Hello again, Girl w/Pen readers! I’ve been in hibernation finishing up my book Girls’ Studies, which will be published by Seal Press this fall. It’s been a long, intense project, and I look forward to being in more regular rotation here.
It’s not exactly an uplifting way to come back to the blog, but since I’ve spent so much time thinking about girls, I’ve been particularly haunted by this story that I read in the LA Times this past Friday. An 8-year-old girl in Phoenix, Arizona was lured into an empty shed by four boys and brutally raped. Her screams prompted someone to call the police, and all the boys were caught, with the oldest, 14, charged as an adult. The other three (ages 9, 10, and 13) will be charged with sexual assault, with the 10 and 13-year-old additionally charged with kidnapping. Sadly, my research this past year has confirmed how common sexual assault for girls still is, and I wish her case seemed the exception.
What caused this report to turn into international news, however, is the girl’s father’s reaction: the decision to shun his daughter and tell authorities that she was no longer welcome home. According to the LA Times, “The father told the case worker and an officer in her presence that he didn’t want her back,” Phoenix Police Sgt. Andy Hill said. “He said, ‘Take her, I don’t want her.’ ” All five children are cited as being “refugees from the West African nation of Liberia,” and further commentary in the article links the father’s reaction to cultural rejection of a girl or woman who has been raped or dishonored. Tony Weedor, a Liberian refugee from Littleton, Colo., and co-founder of the CenterPoint International Foundation, (which helps Liberians resettle in the U.S.) is cited as saying, “It’s a shame-based culture, so the crime is not as important as protecting the family name and the name of the community.”
The story is heartbreaking not only for the ordeal this girl endured but her position as a victim now blamed. Her path to recovery, at the age of 8, seems long. The story caused me to recall Eve Ensler’s incredible work with rape survivers in the Congo and how often the women she interviewed expressed amazement that their plight was worthy of attention, their bodies and souls deserving of aid. Ensler has spoken out about how often rape is a military assault implemented through the bodies of women and the devastation of women who are then considered devalued within their society.
While not the same, the idea that the family’s patriarch could cast this girl out is shocking â€“ against the backdrop of America where girls and women clearly have rights, even if they aren’t always rigorously enforced. This girl seems caught at an interstice between two cultures â€“ there has been an American outcry against her father’s comments, and yet murmurs in web reaction that pulling a young girl, recently emigrated, from her nuclear family and into the foster care system, could also be hazardous to her well being and recovery. As well, there has been outcry about the depiction of the Liberian family and the boys as crude or savage and in need of paternalistic American protection. There have also been subsequent reports in which the girl’s father has been portrayed as “confused” by American authority or his English simply not good enough to fully comprehend the situation. In this piece he is cited as recanting, although the girl’s sister reinforces the idea that the girl shouldn’t have followed the boys, and is stirring up trouble when they are all of the same nationality.
Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has responded urging the girl’s family to help her as well as suggesting the alleged attackers are also offered counseling by the US authorities. She acknowledges, “Let me say very clearly that rape is a problem in Liberia also. There is a strong law regarding that.” Tony Weedor is again cited as noting that “rape was not against the law in Liberia until 2006. Pamela Scully, a professor of women’s studies and African studies at Emory University in Atlanta is quoted in this report as saying, “When you’re dealing with children this young, they’re mimicking actions they’ve seen, they’ve heard about, they’ve grown up with.”
In my research this past year I’ve been heartened to see how many international organizations are working hard to turn around the perception, often in third-world countries, that girls are of lesser value than boys and to reinforce their often unrecognized centrality to family and village systems. But there is a long distance to go, often fraught with tensions between respecting tradition and upending injustice. This girl’s plight, caught in a crossroad of cultural concerns, highlights the multiple ways in which sexual assault for girls is still construed. I wish I could write that there aren’t also American families that would counsel keeping quiet about a girl’s rape for fear of bringing shame on their families as well, or advertising the “ruin” of a girl’s reputation. Despite however else this cultural clash plays out, sympathy for the girl seems widespread with, at the very least, recognition of the brutality of what she has been through, with the hope that she will receive help, however differently defined.