Last weekend, as I listened to the reading of the Purim Megillah, I was struck by its theme of reversals: The pompous king who decrees that men should have authority in their homes ends up taking orders from his wife; the villain Haman is hanged on the very gallows he erected for the hero Mordecai.
The reversal that resonated with me most of all was that of Queen Esther: She was a young girl ensconced in the king’s harem — a victim of what we would today call sexual slavery; and yet, with the support of a trusted uncle and adviser, she finds the courage to stand up to the king and save the Jewish people from annihilation.
While King Ahasuerus’ harem is a thing of the ancient past, sexual abuse and violence against women continue to this day. Around the world, one in three women is likely to be a victim of rape or abuse in her lifetime. Every year, 10 million girls under the age of 18 enter into early and forced marriages. Approximately 6,000 girls every day — around 2 million each year — fall victim to female genital cutting.
But today, as in Esther’s time, reversals are possible. Just before Purim, my congregation held an event to learn what we can do to stop violence against women in the developing world. We watched a video about a Nicaraguan woman named Teresa, who is living proof that with support, women can overcome devastating circumstances and emerge confident and powerful.
At 19, Teresa married an older man whom she quickly realized was violent. For the next 30 years, he raped and abused her. He molested all three of their daughters, waking them up night after night to rape them. She was terrified of what might happen if she spoke out. She was afraid he would kill her and, even if he didn’t, she couldn’t imagine how she and her children would survive. She was financially dependent on her husband; their home and land were registered in his name. Certain she had no other options, Teresa stayed in this abusive relationship for decades.
On the screen, we watched Teresa tell her story in Spanish with English subtitles. Not everyone in the audience could see the translation, so I stood up and read her story aloud. Halfway through, tears welled up and I began to cry. This story of abuse and sexual slavery wasn’t a parody like the Purim story — it was a real-life story, going on in our world.
But just when it seemed that such suffering could never be overcome, Teresa began to tell us of her inspirational reversal of fate. Like Esther, Teresa found a way to take control of her life. She heard on the radio about an organization called the Association of Entrepreneurial Women of Waslala (AMEWAS), a Nicaraguan grass-roots group that seeks to reduce violence against women by educating them about their rights. She took her children to the AMEWAS shelter and, with their help, pressed charges against her husband. In 2011, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison, and AMEWAS helped transfer the title of their property to Teresa. Today, she and her daughters live on their land and earn a living from what they grow, free from violence and fear.
Millions of women around the world are suffering from violence like this — but it can be reversed, and it is within our power to help. This is why I am joining American Jewish World Service’s (AJWS) “We Believe” campaign to advocate for passage of the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA), a piece of legislation introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives last year. IVAWA would make sure that U.S. aid dollars are allocated to local groups such as AMEWAS. It would ensure that anti-violence programs also focus on increasing access to economic opportunities — including credit and property rights — so that women are not forced to stay in abusive situations because they have no way to earn a living on their own. Lastly, IVAWA would put the full force of the U.S. Department of State behind women like Teresa worldwide, by making it a top U.S. diplomatic priority to stop violence against women and girls.
“And who knows,” Mordecai tells Esther in the Megillah, urging her to intervene on behalf of her people, “maybe it is exactly for this very moment that you are here in this place.” If we recognize that we are in our position exactly because there is something we can do to bring a little bit of redemption for people who are suffering — anything is possible.
We can all do something to end violence against women and girls today by asking our members of Congress to support IVAWA. We can call, e-mail, tweet and visit our representatives to tell them that we in the Jewish community care about this issue and want them to take action.
By speaking out, we can help stop the epidemic of violence against women and girls, enabling women like Teresa to experience dramatic reversals in their lives. The potential to rise up and vanquish injustice need not remain in the realm of stories like the Book of Esther. The vulnerable can become powerful in our society today.
American Jewish World Service launched the “We Believe” campaign to urge the U.S. government to take action to end violence against women and girls, stop early and forced marriage, and end hate crimes against LGBT people. Learn more at webelieve.ajws.org .
The International Violence Against Women Act of 2013 (IVAWA) was introduced in November 2013 by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D – Ill.). It’s the fourth time a version of this bill has been introduced since 2007. For more information, visit the Web site of Futures Without Violence, an advocacy group that has been pushing this legislation from the beginning.
Rabbi Laura Geller is a senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.