Dr. Paul Zeitz is a physician, an epidemiologist and long standing advocate for justice and human rights, including children’s rights. He is the author of the recently released book, Waging Justice, a Doctor’s Journey to Speak Truth and Be Bold and serves as the Co-Founder of SDG Compacts and the Sustainable Development Games at the Global Development Incubator (GDI) and the U.S.A. Focal Point for Action for Sustainable Development, a global social movement.
As a survivor of sexual abuse in childhood, Dr. Zeitz speaks about his story openly, and sends an empowering message to survivors; “Breaking the silence about child sexual abuse is a critical first step to creating a culture of zero tolerance.”
Together for Girls sat down with Dr. Paul Zeitz, to learn more about his story, his ongoing work, and new book, Waging Justice.
TFG: Can you share a bit of your story, and how you became such a passionate advocate for eliminating violence against children?
I am a survivor of early child sexual abuse. The memories of this trauma were deeply buried in my mind for decades. In my late 40s, about 10 years ago, flashbacks broke through and I began an intensive healing journey. I was strong enough to seek help and begin healing and rebuilding my sense of myself.
I don’t want anyone to live as I did. As I am working on my own healing, I am compelled to share my experiences to help relieve the suffering of those people who are hiding in the shadows. I am joining forces with survivors who are ready to shake off our fears, discomforts and inhibitions and break the silence around these horrific crimes against the most vulnerable among us.
I am speaking out and acting boldly every day going forward. In September, I broke my silence publicly with the publication of Waging Justice, A Doctor’s Journey to Speak Truth and Be Bold.*
Telling my stories around my own experience of intrafamilial sexual abuse was one of the most difficult challenges of my life. But it’s heartbreakingly common in the U.S: 34 percent of people who sexually abuse a child are family members. Through the work of Together for Girls and your partners, we are learning that a pandemic childhood sexual abuse is happening globally. This can and must be stopped.
For forty years, I existed in various states of amnesia, denial, anger, and shame about what happened to me. Finally, in writing Waging Justice, I found the words to express what happened to me, the courage to speak and write them, and a family and community who listened to and believed me. I am finding my place on a path to healing and dignity.
TFG: As VACS data reveals, both girls and boys experience high rates of sexual violence and abuse worldwide. How can we do a better job of addressing the unique challenges that boys face?
I am thrilled to see that more and more countries are implementing Violence Against Children Surveys (VACS). The widespread abuse that boys and girls face is unconscionable. Getting the data about the extent of the problem is the only way can begin mounting effective responses.
Sexual abuse against boys is still a taboo subject. As a critical first step, we need to create safe spaces where the unique challenges and risks that boys face can be discussed openly. Families and communities have to be courageous enough to make room for boys to safely share their experiences and be believed.
TFG: You have extensive experience living in different countries and working to address a variety of public health issues–including HIV/AIDS. What are your views on holistic interventions that address the root causes and consequences of sexual violence?
In my view, there are critical actions we can take to create societies that are child sexual abuse-free zones. It takes a comprehensive approach to reform, harmonized across government and community sectors.
First, governments must direct bold and effective strategies that address all sectors and are backed with strong financial commitment. These strategies should include surveillance systems; meaningful monitoring; and national health, education, and social protection partnerships.
Second, legal and judicial systems must be reformed to criminalize all forms of violence against children, including corporal punishment. Legal loopholes that prevent or inhibit prosecution must be closed. It is critical therefore that the police and court systems have well-trained personnel dedicated to sexual violence against children.
People responsible for children must also have access to trained and certified advocates who can make referrals to the health, legal, and social protection sectors and can represent survivors in court.
TfG: As a father of five sons, how can families best discuss the issue of sexual abuse with their children? What are some norms that exist within traditional male gender roles that can be addressed to help prevent sexual abuse against children and its perpetration?
As my children were growing up, my wife and I agreed that we would discuss the risk of sexual abuse from a very young age. We can’t know that our children are always going to be safe, so we felt it was important to let them know how to protect themselves. We discussed these risks in the context of playing sports, in religious school, at camps, and even amid their circle of family and friends. Fathers and mothers talking openly about the risk of sexual abuse to all of their children–including their sons–lets them know that they have the power to protect themselves and assert their dignity. And their parents always would believe them.
TfG: What message would you like to send to survivors of sexual violence?
It was challenging to share my personal story of surviving incest in front of so many people. I had to first overcome my own inner feelings of shame and anger. By stepping up and speaking out in public, I’m proudly becoming a “shame-buster,” and I’m happy to be creating spaces for truth and healing. As I’ve been sharing my story over the past few months, I’ve had men and women come forward to me and share their own stories of assault and their journey to find healing.
There is an immense feeling of solidarity in the struggle to speak out. Let’s join forces to reveal our painful stories so that we can heal ourselves. Let’s join forces to heal others who are suffering and to work together to create a world where we end childhood sexual violence and all forms of sexual assault.
To learn more about Dr. Paul Zeitz and his book, Waging Justice, visit his website: DrPaulZeitz.org.
* Zeitz, Paul. (2018) Waging Justice: A Physician’s Journey to Speak Truth & Be Bold.