Michelle Yang / Sun Staff Photographer

Jenny Nijenhuis’ artwork, Dirty Laundry, which features underwear donated by victims of sexual assault, was featured at Stories of Empowerment: Womxn’s Voices Around the World on March 7, 2019

March 10, 2019

Cornellians Explore Stories of Sexual Violence Around the World

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For South African activist and former victim of sexual assault, Jenny Nijenhuis, visual art is not a mere form of communication, but something which represents the “first step in healing.”

Underlining this experience in her keynote speech, Nijenhuis along with Cornell Prof. Naminata Diabate, comparative literature, recounted the impact of the #MeToo movement and sexual violence in Africa at the “Stories of Empowerment: Women’s Voices Around the World” event on Thursday.

Organized by International Students Union, the event also featured 14 student organizations, who shared information on sexual assault around the world at booths stationed in Klarman Atrium. The booths were backdropped by part of Nijenhuis’ original art installation “Dirty Laundry” — a series of underpants strung on clotheslines donated by victims of sexual assault and violence.

“Our current humanity relies on the masculine perspective, the masculine experience, and the overwhelmingly loud masculine universal voice, a voice which always tell us that voices of men are superior and that women and girls are less,” Nijenhuis said in her speech. “Less powerful, less capable, less intelligent, have less voice.”

Nijenhuis, who was sexually assaulted when she was young, uses art to speak for herself and to help women in Africa and around the world affected by sexual assault find their “voice.” For Nijenhuis, when verbal communication fails her, visual arts facilitate the “first step towards healing.”

When Nijenhuis learned that only one in 25 sexually assaulted women in a South African province reported rape, she created “Dirty Laundry,” a piece consisting of 3600 pieces of underwear to represent the number of people that could be raped in South Africa each day.

Nijenhuis strung her artwork across public streets so people would interact with the installation.

“[Dirty Laundry] is very bold and inspiring. I just wouldn’t have thought about putting underwear in the middle of the town,” Chelsea Poku ’21 told The Sun. “Bringing [assault] to life in public, where people once said ‘don’t talk about sexual assault’ — now it’s open to public, in a space you feel safe.”

Providing an academic background to Nijenhuis’ experiences, Diabate discussed the Africanization of the MeToo movement, especially in Francophone sub-Saharan sAfrica.

Of all social media posts tagged #MeToo, posts from South Africa took up 9000 posts compared to the U.S.’s nearly half a million, according to Diabate. This was due to cultural differences, South Africa’s failed justice system, lack of inclusivity in the #MeToo movement and unequal internet access, Diabate said.

Diabate emphasized the importance of distinguishing a “movement” from a “moment,” criticizing news articles that use phrases like “missed opportunity” when describing participation in #MeToo. Diabate argued that there is never a wrong time to participate in the movement.

After the speeches, 14 student organizations held educational booths on sexual violence and movements against it, representing different communities and cultures from around the world.

La Asociación Latina, one of the student groups at the event, presented information on “Ni Una Menos,” a grassroots feminist campaign against gender based violence and the fight to legalize abortion in Argentina.

Kenra Loya ’19, co-president of La Asociación Latina, said she learned a lot by preparing for the event. Even though she had read reports from different countries, she was still surprised by the statistics and extent to which a culture of masculinity, or machismo, is ingrained within Latinx communities.

HAVEN, Cornell’s LGBTQ student union, also set up a booth in the atrium on Thursday. HAVEN provided information on where students can access LGBTQ+ education, outreach and service throughout Ithaca and the Cornell community.

“I think it’s really important for cultures to reach out to each other and not be silent, because … no one is only in one group. There’s always intersection and overlap between,” Sophia Cook ’20, a member of HAVEN, told The Sun.

Other groups, including Cornell Minds Matter and the Cornell Women’s Resource Center, also provided resources at the event, such as recommending counseling groups and direction to other mental health organizations.

This year marked the first time that Stories of Empowerment was held. Organizers wanted to showcase “how are women around the world [are] fighting to empower themselves,” Malvika Dahiya ’19, event organizer and ISU member, told The Sun. 

“The ways in which women are uniquely affected by the cultural context that they’re is strong,” Dahiya continued. “Sexual violence here looks different than another country.”