April is always a busy time for me because it’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month. In addition to counseling survivors of sexual abuse, I have been working with an Interfaith Collaborative that engages in education, advocacy and organizing to eradicate child sexual abuse in New York City. All of the activity I was involved in led me to discover (a couple of weeks after everyone else) that 234 Nigerian girls were kidnapped by an Islamic militant terrorist group from Northeastern Nigeria known as Boko Haram. This kidnapping stood out for me because I am initiated into the spiritual tradition of Ifa that comes from the Yoruba culture of Southwest Nigeria. Lately, I have been researching and speaking about gender and sexuality in Ifa. Yet, I had not given consideration to how different cultures throughout Nigeria may view girls or how people could use religion to justify harming children.
Perhaps the reason I have not delved deeply into this area yet is because my focus has been on preventing the sexual harm of girls (and boys) here in the United States. While I support our government’s involvement in helping to find the missing Nigerian girls, I wish I could see people get just as engaged and passionate about ending the amount of trafficking and child sexual abuse that happens here. The National Institute of Justice states that 1 in 6 girls will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime while other research studies show the rate as high as 1 in 4. Many of my colleagues believe the rate is higher due to the fear many victims have around disclosing and being believed.
As I thought of the Nigerian girls and the reality of what their lives could be like after being sold and married off as child brides, I remembered the girls empowerment group I ran for three years at a local high school. Some of the students I met disclosed being victims of sexual molestation when they were younger. I was not surprised to discover this, as I have come to learn every time I am gathered with a group of young women there are survivors in the room. What I did not expect was to see how some of their religious socializing had taught them what sexual assault is and what it is not.
Sometimes, religious leaders commit sexual harm. I am not only referring to inflicting physical violence upon young people like Boko Haram or the various abusive clergy across many faith traditions in our country. There is a more subtle way of inflicting harm. Misinterpreting sacred texts to uphold oppressive, violent actions against women and children is another form of spiritual and mental assault – especially when these direct and indirect messages dis-empower our youth.
One month, I allowed the students in my girls empowerment group to lead our weekly discussions. The topic of the week was Birth Control & Contraception. One of the girls made an insensitive joke stating that abortion was another form of birth control. This offended one of the students and led to a heated debate. Most of the girls in the group identified as Christian. All of them felt abortion was wrong, even in the case of rape. Someone brought up marital rape and the offended student replied emphatically, “I don’t believe in marital rape! He’s your husband. He can’t rape you.” This sixteen year old junior believed marital rape was nonexistent and therefore, not a crime. In a previous week, I asked the girls who attended Christian churches if sexual and domestic violence had ever been addressed in youth ministry, Bible study or their pastors’ sermons. The answer was no. Yet, this student was so adamant that a husband could not force his wife to have sex because her socialization had taught her that a woman is required to have sex with her husband whenever he wants.
As the discussion continued one student brought up the topic of forgiving the rapist. Different voices chimed in on rape and abortion: “The Bible says you are supposed to forgive. A baby’s heart is beating by 2 weeks. Rape shouldn’t happen but you don’t have the right to turn around and take a life because of what happened to you.” The talking became so loud that I told the girls to lower their voices. Eventually, other members of the group convinced the student who did not believe marital rape was real, that it did exist and it was wrong. I helped by sharing a story of a marital rape survivor who speaks publicly about her experience.
Due to the strong opinions expressed about forgiving the act of rape, I asked the group a couple of questions: “Would you forgive someone who did not fess up?” I wanted to know if truth-telling mattered to them. Second, I asked, “Would it be easy to forgive someone who harmed you if the individual did not feel regret for what they did?” In some of their Christian context this would be known as repentance. They became quiet as they considered this. Then the school bell let us know our time was up.
The students from my girls’ empowerment group have all graduated by now, and I wonder how they have grown and changed. What kind of discussion would we have about the kidnapped Nigerian girls and Boko Haram? Would their views on the Bible and forgiveness be different from what they were two years ago? If they still hope to be mothers one day, what would they teach their children about sexual abuse? I may never know the answers to these questions. So in addition to praying for the rescue of as many Nigerian girls as possible and an end to religious fundamentalism that supports violence; I continuously work to help end sexual assault and shed light on the difference between myths and facts.
Photo Credit: April 21, 2014. Washington Post. (AP Photo/ Haruna Umar)