I’ve experienced something important lately; something I am convinced will finally make a difference.
I belong to a minority; I am a Swedish speaking Finn. That means I am a Finnish citizen, but my mother tongue is Swedish. Of a total population of about 5.5 million Finns, there are about 300 000 people with Swedish as their native language. That is about 6%.
A couple of weeks ago five women from this minority started something big. They felt frustrated by the silence in our community after the #metoo campaign. Although countless women had participated in #metoo and shared experiences of sexual harassment and assault on social media, it didn’t really lead anywhere in our community. It kind of died out and these five women decided something had to be done. In such a small community, where a lot of people know or know of each other, it’s hard to speak out. So they decided to start a private Facebook group and invite as many women as possible to share their experiences of sexual assault and harassment within this Swedish speaking community.
I was added to the group quite early on and just within a couple of days the group grew to over 20 000 members from around the country. That is about 13% of all Swedish-speaking women (and girls) in Finland. Let that sink in for a second, 13% of the women felt this was so important they wanted to be involved. That’s a lot.
People started sharing their stories, many of which they had never breathed a word of to anyone before. For seven days my news feed was filled with almost nothing but these women’s accounts of sexual harassment and assault. It was heart warming to see how members of the group showed nothing but love and support for each other as they shared unspeakable memories and experiences for the first time. But it was also shocking and gut wrenching to read. During seven days over 800 stories were shared and so many of them were horrifying and violent accounts of sexual assault.
During this week it was difficult to even think about anything else. My head was filled with stories of little girls and women of all ages being violently raped, sometimes by complete strangers, but more often than not, by men they knew: relatives, colleagues, so-called friends… I felt sick to my stomach and my heart ached for them. I cried with them and for them when I read about the fear, the pain, and the shame, and although it was incredibly difficult to read, I couldn’t stop. I felt I needed to bear witness to what they had been through out of respect for them. We all need to. We need to acknowledge what they have gone through. We need to understand what goes on in our community and we need to make it stop.
One thing became painfully clear though. It was the fact that whether or not you become the victim of assault really just boils down to luck. Although I have had my share of sexual harassment and been in some deeply disturbing and sometimes scary situations, I have been incredibly lucky because I have never been assaulted the way many of these women and girls had. I realized when reading these stories, that I have been in so many similar situations, but luckily no one ever harmed me the way they had been harmed. What cannot be stressed enough, is that these women and girls did nothing wrong. More often than not it happened in a place they thought they were safe with a person they thought they could trust. The truth is that nothing they did – or could possibly have done – warranted the assault. The only thing that could have stopped it from happening was the assailant himself. The only thing that can stop a rape is if the rapist decides not to rape.
These stories of sexual assault still echo in my mind. Like the story of the woman who was assaulted by a man while his friends cheered him on. Or the countless little girls who were molested by grown-ups they knew and trusted. Or stories of hands and fingers painfully stuffed into underwear and inside bodies completely without warning by strange men. Or the young woman who was pinned down and violently raped by a guy she thought was her friend. Or the woman who woke up with blood all over her bottom…
Gruesome as it is, it’s important that you hear this because if you don’t, you can never appreciate what exactly it is we are dealing with, what it is that so many women go through, and the fear that is a reality for such a large part of the population.
Now imagine that you actually know the people who shared these stories. As I mentioned before, the Swedish speaking community in Finland is quite small, and many of the stories shared were by friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. When it turns out someone you know has gone through something like that, it just makes it so incredibly real.
So look around you. Look at the women and girls in your vicinity. Chances are some of them carry the burden of violent assault, which they are too ashamed to speak about, because this phenomenon is by no means just a Swedish-speaking thing. This is global. Chances are they have never told anyone because they might fear that they won’t be believed or that they will be stigmatized or lose their job. So look around you. How many of the women and girls you know might have experienced such unspeakable things?
Well, after seven days of sharing, empathizing and crying over each other’s pain, many of us – over 6000, more than 4% of all Swedish speaking females – signed a petition and the campaign was made public. Many of the stories have been anonymized and published here: http://www.astra.fi/dammenbrister/
It’s gruesome reading but go and read them anyway if you can (they are in Swedish). These women’s experiences need to be acknowledged and understood. Only if all of us – men and women – really understand what is going on, and the extent to which it is going on, will we manage to create change. Because that is one thing that is for sure, it can simply not go on this way. It has to stop.