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For Manuela

Last night, an impressive cast gathered at Le Bernardin in New York City to celebrate the United States government’s global HIV/AIDS program formally joining Together For Girls, a global partnership to end sexual violence. This partnership is one of many formed across the city this week in the midst of the all the focus on the future of the developing world at the Clinton Global Initiative, the UN Summit on the Millennium Development Goals, and TEDxChange.

Sexual violence is a reality of the developed and the developing world. Globally, one in three women experience sexual violence in their lifetimes. It is the role of government officials, like those gathered last night, to change the structures that allow these egregious violations of basic human rights to go undeterred and unpunished. For many of us working in this field, though, our commitment to changing this reality—that so many will be sexually abused and the toll it will take on their health and livelihoods, beyond bodily trauma— was instilled and is fed by knowing women and girls, who live out the statistics every day.

For me, it was a young woman named Manuela.

Nearly 12 years ago, I was working for USAID in Benin. My life revolved around producing RFAs and proposals, conducting evaluations, and making site visits, and one more thing: dancing. During my first few months in Benin, I was lucky enough to meet a girl named Manuela. A young singing star in Cotonou who got her start in her church choir, Manuela was clearly destined for worldwide renown. With her clarion voice, she filled the room with beauty and vibrancy—an energy and a passion for life that was contagious. We made fast friends, and she would often drop by my house on the weekends to catch up, practice her English, and have a cold Coke. I cherished these visits, especially the time she spent trying to teach me the latest dance moves—her determination that I would learn to dance like a true Béninoise was unflagging.

Two years into my time in Benin, Manuela was approaching high school graduation, and she was thinking ahead to what her future might hold. She decided she wanted to attend a university outside of Benin. I knew she had a great shot. Her English was exceptional, exceeded perhaps only by her ambition. She asked me to help her work on her applications and essays, and I readily agreed. For three weekends running, we worked together on her applications. In between the paperwork and the review of her TOEFL certificates, we chatted about boys, and listened to music, and danced. We talked about the dreams we had for our lives. She wrote her essay about her aspirations to launch a career as a musician and a teacher and come back to Benin to make a difference for girls and women there. I believed she would.

Then without word, Manuela disappeared. The first weekend I assumed she was busy, but after a couple weeks with no word I went looking. These were the days before cellphones, so I drove to the neighborhood where I knew she lived. I stopped people to ask about her, but no one seemed to know anything, or they simply didn’t want to talk. Several weeks later, I learned Manuela had taken her own life. It took me months to dig up an explanation of what might have driven her to it; Manuela found out that she was pregnant, not by a boyfriend or a stranger, but by the pastor of her own church. I often wonder why she didn’t come by the house one more time for a Coke and some advice.

Although it terrifies me to write it, I know there are millions of young women and girls out there like Manuela. Stopping this violence is something we must all commit to doing by teaching our sons and our daughters differently and speaking out against violence in every form rather than allowing it to be swept into a closet of shame and secrecy. From a very practical standpoint, it also requires that we continue to train and support health workers who are equipped and willing to sensitively and competently treat survivors of sexual coercion and violence. Maybe Manuela would have sought help from a local nurse or counselor if there had been one she trusted to give her medically accurate, confidential, and nonjudgmental advice and care.

Yesterday evening, during the Together for Girls reception, we heard the numbers, as well as some of the stories behind the numbers of women who experience sexual violence. And I was shaking, thinking of Manuela and so many others. Gary Cohen, executive vice president of Becton, Dickinson and Company, a medical technology company, Eric Goosby, the U.S. Global AIDS coordinator, and others talked about the reality of sexual violence against girls and women. As Cohen said yesterday in a Clinton Global Initiative session, and repeated last night, he had a revelation a few years ago that sexual violence against girls is the lynchpin, the point at which we have to begin all development. If it doesn’t stop—here in the United States and worldwide—what hope do we have for our collective future?

The words of Cohen, Goosby, Valerie Jarrett, and Bill Clinton himself brought it all home for me. What are we doing if half the world’s population isn’t safe at home, at school, and in their place of worship, if half the world’s population doesn’t have a voice? Too often, girls and women are silenced; their talents aren’t valued; and their contributions aren’t measured. I left Benin eight years go, but I carry Manuela’s memory and her energy with me. She had so much potential and would have contributed so much to her world, our world. I’ve thought of her often over the years as I’ve worked with other organizations and ministries of health on how to stop gender-based violence and how to support health workers to deal with violence. In an upcoming blog, I will write more about IntraHealth’s work in Rwanda and elsewhere on gender-based violence.