Maureen Phiri, a young girl from a poor family in Malawi, was only 11 years old when she was raped by the man who had hired her to do housework for him and his wife. Not only did Maureen continue to experience sexual abuse from the man she worked for, he left her with another long-term scar: HIV-positive status.
Had Maureen or her family known that it was possible to prevent HIV infection merely by seeking medical care within 72 hours post-rape, her story — told by Maureen, who is now 20, to an audience at the United Nations recently — might have taken a different turn.
Recognizing the plight of girls and women like Maureen around the world, a coalition of organizations is aiming to mitigate the post-rape trauma they endure through a new campaign, #EveryHourMatters (everyhourmatters.org), to promote emergency medical care within 72 hours of rape to prevent HIV/AIDS and within 120 hours for preventing pregnancy. The campaign reflects a concerted effort to get more people involved on the communal, national and international level to focus on post-rape care action.
The campaign is sponsored by Together for Girls, a public-private group in Washington, D.C., in cooperation with the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, UN Women, Unicef, UN Population Fund, various governments and other private and public entities. The campaign introduced its message at the UN’s 60th Commission on the Status of Women this month at a panel event on post-rape care, held at UN headquarters.
“We know the stats about sexual violence against girls,” said Catherine Russell, the United States ambassador at large for global women’s issues, speaking at the event. Roughly 20 percent of girls’ first sexual encounter is actually rape. “Very few of those rapes are reported.”
Noting that adolescent girls already face unique personal and social challenges, it is important to recognize that what happens to a girl from 12 to 14 years old does “not occur in a vacuum,” but serves as a foundation for their lives, Russell said.
Michele Moloney-Kitts, executive director of Together for Girls, bemoaned the topic itself, saying, “We wish we weren’t highlighting the timeliness of post-rape care,” when rape prevention is the most important issue. But “time is of the essence” in handling the immediate aftermath of such an assault.
As Gary Cohen, the founder of Together for Girls, pointed out: “The first reproductive right is the right not to be raped. No matter how long this takes us, we have to work with unstoppable resolve to stop this issue.”
One in five girls has experienced sexual violence before age 18 (versus one in seven boys), noted Patricia Kaliati, the minister of gender, children, disability and social welfare for Malawi. She cited her country’s work to help rape victims, such as providing one-stop centers with comprehensive post-rape care, including counseling and prophylaxis medication to prevent HIV infection.
Yet stigma remains a large barrier to administering post-rape care. When Malayah Harper, the chief of gender equality and diversity at UNAIDS, lived in Kenya, she had a gardener who tended her residence through a contractor. After the gardener’s daughter was raped by several perpetrators, in a different part of the country, he took a week off from work to help her; she had dropped out of school, received no health care and was afraid to run into her rapists, who lived nearby.
While the daughter received post-rape care and counseling, she was unable to obtain justice against her attackers, and the father’s employer fired him for taking time off to assist his daughter.
“This is kind of a social norm” for the treatment the gardener received, Harper said. The story gets to “the heart of how we value women in society.”
Unfortunately, women and children and survivors of rape in general usually don’t know about the short window of time — 72 to 120 hours after a sexual attack — to seek important emergency care, said Dr. Claudia Garcia-Moreno, team leader of the violence against women sector in the World Health Organization.
The WHO therefore helped develop clinical handbooks for post-rape care and published, along with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict, a manual, “Strengthening the Medico-Legal Response to Sexual Violence,” last November, detailing the steps that need to be taken by medical and legal authorities after reporting a rape. “This is a very simple attempt to work together with stakeholders,” Dr. Garcia-Moreno said.
As for Maureen Phiri, the Malawian who bravely talked about her rape, she eventually became involved with Plan International, the child development organization, through its office in Malawi, and later had the opportunity to speak before the media. “I came to understand that what this man was doing to me was wrong.”
“I’m not ashamed of it,” said Maureen, who is receiving HIV treatment, her voice choked with emotion as participants at the UN event also appeared visibly moved. “It is important that we provide more information that post-rape care is there and to prevent HIV, at every corner, at every health facility in every community, to prevent HIV in that window period after rape.”
Now that #EveryHourMatters has begun to be carried out online, “the reaction to the campaign has been very positive, especially on social media, where we have seen a great deal of sharing of the campaign messaging and graphics by our partners and the general public,” said Sandie Taylor, the director of communications and operations for Together for Girls, in an e-mail after the event.
Several more programs on Every Hour Matters, Taylor said, will be held this year, including at the Women Deliver conference scheduled to take place in Copenhagen in May.
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Lori Silberman Brauner is an award-winning journalist, editor and freelance writer who most recently served as deputy managing editor at the New Jersey Jewish News. She received a B.A. in political science from Muhlenberg College; an M.A. in international affairs from Drew University; and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She was one of 10 North American journalists who took part in a ICFJ-UN Foundation Reporting Fellowship in September 2016 to explore the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.