Shattering the silence around childhood sexual violence.
Dr. Daniela Ligiero survived childhood sexual violence. In this excerpt from a speech during the Darkness to Light Envision 2022 conference, she explains how, as CEO of Together for Girls, she uses both data and her own story to change perceptions about childhood sexual violence and create a safer world.
I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I decided to go public with my story about 13 years ago when I was working at the US Department of State on issues of gender-based violence for foreign assistance. I came forward because I felt like the silence around the issue of sexual violence was deafening and there were no survivors at the table–at least not that were survivors who were public about it.
When I meet with decision-makers to talk about solutions to end violence, I hear the same broken narratives repeated over and over again. The first is that "Childhood sexual violence is too terrible. It's overwhelming and too difficult to tackle. There's nothing we can do about it."
The second narrative goes "Childhood sexual violence isn't really that common; it is not happening that much. And when it does, it happens somewhere else, not in our community."
Neither of these narratives is true.
As a field, it is critically important that we change the public understanding of the issue of childhood sexual violence. We need to change the narrative from despair and acceptance to that of urgent action, change, and hope.
The truth is that at Togther for Girls, our partnership has been gathering data for over a decade. We now have data for 12% of the world’s children, adolescents, and youth under age 24, and 20% living in lower-income countries. Our data shows that childhood sexual violence is widespread (anywhere between 4% and 35% of girls and 1% and 21% of boys experience sexual violence in childhood), and that it can happen everywhere and to any child.
There are policies, programs, and people working all over the world to prevent sexual violence and ensure justice and healing for survivors. A review of the evidence from around the world found eight types of interventions that are effective in preventing violence against children, eight that are promising, and 14 that are prudent. We know that everyone can play a role in creating a safer future, and we have the tools to do so.
So how can we change the narrative around childhood sexual violence? I am a researcher, and I believe in the power of data and evidence to guide policy and inform programmatic change. But I'm also a human, and I've seen firsthand the power of stories to create change. As a survivor, I have found that sharing my story can help shatter the silence around sexual violence and eliminate harmful narratives about sexual violence against children.
I am convinced that in order to create change, we must pair our data and evidence with survivor perspectives. Using these pieces together has immense power when it comes to creating change and influence.
Here's more about my personal story in four short chapters.
At the age of six, I started being sexually abused by someone very close to my family.
For many years, I lived in silence with a lot of shame and pain.
My family and community had talked to me about avoiding strangers in a van, and clichés like "don't accept candy from strangers." The messages I got about child abuse prevention didn't fit my experience. I felt very alone, and I had so much fear.
At the age of 15, I was watching a movie on TV about a girl who had been sexually abused by her stepfather and the consequences that had on her life. I remember watching this movie and understanding for the first time in my life what had happened to me.
All of a sudden, I realized that I wasn't alone; this wasn't an experience that only I had. I could make sense of it.
I began the long, difficult, and painful process of my healing journey. I was fortunate because I had access to therapists and support and many different resources that helped me heal.
The help I received is an important reminder that when you intervene early on, even if the child has already been abused, you can change their life for the better.
Later in my life, I decided to work on violence issues and became a psychologist. I made this decision because I wanted to ensure that no other child went through what I had gone through. Ending sexual violence against children is my life's work.
I also realized that part of what I needed to do, in order to make the change I wanted to make, was to publicly start sharing my own story. Of course, this is not for everyone, and not something I openly recommend. Being very public comes with risks and consequences for some, and it's important to prioritize your safety and well-being when making the decision to share your story, and to only do what feels right for you.
As I mentioned earlier, I was working at the Department of State at the time, under the Obama Administration, leading all of our gender-based violence work around the world. I had the realization that if I, in a position of power and privilege, was too ashamed or scared or uncomfortable sharing that I'm a survivor, how can we expect the most vulnerable to come forward and share their stories?
I realized that part of what I needed to do was to be a model for others. I felt fortunate that I was in a place in my healing journey to be able to share my story. But not everyone was supportive. People told me that it would be the end of my career. They said no one would take me seriously as an expert if I shared my experiences. But I knew what I had to do.
It’s been more than a decade since I started publicly sharing my story, and it’s led me on a path I could have never imagined. Countless times, I've had the experience of talking to a decision-maker as a researcher and expert, and then explaining to them that I'm also a survivor. I can share all the latest data and evidence, but when I also talk about my story, something shifts in a powerful way.
The last chapter, the one I'm living right now, is: Together, we are powerful.
There are many of us survivors out telling our stories, who want to talk about this issue, and who want to create change. As a sector, we must elevate their voices and offer them the support they need to be part of the solution.
Together, as survivors, allies, researchers, activists, social workers, parents, and teachers, our voices become much more powerful in demanding change.
I've seen firsthand how our collective voices can drive change for prevention, healing, and justice. Through my work with the Brave Movement, a survivor-centered movement catalyzed by Together for Girls, we’ve convened survivors leading campaigns to drive action around the world.
We need to work together to create a hopeful narrative. We know enough to act today. We have enough data and evidence to know that there are interventions that work to prevent violence, like creating child-friendly care centers, empowering young women and adolescent girls, educating children about their bodies, providing parent and caregiver support, creating safeguards in sports and youth-serving organizations, creating a safer internet, and eliminating statutes of limitations.
If we work together, centering survivor voices, we can tell a powerful story that can help create real change. We must never lose sight of the fact that we can - and must- create a safer world for future generations.
Chief Executive Officer & President, Together for Girls
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