Stories of Survival: 5 Women Across The Globe Speak Out

It’s a global pandemic that will affect one in three women in her lifetime.

It’s one of the most common human rights violations on the planet.

It remains one of humanity’s greatest hurdles to achieving global progress.

Gender-based violence comes in many forms — from domestic abuse and sex trafficking to child marriage and genital mutilation — and it knows no social, economic or national boundaries.

Breaking the silence is the first step to confronting this crisis. Thanks to movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, women and girls across the planet have found strength in one another.

To commemorate this year’s global campaign to end violence against women and girls, we’re amplifying the voices of five women in five countries who are sharing their own stories and working with UN Women to empower other survivors across the planet.

Nongnee Kondii. (Photo courtesy of Nongnee Kondii)

Nongnee Kondii, Thailand

Nongnee Kondii* was in 10th grade when she fell in love for the first time — with another girl. “I was told that being a lesbian woman is a sin … When my mother caught us, she separated us. I was sent off to live in my grandfather’s farm house, far from everyone,” she recalled. She was 17 years old at the time and remembers being ostracized for her sexual orientation. “People in my village gossiped and called me a sinner, a deviant, and a traitor to my religion.”

“I was told that being a lesbian woman is a sin.”

It wasn’t until college that Nongnee began to express her sexual identity again. Then she and three friends were assaulted by a teacher. “We were terrified and ashamed. I didn’t say a word about this to anyone.” They stayed silent about the attack until a workshop on LGBTI rights in Thailand changed their minds. “We learned about our rights and the multitude of barriers, challenges, and discrimination that we routinely face because of our sexual orientation,” she said.

The workshop, which was partly supported by UN Women, altered their perspectives about what had happened — and whether they should go to the police. “I realized that my friends and I had been targeted and punished because we were lesbians. What happened to us was a punishable crime,” she said.

After more than a year of court proceedings, the verdict finally came down: The man was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

“After we won the case, seven minors came forward to report that they were assaulted by the same man,” she said. “If the same thing happens to anyone around me, this time I’m going to be the one to take their hand, take them to the police station, and help them seek justice.”

Read Nongnee’s full story.

Hanna Lilina. (©UN Women/Volodymyr Shuvayev)

Hanna Lilina,

Hanna Lilina* had just fled the conflict in eastern Ukraine when she learned that she was HIV-positive. A doctor delivered the news during a prenatal checkup. She already had a one-year-old daughter, but had recently become a single mother — the conflict in her country wasn’t the only violence she was escaping. Hanna had also fled an abusive partner. “I did not know how to identify violence. Having experienced it since childhood, I didn’t even think to fight it.”

Years of suffering physical and psychological abuse can normalize such trauma. And the stigma of being HIV-positive means women like Hanna are often more vulnerable to being trapped in abusive relationships. A 2016 study found that one-third of women living with HIV in Ukraine had experienced gender-based violence as early as the age of 15.

“I did not know how to identify violence. Having experienced it since childhood, I didn’t even think to fight it.”

That’s where local support groups come in. After Hanna resettled in Ukraine’s capital of Kiev, she joined a peer support group for women living with HIV called Kyyanka+. The group provides education and training on antiretroviral therapy, how to cope with the diagnosis and how to disclose it to others, including intimate partners. Today, Hanna is part of the National Women’s Forum on HIV, an effort supported by UN Women to raise awareness, action, and social services for HIV-positive women survivors of violence.

Read Hanna’s full story.

Luiza Karimova. (©UN Women Europe and Central Asia/Rena Effendi)

Luiza Karimova, Uzekistan

“I was a 22-year-old single mother, desperate for work,” recalls Luiza Karimova* of her decision to leave Uzbekistan and cross into neighboring Krygyzstan in search of a job to support her family.

When she arrived, Luiza was kidnapped by human traffickers who stole her passport and smuggled her into Dubai, where she was sold into prostitution. “We were sex slaves … For 18 months, this is all I did. We were never allowed to go anywhere unaccompanied. I could not bear it anymore.” One night during a police raid, Luiza surrendered just so she could escape her captors, one of whom used a hot iron to brand and torture the women.

“We were sex slaves … I could not bear it anymore.”

After spending a year in jail, Luiza found herself homeless, unemployed, and filled with shame. Desperate, she returned to the sex industry until staffers from a local women’s organization called Podruga — which means “girlfriend” in Russian — discovered her in the local saunas. “They offered me work. I wasn’t sure that I would fit in, but slowly I began to trust them.”

