On Friday, December 12th, the day before the Miss World 2008 Finals in Johannesburg, I will be announcing my documentary project and officially launching this website.
Here is a sneak peek at my statement for the press conference:
I’m a survivor of rape. I was raped in Milan, Italy, when I was 18 years old, just seven weeks before the Miss World contest. My memory of the competition is of feeling barely alive. I don’t know how I got through it. During the four weeks in the Seychelles Islands, I did not tell anyone about my rape. Not the other girls, not the judges. I did not know how to begin talking about what happened. I was confused, scared and traumatized. The only people who knew the truth were my immediate family.
When my name was announced as the winner, I was completely shocked. I thought I was the least fitting of all the contestants to serve as Miss World. I did not know how to go about making world peace, or feed all the hungry children in Africa, or find a cure for AIDS. I was not sure what would be the purpose of the crown on my head, but I had a very strong sense that both my rape, and winning the crown, had happened for a reason.
Once the case became public, my mailbox began filling up with letters from women around the world sharing their traumatic stories with me. Some approached me in person, eager to tell me what they had kept secret from their parents, their husbands and children. I began then to understand my mission, and that it had chosen me.
I am here to announce the beginning of a documentary project that will be my way of reaching as many women as possible. My hope is to shed light on the word “rape” by telling my own story, and the stories of other women, in the hopes of helping other survivors and encouraging them not to stay silent, not to feel ashamed, and not to blame themselves. I am anxious and excited about my decision to make this film, but mostly I am filled with an enormous sense of mission, as something that must be done. To me, the title of “Miss World” means an obligation to reach out to other women.
One in five women around the world will be a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. In many countries in the world right now, a girl who is raped has no support system, no legal recourse to seek justice. There are even countries where being a rape victim could mean a death sentence. Just last month, in Somalia, 13-year-old Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow was stoned to death by a group of 70 men who threw rocks at her head in front of 1,000 spectators while she was pleading “don’t kill me.” Her crime? She had been raped by three men. They called it adultery.
Violence is used against women in every war-zone in the world. Women’s bodies are part of the battleground of war — women are raped, abducted, humiliated and made to undergo forced pregnancy, sexual abuse and slavery.
For those of us who live in countries where we can talk without fearing for our lives, where we can hold rapists accountable and not let them go free to attack other women, where we can get professional help and try to piece ourselves back together, we have an obligation to tell our stories.
In Los Angeles a 14 year old girl named Katie was raped by a fashion designer. It took Katie 2 weeks to tell her mother about the rape and another 2 months until they told her father. The family decided not to file a police report—they didn’t want to face the humiliation of testifying. Seven years later, Anand Jon, who the DA called “the Hannibal Lecter of sex crimes,” was finally convicted of rape and sexual assault. Katie cried when the verdict was read. If she had reported, perhaps 16 other girls could have different lives today.
Yet, 80% of rape crimes are never reported. Many girls report too late to get incriminating DNA evidence. It’s time we change that. One of the reasons I was able to overcome what could have ruined my life was that I was well advised at the time of my rape to keep the genetic evidence on my body until it could be tested. It was because of this evidence that the man who raped me was convicted and sentenced to prison. He had previously been charged with rape but not convicted, due to the lack of DNA. Putting my rapist behind bars was one of the most important steps in my ongoing process of healing. Advocating for victims of sexual violence will be another.
When I was raped, I prayed that I would get out of it alive. But living as a survivor has been very painful. Rape is like murder—I was dead inside but had to live as if everything is fine. Rapists know that women will feel ashamed and stay silent. The only way to survive is to speak out, to tell our friends, our families, our counselors. If telling my story can help even one woman overcome a rape, then my journey will have been meaningful. “He who saves one soul, is as if he saved the entire world.”
I plan to travel to different countries, looking at other cases of rape and at how sexual violence is used against women. I want to invite women to join me. I am launching a website, bravemissworld.com. For anyone who is a victim of rape, I am stepping forward to meet you and to help you tell your story. I hope that survivors of rape worldwide will use the website as a place to connect and to share their accounts of pain and healing. The only we way can help each other and make a change in our society is by telling our stories. We cannot stay silent.
There is someone here today who gave me the courage to speak out when I was raped. She was the first person I called when it happened. She immediately told me to go to the police, and to tell the truth. It was my mother. She stood by me throughout the difficult times of having to talk about being raped, having to testify. She never let me feel ashamed. She didn’t tell me to keep quiet. She did not care what the neighbors would say. She knew that the fault was his, not mine. Thank you so much Mom. I wish all victims of rape would have the same kind of support that you gave me. I hope that other mothers are listening to these words, and that they will know what to do when their daughters call.