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Breaking the conspiracy of silence

"I was 12 years old.....my anguish ended when my family left Okinawa after this man had paid me $5 during our last encounter for my ‘services’," Betsy Kawamura

In the 1970’s in Okinawa, an island south of mainland Japan, a middle aged Caucasian man in civilian attire stopped me outside a bookstore in the city of Koza, now called Okinawa City near the U.S. Kadena Air Base.  I was 12 years old.  Though I could not identify the man explicitly as being part of the U.S. armed forces, it would have been likely as most of the Americans living in Okinawa were directly or indirectly part of the U.S. military in those years during the Vietnam War.  The tiny island of Okinawa was often a training ground for U.S. military personnel who were sent to Vietnam then, and still serves as a main base for U.S. armed forces for Asia Pacific regions. Lured by his smooth talk and fearful of disobeying an older man as an ‘authority figure’, I tragically agreed to go for a ride in this man’s car. Without going through traumatizing details, the perpetrator sexually assaulted me, found out where I lived, and took  me out of my house to repeatedly assault me for several days in remote areas in Okinawa. He also told me openly about his sexual abuse of other young girls, including his own daughter and told me he found ‘nothing wrong’ with what he was doing to me at all. My anguish ended when my family left Okinawa after this man had paid me $5 during our last encounter for my ‘services’.

I had felt disgustingly dirty and traumatized but I received no care or attention from those closest to me.  Nearly two decades later, after prolonged neglect of this early traumatic situation, I ended up institutionalised, temporarily clinically disabled, and was forced to survive on the streets homeless.

Twenty years later, when I was able to return to my professional work in Japan, I met some journalists and activists working with trafficked and tortured defectors from North Korea. I attended the second annual conference on North Korea human rights violations in Tokyo, complete with raw drawings of children depicting their lives in the gulags.  The depiction of torture in the drawings and testimonies of the trafficked women triggered in me such a powerful and overwhelming response that I was never able to return completely to the corporate world. As I researched further the plight of trafficked women out of North Korea, the tortuous consequences reminded me of my own encounter of sexual assault in Okinawa. Women of Okinawa then did not have an adequate ‘voice’ or power to prosecute perpetrators and I realized then that survivors of sexual violence globally need strong political advocacy and socio-economic support to empower them. This realization ignited my will to come out as a visible survivor and a ‘voice’ to support severely stigmatised groups, as well as NGOs and journalists who try to assist in such efforts.

Like many oppressed groups in the world, I feel that many Asian women and those of minority ethnic backgrounds are still conditioned to be ‘less empowered’ than the opposite sex.  I want to prevent gender based violence through grass-roots level engagement, and create awareness of the problem by approaching government, civil society and military representatives; and to support survivors toward highest-level peace negotiations globally.

I have been deeply disappointed with many of the military decision-making bodies globally because of their lack of accountability in dealing with violence against women, and lack of foresight in focusing on preventing armed conflicts. For example, although things in Okinawa have improved since 1995, there is still room for improvement in the cases of the thousands of woman and children in Asia Pacific who have survived violence since the second World War under US military presence. The 1995 Okinawa rape incident refers to a rape that took place on September 4, 1995, when U.S. Navy Seaman Marcus Gill and two U.S. Marines Rodrico Harp and Kendrick Ledet, all from Camp Hansen rented a van and kidnapped and raped a 12-year-old Japanese girl. Okinawan activist Suzuyo Takazato, and other women who were present at the Beijing Platform then investigated the incident and later generated a list of several hundred cases of sexual crimes committed by the U.S. military in Japan over the years. The 1995 rape case caused a huge public outcry in Okinawa and resulted in some changes in the handling of U.S. military crimes.

More provisions still need to be made for rape victims, such as changing the nature of Status of Force Agreements between the USA and host countries globally that leave loopholes that prevent the effective prosecution of rapists. The fact that the USA, along with other global super-powers like China and Russia, are not part of the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court, though they are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, leaves room for concern for survivors/victims of sexual violence like myself, who question the provision of ‘security’ by U.N. Security Council members.

Other territories such as East and West Africa and Balkans have also suffered from the gendered impact of armed conflicts, including militarised prostitution and human trafficking. In observing the current unrest in the Middle East and Far East Asia (North Korea in particular), it would be unfathomable not to look at how implementing UNSCR 1325 could help  prevent further armed violence.

UN Security Council Resolution 1960 passed on December 17, 2010 to name and shame parties to armed conflict “credibly suspected” of committing rape or other forms of sexual violence, is a very welcome move.  It is also critical to look at longer range legal consequences of accountability for super powers such as China, USA, and Russia, who are not part of the Rome Statute.

One of the greatest challenges in empowering survivors of gender based violence lie sincreating a paradigm shift in the minds and hearts of people universally who wrongly believe that survivors are disempowered and can not both give and receive love. I was asked recently whether I still belived in 'love'. I remain committed to my belief int he transcendent powers of agape, including its ability to heal society from violence against women.

When I attend the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference on ending sexual violence against women in conflict, I hope I will be able to catalyse efforts with like-minded individuals and survivors to create a global network of survivor empowerment programs that will be survivor-steered and driven, designed to support efforts at The Hague and to evaluate National Action Plans on UNSCR 1325. As a survivor from the small island of Okinawa during the Vietnam War, I hope that I can inspire others to engage in empowering programs to lessen the burden and stigmatisation of the violence that is still disproportionately borne by female survivors.  I thank the powerful and critical engagement of men in assisting us such as partners of women who were sexually abused, who stand tall and proud by them, instead of marginalizing or stigmatising them.

Gender-based violence is a weapon of mass destruction fuelled by generations of grief and ‘conspiracy of silence’ abetted by perpetrators.  Such violence will continue to fuel and perpetuate wars unless there is a paradigm shift for change in the hearts and minds of the survivors, witnesses, and everyone globally. This is the message I will  be taking to the Nobel Women's Initiative conference on ending sexual violence in conflict

To read opendemocracy's full coverage of the conference ( May 23-25) click here  

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