She was an 8-year-old girl with thick brown hair, large brown eyes, a purple dress and a fondness for running through the fields in northern India where she tended horses.
Then a man called her into the nearby forest, grabbed her by the neck and forced her to take sleeping pills, according to police accounts. The man dragged the girl, Asifa Bano, to a Hindu temple, where he and other men raped her repeatedly over three days, before murdering her — after one man insisted on raping her one last time.
Asifa’s body was left in the forest.
Murder and rape happen in all societies, but this girl’s body was a battleground: Hindu extremists were trying to terrorize and drive out the Muslim community that Asifa belonged to. The killing triggered a huge controversy in India, with some Hindu lawyers and housewives protesting against prosecution of the murder suspects and Prime Minister Narendra Modi keeping shamefully silent for too long. To their credit, many middle-class Indians, including Hindus, mobilized to demand justice for Asifa.
There’s a lesson from that horror story and millions more like it. The #MeToo movement has had a stunning impact across America, eroding the impunity that allowed powerful men to get away with sexual assault and harassment.
But we now need a global effort — by rich and poor nations alike — to make the #MeToo principles truly universal.
A few glimpses of the scale of sexual violence as one of the top human rights challenges of our time:
¦ A United Nations study of 10,000 men in six countries in Asia and the Pacific found that almost one-quarter acknowledged having raped a woman, including 62 percent of men in part of Papua New Guinea. A separate 2011 study found that 37 percent of men in part of South Africa said they had raped a woman.
¦ More than 125 million women and girls in Africa and Asia have suffered female genital mutilation. In Somalia and some other countries, almost all the genital flesh is cut away and the vaginal opening is sewn closed with wild thorns, to remain nearly sealed until the girl is married.
¦ A girl under the age of 18 is married every three seconds somewhere in the world, according to Unicef. (Even in the United States, thousands of underage girls are married each year, a few of them just 12, 13 or 14.) Whether in Bangladesh or in Texas, these child marriages are sometimes coerced and leave girls particularly vulnerable to rape and beating.
We tend to think of “human rights” in terms of political dissidents being tortured, but gender violence is not only far more common but also sometimes institutionalized and shaped by legal codes and government policy. Indeed, in Myanmar last year, the government appears to have sponsored a policy of mass rape as part of a strategy to terrorize the Rohingya and drive them away. Those Rohingya women who speak up about this are truly heroic.
But we should all be speaking up, regardless of gender or geography. These assaults and indignities don’t affect women alone, because these patterns of violence and repression suppress talent and hold back entire societies. When millions of girls and women are brutalized, we’re all diminished.
The civil rights movement wasn’t an issue just for black people, gay rights don’t affect gays alone and widespread violence against women is a human rights violation that constitutes a moral and pragmatic challenge to all of us, men as well as women. At its extreme, this is just another form of terrorism.
The U.S. could show leadership in addressing these issues. A starting point would be for Congress to pass the long-stalled International Violence Against Women Act, which would require the U.S. to adopt a strategy to confront gender violence around the world and work with other countries to reduce it.
Another useful step would be for Western countries to use aid programs more frequently to end impunity. We can train the police and the courts abroad to treat sexual violence cases more seriously, and hospitals and clinics to treat victims with more professionalism and compassion. Crucially, we can also support women’s groups in other countries as they try to raise these issues on their national agendas, for this kind of violence persists as long as it is invisible.
Finally, there’s no better way to empower women and change the social dynamic than to educate girls. Extremist groups blow up girls’ schools for the same reason we should support girls’ education: Over time, educated women can transform societies.
Some will say these abuses beyond our borders are none of our business. No one would say that who had been with me in Nairobi’s Kibera slum, where one study found that 43 percent of girls had their first sexual experience through coercion or rape (at an average age of 14). There I met a 4-year-old girl named Ida who had been raped so brutally that she needed surgery to repair internal injuries. Ida’s parents took her to the police station to report the rape.
The reaction of the police? They demanded a bribe to arrest the perpetrator, but it seemed his family had already paid a bigger bribe. So the police, in my presence, shouted at Ida’s parents, told them to go away and threatened to arrest them.
That’s not one girl’s problem, or one family’s problem. That’s the tip of a global human rights crisis.