Silence equals complicity.
A Kikuyu proverb:“When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” In Swahili, “Wapiganapo tembo nyasi huumia.”
At what point does the silence of a nurse on a humanitarian medical mission imply complicity? It’s a question I ask myself every time I return from such a mission and write about the work, carefully choosing my words to protect the privacy of women who are victims of violence and rape.
I’ve consciously refrained from speaking out on the subject in light of my own culture’s xenophobia. Besides, although violence against women happens everywhere, the topic makes people terribly uncomfortable.
I was in India the first time I encountered what I’m referring to, and when I asked about it, was puzzled by what I was told. Women who came to the makeshift medical clinic were clearly upset, expressing their emotions in a litany of words I didn’t understand. When I asked the translators what they said, the answer came in just one of two words—either “cough” or “dizziness.”
I had a nagging feeling the translators were editing what was being said to keep me from fully comprehending what the women were communicating. Was it out of embarrassment or because of politeness? I will never know. Maybe it was nothing. Or were the women who came to the clinic and were so upset crying out for help?
When the mission was completed, I traveled throughout India sightseeing. Out in the hinterlands, far away from television and other media, I explored villages and visited the country’s ancient stepwells, unaware of what had happened back in Delhi. By the time I arrived in Jaipur, the violent rape and subsequent death of Jyoti Singh had made headlines all over the world. The event that had occurred was so unfathomable it was difficult to process. The graphic nature of the rape’s news coverage left me feeling sick.
When I returned to Delhi a week after Jyoti’s death, the city was completely transformed from the one I had visited earlier. Even the laws had changed. Violent protests wracked the city. Indians were angry and upset, and they vehemently condemned what had happened. The days of blame-the-victim mentality seemed numbered in India. Jyoti, known at the time only as India’s Daughter, remained nameless due to the nation’s laws. She deserved a voice—to be heard and not forgotten.
As I reflected on my work at the clinic, I again began to wonder what message my female patients had been trying to convey. Later, on a mission to East Africa, it became personal for me.
I was in a cold, damp hospital room seeing patients when a confident woman with a young girl walked through the door. The woman was a teacher who spoke English, so the possibility of mistranslation wasn’t an issue.
The girl, she explained, was a student about 9 years old who had been raped multiple times by her uncle. Sitting with the local clinical officer (similar to a nurse practitioner), I listened to the story while staring at a wall poster on how to medically and legally handle rape cases in that country.
The teacher said that the girl’s mother—a prostitute—was unable to protect her. She was unwilling to act against the uncle who was violating the child. When the officer asked if there was any way to get the girl out of the situation, the teacher’s response was heart-stopping.
“I would take the girl into my home,” she said, “but I currently have two other female students living with me because they were being raped at home. I can’t take in another student.”
The officer’s response was silence. Nothing could be done.
So there it was: the poster on the wall paying lip service to handling of rape juxtaposed with the reality of being powerless; of being female in a world where females are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable; of being female in a world of men—grass trampled by elephants.
Everywhere I’ve traveled, I’ve heard various versions of this same sad story: It’s normal as a woman to be beaten by your husband. It’s the woman’s fault. There’s nothing to be done if you’re raped.
As the World Health Organization reports, being female is a liability but being poor and female can put a woman in dire circumstances. Women are inherently at more risk than men. Females living in poverty are the least likely group to get educated. Women are less likely to have income, and when they do have income, there are gender disparities. Women are less likely to have power to stand up to violence.
The grass needs a voice
No absolute guidelines exist on how to deal with this; every situation is different. There is only one conclusion I come to when I reflect on my unwillingness to speak: Silence equals complicity. Complicity perpetuates trauma.
I invite other nurses to join me—not to exploit the suffering of others but to empower the powerless and victimized everywhere.
As professionals, nurses must be vocal in bearing witness. We can no longer be complicit in rape and violence against women around the world. We should no longer remain silent about the Jyotis of the world, girls raped and brutalized, and women who are beaten because men are expected to beat their wives. We cannot change a culture, but we can be a voice for the disempowered.
If we give the grass a voice, it does not have to suffer.
Amanda Judd, MSN, APRN, resides in Parker, Colorado, USA.