By: Jane Helpern
When the devastating earthquake struck Haiti last January, celebrities rushed to their twitters and blogs to broadcast their feelings about the tragedy, and more importantly to inform the public about what they were doing to help, and how the rest of us could get involved too. One of the most vocal members of the Hollywood community was musician and native Haitian Wyclef Jean, who, through his twitter account, asked that the public text “Yele’’ to 501501 in order to donate $5 to his Yele Haiti Foundation.
With twitter’s unprecedented ability to dispense “news” to millions of individuals in 140 characters or less, an entire uncharted pathway for charitable giving, instant communicating and information sharing is beginning to clear. Today, nine months after the initial shock of the quake, relief efforts and American interest in the state of Haiti have greatly dissipated, abandoning Haitians to fend for themselves in the rubble and uncertainty that remains. Camps continue to house thousands in squalid conditions with little safety, while women and girls are routinely subject to unchecked physical and sexual assault.
On September 23, 2010 an intrepid Mother Jones journalist named Mac McClelland live-tweeted her journey to the hospital alongside a girl whose tongue was bitten off during a gang rape in Haiti. Via twitter, McClelland sent out frequent updates about the girl’s condition for the duration of the ambulance ride, and upon arriving at the hospital, “tweeted” that the male doctor scolded the victim, saying it was “her fault she got raped bc she’s a slut and smokes pot.”
There are few subjects that are as universally hush-hush as rape and sexual violence. Even here in the states there exists the widespread perception that women who get raped were either “asking for it” or that the victim secretly “wanted it.” Sexual violence against women is a hard subject to stomach, and the case documented by McClelland is particularly unsettling and difficult to look at, due to the savage and brutal nature of this crime and the fact that the victim had already survived the trauma of the earthquake less than a year ago.
Due to its immediate, short-hand nature, Twitter lends itself to being a “fluffy site” rich with catchy quips, witty one-liners, political satire, and celebrity buzz. You can imagine the backlash when unsuspecting inhabitants of the twitter-verse, accustomed to receiving the latest in shocking political scandals and celebrity sex tapes straight to their blackberries, caught wind of the atrocity committed against this young woman in Haiti.
“She was choked so hard that all the blood vessels in her eyes popped, but doctor says they’ll heal,” read one of McClelland’s tweets. Phil Bronstein, Vice President and Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, blogged to the Huffington Post, “The topic itself also turned some tweeters off; sexual violence is a touchy subject and not something normally served up in the midst of the cultural peep shows of high-ranked search engine stars like Justin Bieber and Ashton Kutcher.” Bronstein poses the question: whether using this type of blunt and brash social media when discussing subject matter of this nature is effective in raising awareness or whether it simply offends the public and forces them to look away?
Bronstein’s point is valid but mostly in the sense that it highlights how backwards the priorities of the mainstream media consumers are. If twitter and Facebook are the most efficient ways to shed light on a topic, or product, or celebrity, or an event, then in the name of human rights, women’s rights, and equal rights, it is absolutely imperative that no matter how uncomfortable we might feel when faced with the reality of violent sexual crimes, we must force this issue which is truly a global epidemic to be examined and combated head on.
As long as taboo stories such as McClelland’s are relegated to sparsely trafficked niche publications and websites, the media will perpetuate this nation’s ability to deny legalized rape, and domestic violence, and gendercide, and female genital mutilation. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and on the 1st of the month President Obama presented his proclamation. He notes,
“We have broken the silence surrounding domestic violence to reach thousands of survivors, prevent countless incidences of abuse, and save untold numbers of lives. While these are critical achievements, domestic violence remains a devastating public health crisis when one in four women will be physically or sexually assaulted by a partner at some point in her lifetime. During Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we recognize the tremendous progress made in reducing domestic violence, and we recommit to making everyone’s home a safe place for them.”
It is inevitable that McClelland’s “live-tweeting” would insult many a twitterer, but what should be more offensive is the jarring statistic that one in four women will be a victim of domestic, and often sexual, violence in her lifetime. Twitter is just one more tool we have at our disposal to tear down the veil of silence women and victims of sexual and domestic violence have been forced to wear through fear and shaming tactics. Just as Wyclef Jean was able to direct a generally unsympathetic generation’s attention to Haiti relief, McClelland, and those reporters brave enough to follow in her footsteps, have the ability to do the same for the women of this world, many of whom have no other support system or voice.