Silence Is Bad for Women's Health

By Linda Mafu, Head of Political and Civil Society Advocacy, the Global Fund

in Voices on 05 June 2019

Photo courtesy of The Global Ambassadors Program

How can we galvanize that spirit and power to support the most vulnerable women across the world to gain the agency they need to break the silence that comes with oppression?

Powerful forces of change have swept across the world since the start of the #MeToo movement two years ago. That movement has put the issue of widespread sexual assault and harassment front and center among the challenges facing women today; it has helped break down barriers holding back women at work and at home.

Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, and her fellow advocates against sexual violence were called "the silence breakers." It reminds me of the iconic slogan of the early AIDS movement: Silence = Death.

I was once told to be silent. When I was an eight-year-old growing up in South Africa, a 24-year-old family member sexually abused me. At first, I didn't really understand what was going on. I was too young. When I talked to my father and my stepmother, struggling to find words to relate what was happening to me, they were aghast—not by his actions, but by what they called my false accusations.

They beat me and ordered me to keep my mouth shut. That was the license the family member needed to start raping me. It began that very night after my parents silenced me. Virtually every other night—for nine years—the man raped me. The pain and mental trauma were more than I can find words to express.

One day, when I was 17, silence was no longer an option. In my family's small kitchen, the man approached me again, and I exploded—hitting him with a pan and with everything else I could get my hands on. It was my breaking point and it changed everything. After that the man left me alone, and moved out of the home. But he wasn't held accountable.

Today, #MeToo and its global network of sister movements—#YoTambien in Spain and Latin America, #BalanceTonporc in France, #quellavoltache in Italy, and #TotalShutDown in South Africa to name a few—have not only exposed the pervasive nature of sexual violence, they have empowered survivors to seek justice. They have strengthened allies and advocates to do more of the heavy lifting that real change requires.

As thousands gather for the Women Deliver conference in Vancouver this week, we have another opportunity to press forward with efforts to dismantle obstacles to achieving true gender equality. With this opportunity comes responsibility. The women and men who will gather in Vancouver must remember that the most vulnerable women around the world, many of them affected by HIV, will not be found on the international conference circuit.

Women Deliver will have Vancouver brimming with inspiration and determination to accelerate change. How can we galvanize that spirit and power to support the most vulnerable women across the world to gain the agency they need to break the silence that comes with oppression?

The real test for these movements, I think, is how well they can reach across the divides of race, class, and gender identity to fight for the rights of everyone, especially the most marginalized. The privilege of attending huge conferences like Women Deliver has yet to reach the most vulnerable girls and women in the world. For instance, the nearly 1,000 adolescent girls and young women globally who become infected with HIV each day.

We will only end HIV if we achieve a massive reduction in infection rates among adolescent girls and young women. We will only reduce those infections if we end sexual violence and other forms of gender inequalities. Could these new movements become the force that channels outrage into lasting change?

We've known for decades that shame, taboo, and simple embarrassment have hindered the fight against HIV. Sexual violence magnifies all of those very human responses. The result has been silence, and a preventable epidemic has claimed millions of lives. But when women claim their stories and their voices, they claim their power. When societies call out for equality and dignity for all, they lay the foundation for health and well-being. To truly deliver for women, we must all become silence breakers.

Linda Mafu is Head of Political and Civil Society Advocacy at the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. This article was first published by The Hill Times – Canada.