EP 3: Combating Sexual Violence w/ Ashley Judd


MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: From Georgetown University, this is Seeking Peace. I’m Melanne Verveer. And this is Ashley Judd:

ASHLEY JUDD: It takes courage to disrupt harassment while it’s happening. And takes agency and voice, and agency and voice is what all girls and women around the world are entitled to.

MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: Over the years Ashley Judd has become as well known for her activism and leadership as she is for her A-list acting career. Most recently helping ignite a firestorm that became the #MeToo movement after being one of the first women to speak out about sexual harassment in Hollywood. Her work extends beyond all borders. As the Goodwill Ambassador for the UN’s reproductive health agency, Judd has traveled the world including humanitarian missions to the DRC and South Sudan. She continues to be a leader on giving voice to survivors of sexual violence in conflict zones.

Later in the program, we bring you to Kosovo where twenty years after the war with Serbia, rape survivors are finally being recognized as war victims. But first, Ashley Judd.

MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: I know that you have literally traveled the world meeting with many women and girls. Some of whom have been victims of sexual violence and human trafficking. Early in 2002 you made your first humanitarian trip to South East Asia. I wonder what happened there? Did it have any particular impact in setting your course going forward?

ASHLEY JUDD: It did. It was both shattering and profoundly motivating. And I really went Melanne because I simply was invited, and I was in this unique and strange position of being a well-known person and in America and in some parts of the world. And an NGO called Population Services International, which has grassroots health programs in about 70 countries around the world, had reached out to me and asked if I would consider serving as an ambassador representing in particular their HIV AIDS prevention programs. And at the time I was one of one of if not the highest paid female actors in the history of Hollywood. And that was something of which I wasn’t even cognizant. I had become a working star in such a short amount of time with my first movie, Ruby in Paradise, winning the Sundance Film Festival. That being in that acting world was just as abnormal as it can be, it was just my normal. But I wasn’t particularly happy and I wasn’t fulfilled in some significant ways and I didn’t know what was wrong but I was just kind of sick and tired of being sick and tired and I knew that there was more and I had almost joined the Peace Corps when I was 22 years old and I went to the different jungle, you know Hollywood, instead. And so this letter from Population Services International reaching out to me came at a time when I had reached the up with which I could no longer put in the acting career. And I didn’t know if it was a feminist agency. And I wrote them back this treatise on my beliefs and gender and sexual equality and they said yes we’re a feminist agency. They kind of sort of I think laughed a little bit at how idealistic and earnest I was. And it was a great match and they said OK well your first trip is to the you know brothels in Phnom Phen and to the International HIV AIDS Conference in Bangkok and they put so much trust in me and I took that responsibility very, very seriously.

So you know I was my very first day was in this in this brothel when I was actually being, I was more being held by this transgender sex slave than I was holding her and she was just weeping and telling me her whole story and I thought you know my God all I can do is bear witness to this reality and then do my damn level best to share these stories on a global level as well as details about grassroots solutions that can be taken to scale that help people and change norms and save lives.

MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: You know, hearing you and I know personally you have been to so many conflict affected areas, whether in Rwanda or South Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo. You’ve been to Ukraine where the war still goes on and I wonder, you meet with the women, you understand what they’re going through in their lives, the difficulties, what it’s done to them. But have you also seen the impact that this violence has on stability of communities and countries?

ASHLEY JUDD: Absolutely. Sustainable peace really does begin with a woman’s bodily integrity and sexual autonomy. Her ability to be intact, to be whole, not to be violated, her ability to regulate her fertility so she can choose if and when and how many children to have, her ability to access essential sustenance and you know, to be able to walk to to get firewood, to go to la source and get her water, to be able to go to mills and agricultural fields without being raped and then to take products to market. And you know sexual violence in conflict is used to humiliate and control ethnic groups and communities. And we also have to link it to some really big state factors like failed states and in particular in DRC, the conflict mineral mining that is so tremendously horrible in the east. And when you know war and instability is profitable for a few and those profiteers are directly linked to the daily mass atrocities that girls and women and some boys and men endure.

MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: Yes, and maybe you can talk a little bit more about what this hunt, if you will, for minerals. We know that the DRC is rich in minerals and particularly coltan, which is used in cell phones and other electronics, has led to tremendous sexual violence towards women in the region. And this  conflict, has gone on literally for years and years. There’s no sign that it’s ending any time soon. Have you seen solutions for justice for those who are perpetrating these crimes are paying for them in some way?

ASHLEY JUDD: The situation is both worsening and there are elements and degrees of hope. So in the DRC, while there have been measures implemented to reduce state violence toward vulnerable people. In 2018, 40 percent of the rapes committed against girls and women by police were of girls and women who were in custody. So you’ve got improvements yet you still have state actors and armed militia perpetrating the violence themselves. And there have been some prominent cases of prosecution but the impunity is still largely there for both you know soldier on the or the armed militia person on the grassroots level, as well as on the national level.

So there’s a couple of steps forward and a couple of steps back and a lot of the hope I see is through safe spaces for girls and women operated by agencies like UNFPA, the United Nations agency for sexual and reproductive health, where girls and women can come and they can participate in a craft and a trade so they can generate some incomes through something that they make. And if they’re able to have some income they can buy firewood instead of having to go look for the firewood. But the psych-social programs are really what is so tremendous. There’s a lot of trauma help and trauma work and trauma resolution that happens in those spaces where women can have strong female to female alliances and support each other and there you know people get to tell their stories as well as sing and dance and find that resilience and that joy that is so improbable yet really does transform women’s hearts and souls. I’m just thinking about this blind woman with whom I was visiting in South Sudan and she was quite elderly and she was asking me for some sandals and a blanket. And those were not things that I had to give to her and I was just wrecked over the way she was sharing with me and I started to cry and she said, “oh my granddaughter I can tell that you are crying. Don’t worry about the sandals and the blanket, you’ve given me your heart which is the best thing you could have given me.” And those are the kinds of things that can happen in these safe spaces where girls and women can come together.

MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: You know, that is so real. And just by your recounting it, I can only appreciate how much impact it had on you. Why, why do you find it personally so important to advocate in this way?

ASHLEY JUDD: I was a vulnerable kid so I think that it’s very much embedded in my personal story. My parents loved and adored me and my family didn’t work particularly well and everyone was very distracted and I wasn’t cared for in the way that I should have been and fortunately because of my own recovery and my parents’ beautiful humility and accountability, we’re getting a massive redo. You know my mom and I have a really tender and sweet relationship.

My dad, I can’t even repeat the things that he says to me because he’s, he’s just the proudest dad in America. Let’s put it that way. He just loves and adores me.

And you know I mentioned that I was molested when I was seven. I was also raped twice when I was 14 and my parents weren’t able to help or defend me. And so it really has become my life’s work to be that advocate for the children, for youth, and for the vulnerable who may not otherwise have someone going to bat for them. And I also get so excited by the intellectual and practical solutions that I see because I’m an idealist and I want peace and I believe peace is possible. And we’re not there yet but peace can start in our own thoughts and actions. And I wanted you know, the Bhagavad Gita says don’t worry about the fruit of your actions just do the next good right honest thing. There’s that lovely quote even if the world were going to fall apart tomorrow, today I would still plant my apple tree. I’m just really committed to doing the right thing to alleviate suffering in any way that I can.

[Music plays.]

MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: You know, you’ve also been recognized Ashley, certainly in the last couple years, as one of the leaders of the MeToo movement and I wonder how you see that movement, which is certainly had its impact across the United States but increasingly around the world. Do you see the connections between that and the grassroots organizing that’s been going on?

ASHLEY JUDD: I really do Melanne, because when Tarana Burke whispered to herself on a mattress on the floor in her apartment 12 years ago, “MeToo,” she was tapping into that archetypal pan-human need to be listened to, to be witnessed, to be understood, and to be validated.

