This essay first appeared on BlogHer.
My fourteen-year-old daughter is upstairs in her bedroom listening to Shakira on her iPod and studying for a french mid-term. Me? I am downstairs watching a horrific rape scene on a television show called Private Practice and remembering the stories I have heard from family, from friends, from strangers, and wondering, when do I tell her it isn’t all peaches and cream?
I have worked hard to keep her from learning about the myriad tragedies that surround us. As her mother, I believed maintaining her childhood innocence for as long as possible was the best course of action, the best inoculation against “drugs, sex and rock and roll,” the best chance to keep my little girl a little girl just a little longer. But at what point do I teach her life is not all about her beloved soccer, the boy she has a crush on, and the upcoming high school dance? When is sheltering our children no longer the right choice? At what age, do they have the right to know?
My friend, filmmaker Michealene Risely, says for many girls, fourteen is too late. She argues that violence against girls starts early and that if my daughter hasn’t been affected, she is lucky and rare. A National Violence Against Women Survey conducted in 2000 found that of the nearly 20 percent of American women who are victims of rape, more than 50 percent of them were under the age of 17. The U.S. Justice Department estimates that only 26 percent of rapes are reported and that every two minutes someone somewhere in the United States is sexually assaulted.
Michealene knows from what she speaks. A victim herself of sexual abuse and incest, she has long been an advocate for speaking up on these issues. She says, “I often say I can clear a room just by bringing the subject up.” That didn’t stop her from devoting her life to having difficult dialogues. Her latest film, Tapestries of Hope, addresses the extensive sexual violence against women and girls in Zimbabwe by focusing on human rights activist Betty Makoni and her organization, Girl Child Network.
But violence against women doesn’t just happen “there.” It happens here and it happens to fourteen-year-old girls. I think it is time my daughter understood the world is a far bigger place than this home in which I have managed, so far, to keep her safe. I am not ready to show her something as graphic as the episode I watched, but I do plan to take her to see Tapestries of Hope and to begin the first of many difficult dialogues. In the meantime, have I cleared the room yet?