dialect they speak, or if they can read at all.
- And if these services never existed in the first place, we have to find ways to create them.
- And once survivors are informed by whatever means available, we have to help them get there by whatever means of transport still exist.
- And if they get there, we have to make sure they are not further victimized while there, or upon their return home.
- And if they have nowhere to live, we have to find adequate shelter or safe housing for them.
- And we have to make sure that the services “speak to each other” so a survivor can be referred to services she needs so she can get all the care she deserves –the job doesn’t end when she is in a clinic.
- And find funding to do all this, somehow. Because without that, we can’t even begin.
And when everything is running perfectly (or not!), a survivor still might choose not to go anywhere at all and that has to be okay, too. My goal is to ensure that a survivor has choices.
Meanwhile, I might sleep in a tent, in a container, in a group house. I see my colleagues in their pajamas. We share a toilet. We share everything. We parachute into an emergency, roll up our sleeves, and get to work. For many of us, we are on autopilot. How many times have we done this? And in how many countries? We come armed with sleeping bags, headlamps, and comfort food. I bring Sriracha, Vietnamese hot sauce. Days and weeks and months blend into one. It’s hard to tell how much we’ve worked — or if anything we do is working. “If you reach the point where you know you need a break,” a seasoned colleague advised before my first emergency assignment, “you’ve already gone too far.” I am always in need of a break. Somehow I don’t break, though. I am disturbingly good at this.
I only know who I am when I am in an emergency. Or so I used to say.
I am the product of a Lebanese-Senegalese father and Palestinian mother — both of different religions who managed to escape war and dodge laws that forbade them from marrying. I was raised first in Saudi Arabia and then in Washington, DC. I am comfortable with extremes.
If someone were to do a performance evaluation for me, I’d fail. I’ve never ended violence against women anywhere, nor could I ever. I have struggled for ages to find a system by which to measure my life. I had duty (inherited from birth), talent (accumulated by experience), and heart — which grew heavier with each country. But it is hard to find closure in this job, so I have to draw the lines and make my own metrics from the few transformative moments I’ve been a part of.
Although I now live in New York, I keep asking myself what I can do, in small ways, every day, to make my space safer for women.
I bring with me decades of experience and intimate knowledge of what life is like for women and girls in the places where I’ve worked — and right here in the US. And I am committed to building a better world for women, wherever I land.
In Nepal, on an eerily quiet morning in 2015 just before an earthquake, I walked past a sign with a spray-painted message that captured what I want to say to anyone — and to myself: START WHERE YOU STAND.
We need to stand up and fix what we know needs fixing, in the small spaces that we have.
Start where you stand. And — start now.
After 25 years in over 20 countries — as an aid worker, an activist, and an academic — today, I’m starting again, right here: www.LinaAbiRafeh.com.