Jimmie Briggs is the founder and Executive Director of the Man Up Campaign.
Seven years ago, I was a journalist covering the lives of war-affected children and child soldiers. In April 2004, I found myself in Rwanda for several weeks documenting the commemoration of the tenth genocide anniversary. Moving around the still-recovering central African nation, I visited prisoners who took part in the killing, as well as responders and survivors.
One day, I went to a shelter for war widows and victims of sexual violence. There, I met a young Tutsi woman whose parents had been killed, leaving her to care for two much younger siblings. She told me that she had been gang raped over a period of weeks by Hutu militiamen. She survived but with profound psychosocial trauma, and later discovered she was HIV positive. When we met, her body and mind were wracked from AIDS and she had little time left.. None of her siblings or surviving family knew she had the disease.
I sat with her for several hours to do an interview through a nurse who was providing translation from Kinyarwanda to French. Being with her provoked a reaction in me which I’d never had before, not even after years of covering conflict in places such as Colombia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, or the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the Intifada.
As this brave survivor graphically recounted the days of rape and physical abuse, along with the bitterness she carried from dying in silence, I started to cry. I cried as much from her tragic personal story, but also the surreal occurrence of me seeing my daughter in her face. At the time my daughter was only three years old, nevertheless I saw her image in this young rape victim in Rwanda.
The woman and the nurse were as shocked as I was. After all, I was a combat reporter and thought I had seen or heard every horrifying story in the human experience. I wasn’t afraid of much. The emotional armor was without dents.
Still, I broke down. After all the tragedies I’d seen and heard, hers was the one that really penetrated. I managed to collect myself, but I was never the same. Afterwards I looked back over every article, broadcast piece, and essay I’d done to that point and recalled the oppressed, abused, diminished women and girls whom I’d overlooked for the sake of the “bigger” story.
From that moment on, I knew that as a man, a father, and a son, I would never ignore or turn away from the individual wars women fight every single day.