By Joanne N. Smith
WeNews guest author
Sunday, May 15, 2011
In this intro from "Hey, Shorty!" Joanne Smith recalls how the rape of an 8-year-old catalyzed the co-authors' work to end violence against girls in public schools. The book offers a manual on applying Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination in education.
This feeling of progress was halted suddenly in December 2001, when an 8-year-old girl who attended school with many of our enrollees was raped on her way to school.
A man had been trailing her. She'd passed a couple of corner stores, but did not go inside. When the police later asked her why she hadn't gone into them to seek safety, she said she didn't want to be embarrassed and she was only a block away from school.
She pushed on and the man--smelling of alcohol and wearing red contact lenses--grabbed her and dragged her to a nearby rooftop. He brutally raped her and then fled. She managed to make it to the school before collapsing into the principal's arms. She eventually gathered enough strength to report the rape.
As program participants met me in the gym that afternoon, they raced up to me to blurt out these awful details. I was shocked. It was so painful to hear that a child had been raped and that it had happened only 500 feet from where we lived, played and worked.
The girls and I sat around the half-court circle to share our feelings.
The girls repeated comments that they had heard from teachers, parents and peers. "She deserved it;" "She was fast;" "She shouldn't have been alone."
I was stunned and angry, forced to confront the reality that society trains girls to internalize misogyny. Blaming the victim by identifying with the aggressor allowed the girls to distance themselves from her, thereby gaining a false sense of security.
The fact that the child was able to walk to school, bleeding and crying after being raped, without anyone stopping her to ask, "What's wrong?" or "Are you okay?" told our girls that people had no compassion for abused black girls. It also communicated to our girls that if they were seen as weak or vulnerable, they were powerless against an attack.
Although the victim looked like them, went to their same school and did the same things they did daily, she must have done something wrong to bring this on herself.
In that circle, I pressed the girls to hear themselves and to see that the man's crime was not being acknowledged.
After an hour and 15 minutes, one child said with stern conviction: "That's why she shouldn't be fast, wearing them clothes, act like a woman be treated like a woman."
I was caught off guard and handled the situation badly by ending the conversation with a disapproving 15-minute speech countering every one of their points. Then I sent the girls home. That night I felt defeated.
I face an extremely difficult question: Could Girls for Gender Equity really effect change?
All I could think about was how this 8-year-old baby had walked to school bleeding and disheveled without anyone asking her if she needed help. She was only visible to the man who wanted to rape her. A puppy roaming the streets would never have gone unnoticed if it were bleeding. This rape received little media coverage or community response. Many adults in the neighborhood did not know about it until I told them.
The facts of this rape, and the lack of community response, were my gut check: doing nothing was not an option.
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Joanne N. Smith is founder and executive director of Girls for Gender Equity, a girls' advocacy group in Brooklyn, N.Y, and the co-author of "Hey, Shorty!: A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools and on the Streets."
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