“How do I feel normal again after being raped?”
“How do I forget what happened?”
“How do I stop being afraid?”
I didn’t know how to respond when we received these questions in the anonymous comment box at a Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) camp I was assisting with at another volunteer’s site. The other Peace Corps volunteers and I agreed that it would be best to consult with a staff member from the Department of Social Welfare in addressing these queries. In a covered gymnasium in the sweltering afternoon heat, a local social worker came and delivered a speech in Filipino which, using my rudimentary language skills, I can sum up as something along the lines of “A terrible thing happened to you, but life goes on, you get over it, tomorrow will be a better day.”
Her answer resonated with the crowd—teenage girls prone to posting inspirational quotes on Facebook several times a day. I was moved by their nodding heads and sympathetic faces, wishing for a moment that anything in life was as simple as a single maxim. But, in my heart, it felt like something was missing. Surely, life marches forward regardless of any traumas we incur, but what about the feeling? How do you rebuild yourself after your power and dignity is stripped away? How do you survive knowing that the person who violated you on the deepest level is still out there—that they may be related to you or attend the same college? One in ten women ages 15-49 in the Philippines has experienced sexual violence. One in twenty five Filipina women ages 15-49 experienced forced sexual intercourse during their first sexual encounter. These are statistics that I don’t want to get over.
For one of the first times in my service, I felt like I couldn’t help the youth asking these questions. As a volunteer who is regularly tasked with conducting activities on unfamiliar topics, I often joke that I can master any subject matter as long as I have 24 hours to prepare. However, fake expertise feels cheap when face-to-face with the tragic emotional consequences of sexual assault. I wish I had another lifetime to listen to every woman’s story, validate her experiences, and remind her that what happened to her was not her fault. Despite its depressing tone, I even wish I had the courage to politely interrupt the chipper social worker and share what I believe to be the truest answer to the questions posed by the youth: you survive sexual assault, but the pain, the shame, and the fear—it never goes away.
The bright side—if there is a one, and I am always looking for one—is the strength and perseverance I have noticed in Filipina women of all ages. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to collaborate on an International Women’s Day event with my site mate, Chelsea. We taught 100 sixth grade girls at her school about famous Filipina women from history. The students were so engaged and excited to learn about female warriors, doctors, chefs, and businesswomen that it was hard to imagine that many of these strong, independent girls might fall victim to sexual predation in the future.
My personal favorite she-hero we talked about that day was Remedios Gomez-Paraiso aka Kumander Liwayway, a lady commander who led her squadron into many successful battles against the Japanese occupiers during World War II. Gomez-Paraiso was famous for wearing bright red lipstick when she led troops into combat. When asked why she would wear makeup on the battlefield, Kumander Liwayway said “I am fighting for the right to be myself.”
One of my greatest hopes for this world is that all women can have the opportunity to be themselves—without fear, without violence, and without any need to forget even one moment of their beautiful, important lives.
As always, missing you all. Hard to believe that there are only four and a half months left of this adventure!