Based in Osh, Kyrgyzstan and supported by UN Women, Podruga helps vulnerable girls and women escape human trafficking, receive adequate health care, and understand their legal rights. For the past two years, Luiza has worked with Podruga to reach out to other survivors and educate the public on detecting the signs of human trafficking.

Read Luiza’s full story.

Jana Mustafa with her son, Jamal. (©UN Women/Eunjin Jeong)

Jane Mustafa, Gaza Strip

Jane Mustafa* was just a baby when she lost her left leg to an infection. But it wasn’t her disability that left her feeling vulnerable. It was an abusive marriage marked by years of physical and psychological violence.

“My former husband did not support me financially,” she recalled. “But he used my disability to make me feel weak.”

Then Jane learned about the Hayat Centre, a local non-profit in the Gaza Strip supported by UN Women that offers legal services and psychosocial counseling. With help from the organization’s lawyers, Jane freed herself from her unhealthy marriage. “When I received the paper saying that the divorce was approved, I cried like a baby I was so relieved.”

“Disability should not stop anyone from starting over.”

The experience restored her self-confidence. “I used to be shy, but now I am a different person … I speak out whenever I see injustice. I want to open a small business where I do not have to be judged by employers who do not know what I can offer. Disability shouldn’t stop anyone from starting over.”

Read Jane’s full story.

Women and girls attend a training session at the Jordanian Women’s Union. (©UN Women/ Christopher Herwig)

Maysam Hamed, 

Growing up in an abusive family, Maysam Hamed* witnessed and endured violence throughout her childhood. After running away from home, Maysam was arrested at 16 for living on the streets. “I was homeless because my family didn’t want me,” she recalled.

Though she wasn’t charged with a crime, Maysam remained in jail until a staffer at a local organization called the Jordanian Women’s Union (JWU) heard about her case and fought for her release. Maysam was the first girl welcomed through the doors of the organization’s newly opened shelter. Together with UN Women, UNICEF, and UNFPA, the Jordanian Women’s Union is providing health care, livelihood training, psychological counseling, and legal services to nearly 12,000 women and children across Jordan.

“I was homeless because my family didn’t want me.”

Thanks in part to JWU’s support, Maysam completed high school and attended college. But her recovery did not last long. Just after turning 20, she was raped by a friend of her brother’s and forced to marry him to preserve her family’s honor. What began as a sexual assault turned into an abusive marriage that would eventually leave Maysam broke and alone. At 37, she once again found herself living on the streets — with three children to care for.

“I had no place to go and no money to buy food to feed them,” she recalled. “I went back to the JWU shelter, but this time I was not alone.”

Maysam’s experience shows why survivors of violence often need long-term and sustained support to break the cycle of abuse. Now working at the Jordanian Women’s Union as a secretary, Maysam also discovered a new passion that serves as a therapeutic outlet: Acting. Last year, she performed in front of the King of Jordan.

Read Maysam’s full story.

The stories of these five women carry a powerful truth: Survivors will no longer be silenced. Their voices have reached a global crescendo, ringing through the halls of power from Hollywood to Capitol Hill.

These are just five of many stories illustrating how violence against girls and women can — and must — be stopped. And it begins by addressing the systemic inequality and misogyny that perpetuates gender-based violence. Everybody has a role to play, whether by advocating for changes within your own country or community, sharing your own story or supporting organizations that help survivors.

But this work requires us to put money where our mouth is. Today, only a fraction of humanitarian funding goes toward programs that specifically tackle gender-based violence.

That’s why the UN and the European Union launched the Spotlight Initiative last year with €500 million in initial funding — the largest single investment of its kind. The initiative’s goal? To shine a light on this global pandemic by investing in targeted programs that address domestic and sexual violence as well as gender-based crimes like human trafficking and sexual exploitation. In its first major project, the Spotlight Initiative is targeting the issue of femicide in five countries across Latin America where it’s most prevalent: Argentina, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico.

“At its core, violence against women and girls in all its forms is the manifestation of a profound lack of respect — a failure by men to recognize the inherent equality and dignity of women,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said earlier this month. “It is an issue of fundamental human rights.”
“Not until the half of our population represented by women and girls can live free of fear, violence and everyday insecurity can we truly say we live in a fair and equal world.”

*Names have been altered to protect the safety of survivors.

M.J. Altman, Senior Communications Officer at the United Nations Foundation. Stories have been republished with permission from UN Women.