Today, 11 October, marks the United Nations International Day of the Girl Child.
The day was first marked in 2012 and ‘aims to highlight and address the needs and challenges girls face, while promoting girls’ empowerment and the fulfilment of their human rights’. As part of this, attention is drawn to discrimination and violence against girls, including sexual violence and unfree child marriage.
Sexual violence, such as rape, sex slavery and forced ‘marriage’, are brutal realities of warfare and disproportionately affect and damage women and girls. This topic has come to the fore in recent days through the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Nadia Murad and Dr Denis Mukwege. The two joint recipients are honoured together for their tireless and dedicated work against sexual violence in warzones.
Denis Mukwege is rightly hailed a model for men and hero to women by playwright activist Eve Ensler, who is best known for her play The Vagina Monologues, as well as for creating the non-profit V-Day movement, which raises funds and educates the public about stopping violence against women and girls. As Ensler writes, in a week when President Trump mocked Professor Christine Blasey Ford’s sworn testimony of sexual abuse, and the crowd he was addressing jeered and laughed along with him, ‘finally there is a light’. Mukwege, as Ensler describes without gloss, ‘has risked everything to heal, cherish and honour women … literally sewing up vaginas of rape survivors as fast as the militias who work for multinational corporations who plunder the resources of Congo have been ripping them apart’. Mukwege is a hero because he stood with women and girls ‘when it was one of the most dangerous things he could do’ and his prize should be ‘held up as a beacon – in the darkness of swelling sexism and male supremacy – for all men to follow’ (see also here).
Co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize Nadia Murad is a Yazidi woman who grew up in a small village in Iraq. In August 2014 she was captured by soliders of ISIS (so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIL and Daesh) and sold into sexual slavery. Like other Yazidis she was targeted on account of her religion and endured months of rape and other torture before escaping her captor. Murad has spoken publicly about her suffering and has published her autobiography, The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and my Fight Against the Islamic State, named thus because she wants her campaign to achieve that she is ‘the last girl in the world with a story like [hers]’. Murad’s work has focused on support for Yazidi survivors of sexual slavery and on bringing ISIS perpetrators to trial.
We at the Shiloh Project join our voices to celebrate the award of the Nobel peace prize to two such extraordinary and eminently worthy recipients.
The sexual abuse of girls and women in war is also a topic of the Bible. Our project is named after the young women of Shiloh who, as described in Judges 21, are seized by the men of Benjamin, following the Benjaminites’ defeat in war. The men of Benjamin abduct the women to ensure their tribe’s survival after other tribes had vowed to withhold their daughters from marriage with them. The violence of the event, best called a mass abduction for the purpose of rape marriage, is clear: the Benjaminites lie in ambush and carry the women off (Judges 21:20-21). The story also conjures up the mass abductions of women and girls in our own time – the Yazidi women, the Rohingya, the girls of Chibbok. Another atrocity of war is also recounted in Judges 21 a few verses earlier. Here the men, boys and non-virginal females of Jabesh-Gilead are massacred, while four hundred virgin girls are handed over to the Benjaminites as a grim form of ‘peace offering’ (Judges 21:10-14).
Another example is the law of the captive woman in Deuteronomy (21:10-14). This law stipulates that if Israel wins a war and a soldier desires a beautiful captive woman, he can – following certain rituals and a month-long waiting period – ‘go in to her’ – that is, rape her. If he is ‘not satisfied with her’ he can let her go but must not enslave her.
How old were these girls or women of Jabesh-Gilead and Shiloh? How old would those captives have been who were abducted and raped by soldiers during biblical warfare? We simply don’t know. The Bible does not stipulate a minimum age for marriage or an age of consent, although women were likely married (or at least betrothed) around the onset of puberty, suggesting that the virgins at Shiloh and Jabesh-Gilead could have been pre-pubescent girls. Just as disturbing, Numbers 31:18 makes the sexual abuse of girls in war even more explicit. Here, Moses, the preeminent prophet and man of God in the Hebrew Bible, instructs the army that has prevailed against the Midianites to kill all zākār battāp, ‘males among the children’ and all women who have known a man (31:17). But all hattap bannāšîm (‘children among the women’ – presumably, female children) who have not known a man carnally (the expression used is miškab zākār, ‘lying of a male’) shall be kept alive ‘for you’. Distressingly, there is here no limitation of age where the girls are concerned. The absence of such a limitation, the blatant sexual connotation (‘who have not known a man’) together with the ‘for you’, plus the fact that this is a positive authorization given by Moses, makes sexual violence against girl children disturbingly umabiguous.
There is much to be bleak about – both in the biblical text and in the war zones of the present. The International Day of the Girl Child is aimed first at drawing attention to what is wrong: among many other injustices, that girls are victims of violence, including sexual violence, in conflicts today. This is no new phenomenon, but continues a pattern set long ago. Moreover, the extent of these crimes, and their brutality, are rarely acknowledged, and there are very few convictions for wartime rape.
Today, however, is also a call to action: the International Day of the Girl Child is about making a difference.
The Shiloh Project is committed not only to research-based action but to direct action. Our current projects include a White Rose funded project to work on gender stereotyping and rape culture imagery in popular culture with high schoolers in Yorkshire, a WUN funded project to explore collaborations with academics and NGOs addressing violence against women in Accra, and an AHRC funded project to conduct workshops and produce resources towards the empowerment of women and girls in Botswana and Lesotho.
We also want to announce a Shiloh Project day conference to be hosted at Leeds University by the Centre for Religion and Public Life, provisionally scheduled for Monday 25 March. The conference will be organised by the three Shiloh Project leads, Caroline Blyth, Katie Edwards and Johanna Stiebert, and focus primarily on practitioners working with victims and perpetrators of sexual violence. The conference will be by invitation only. If you, or someone you know wants to take part, please contact us on Shiloh@sheffield.ac.uk. Also, if the Shiloh Project can contribute to or support your initiatives on religion and addressing rape culture and gender-based injustice, please be in touch.