I don’t remember the exact age I was when I first experienced sexual abuse but I know I was a young child. I also know that the first time would not be the last.
With the hashtag ‘#WhyIDidn’tReport’ trending on twitter, I’ve spent some time thinking about my varied experiences of sexual abuse. Particularly the sexual abuse I experienced in my childhood. I have thought about where my story and the stories of others like me fit into global movements such as ‘#WhyIDidn’tReport’ and ‘#MeToo’ championing an end to sexual violence against women.
As a youth practitioner who specialises in working with young women, I’m regularly faced with disclosures of sexual abuse. With each article, tweet or video online, of women telling their stories, I feel a deep sense of sadness and solidarity.
I recognise the progress which has enabled these important stories to be shared yet I can’t help but ask myself…
Does this progress penetrate the environments that the young women I work with manoeuvre? If so, are they being as readily recognised and rewarded for speaking out?
I remember watching Oprah’s Golden Globe speech up to ten times the week it was released: Mesmerised, not only by her words but by the conviction with which she delivered them. Witnessing Oprah’s address as the first black woman to be recognised with the Cecil B. de Mille Award was a huge moment for me.
As I listened to Oprah’s words of empowerment – I thought about the young women I’ve worked with and what this moment in history represents for them.
I pondered the impact of growing up in this era where women of all shades and professions are unapologetically taking claim of spaces so often denied to us.
Women have always been given the short straw, black and brown women an even shorter one. These are the facts in Oprah’s Hollywood, as well as the marginalised communities where I’ve worked with many insightful, resilient young women.
Seeing Oprah being recognised for her achievements felt like a familiar tale of resistance and triumph, it felt personal.
Beyond the protest of her words, I was invigorated by the fact she used this opportunity to share this part of her story on a platform which forced the world to listen. This act, and others like it, laid the foundation for the thousands of women to participate in ‘#WhyIDidn’tReport’.
Women and the criminal justice system
In my work, I encounter young women who have experienced sexual abuse. These women are often labelled ‘difficult’, ‘problematic’, ‘hard to reach’ or ‘high risk’ by their families, schools, social services, the criminal justice system and various other organisations claiming to serve them.
I encounter most of these women after they have had some involvement with the criminal justice system. For the young women who do disclose cases of sexual abuse, I am often the first adult they have trusted enough to share their experiences with.
Not only are these young women not reporting sexual crimes committed against them, they are not accessing the support provided by online movements such as ‘#WhyIDidn’tReport’.
These young women usually live with their trauma undiagnosed. Despite this, they have developed mechanisms for combatting traditional forms of patriarchy which are deeply embedded in our society – as well as the new and creative ways patriarchy uses the internet and social media to further its cause.
I’ve witnessed young women share tips on the best ways to avoid sexual exploitation and remain safe on the streets. They speak out to defend other young women who are being treated unfairly. Despite the high levels of destructive conflict in their lives, these young women continually inspire and challenge me.
In my work some of the most thought-provoking and stimulating conversations about gender issues and female empowerment are with these young women. They share openly about their experiences of sexual violence and in their own ways say ‘me too’.
Spaces for truth
My work with young women creates safe spaces for them to explore difficult topics such as sexual abuse. I have firsthand experience of the transformational power behind this work. I’ve watched as different groups allow themselves to be vulnerable in front of each other. They affirm and support one another with compassion, empathy and a lack of judgement. I am proud to witness them embody many of the characteristics I look for in allies who are fighting to make the world a fairer place for women.
Oprah expressed her pride in all women courageous enough to tell their personal stories. The public figures who championed the ‘#MeToo’ campaign by speaking out about their experiences of sexual harassment. This sparked a long overdue discussion about the levels of sexual violence women experience in Hollywood. In turn, this brought to light the inescapable nature of sexual violence for women all over the world.
I will not underestimate the importance of these women using their influence in this way. I will ask, what platforms are being provided for the young women I work with to communicate their experiences? Who is listening to them? Who is getting behind their ‘campaigns’?
Neither celebrity or celebrated
Celebrities have the means of communicating their stories to vast audiences as well as the resources to effectively organise and build networks that support them and others. It is important to keep the momentum going both on and offline to ensure more women are comfortable to engage with the themes explored in ‘#WhyIDidn’tReport’ and ‘#MeToo.
But the truth is, these campaigns may never reach the young women I work with.
These women live very different lives from celebrities. This does not mean they are without their own ways of demonstrating solidarity with each other in their communities. They have established mechanisms for supporting themselves and each other. I have seen these women share their stories with a grace and humour that leaves me in awe every single time.
This is why I will continue to advocate for spaces for these women to tell their stories, organise and build supportive networks. Society may not afford them the same status or power as women in Hollywood, but this should not be a barrier to them accessing services that allow them to safely explore what womanhood means for them – to echo a line in Oprah’s speech, “What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have”.
Will we listen?
In my experience, the voices of these young women are just as compelling as Oprah’s. Unfortunately, safe spaces are seldom provided for them to share their stories and begin the process of healing and reconciliation. I am filled with hope witnessing men and women from different walks of life get behind the high profile campaigns working to create a fairer world for women.
Yet, I have been led to wonder, beyond the retweets on Twitter or status updates on Facebook, how far does this support go?
How many of us are willing to look beyond the destructive labels placed on the young women I encounter daily and actually hear what they have to say? When the glitz and glamour are out of the picture, do all women still have your support?
I hope so.
Ezimma is a creative facilitator with a background in youth work, working mainly with young people in London. Over 5 years she has specialised in working with young women exploring issues such as healthy relationships, labels and identity. Previously, Ezimma was the Young Women’s Worker for award winning charity Leap Confronting Conflict, She now works on a freelance basis with young women, often using drama and creative writing to explore difficult topics. Ezimma has developed a bespoke programme for this under her newly establish organisation The Luna Project launching early 2019.