Bob Keegan at the at the Harvard Graduate School of Education says when we really see another person and witness them, we are recruited to their welfare and we can’t unsee what we have seen. And when women share their stories and have the identification, there’s something strengthening about that acknowledgement that allows for a little healing and a little possibility to enter in.

That kind of dialogue. You know the consciousness raising, sharing circles, you know from feminism in the 1970s there’s just a power in it that I can’t overstate. I can neither explain it adequately nor overstate how important it is. And in South Sudan you know we essentially had women’s march in a refugee camp. We were singing and stomping and dancing in the space and you know we were raising a kind of high holy hell. And that’s what MeToo is about: reclaiming joy and radical community healing.

MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: That’s again so well put. In conclusion let me just raise the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize.


MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: Because, as you know, it was awarded to a Yazidi rape survivor and activist Nadia Murad, someone we’ve come to know at Georgetown, as well as the Congolese gynecologist Dr. Denis Mukwege. And I, like so many, saw this award as something that can be truly inspirational besides something that was well deserved by the two of them because it really recognized how sexual abuse is being used as a tool in conflict and why it critically needs to be addressed. And I wonder if that Nobel Peace Prize award to them, how you felt about that and also whether you think this can help in some way to mobilize the international community around these issues and the kind of way that you’ve been discussing in our conversation here?

ASHLEY JUDD: I felt a lot of awe and joy in the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to those individuals and I think it does critically raise global awareness about the use of sexual violence in conflict. And I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Mukwege a few times and I visited his clinic and actually attended fistula repair surgery in the clinic, which you know is a really eye-opening experience because they’re washing up, preparing for you know, a really invasive surgery in the vagina with a bar of soap and water that came from, that’s in a pail, that came from the river and the electricity went out a couple of times during the surgery. And knowing that the Nobel committee recognizes individuals who are both survivors themselves and helpers who, whose life work is prioritizing the healing of survivors makes a deep statement to all of us that it’s something about which we should care. It’s historically tragic and wrong and we can be on the right side of history by doing everything in our might to eradicate sexual violence.

MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: Well Ashley thank you so much for this, for taking the time. Keep up that idealism that you mentioned.

ASHLEY JUDD: Thank you.

MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: That you so feel deeply. Keep inspiring, inspiring us, inspiring so many with whom you continue to meet in very difficult circumstances around the world and keep making a difference. Thank you so much.

ASHLEY JUDD: You’re very kind to me Melanne. Thank you.

[Theme music plays.]

MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: If you want to learn more about Ashley’s work with the United Nations and her upcoming humanitarian missions around the world, visit unfpa.org.


MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: Twenty years ago, tens of thousands of women in Kosovo were raped during the war with Serbia. After the war most of these women said nothing — in part because of the cultural stigma. And for a long time survivors were not recognized by the government, but that has recently changed. After many years of lobbying by women’s rights activists, survivors are now eligible for a pension that recognizes them as war victims.

Reporters Valerie Plesch and Rebecca Rosman spoke to some of those women who are now telling their stories for the first time. Rebecca Rosman starts us off.

[Ambiance street sounds.]

REBECCA ROSMAN, REPORTER: It’s a beautiful day in western Kosovo. We’re in Peja, a town near the Montenegro border. The sun is peeking through the mountains. It’s warm and the outdoor cafes are filled with locals sipping macchiatos. But the woman we are here to meet asks if we can talk inside.

[Fatmire talking.]

We’ll call her Fatmire — though that’s not her real name.

Fatmire is nervous. She trembles as she slowly picks up a glass of water. She’s afraid of being recognized. This is the first time she’s ever given an interview.

We’ve managed to find a corner table in an empty hotel meeting room, but she still makes sure her back faces the door… just in case anyone walks in.

[Fatmire talking.]

Twenty years ago, when Fatmire was in her early 30s, she was raped by Serbian soldiers. We didn’t ask for details — It’s clear she’s still suffering from trauma — but she did tell us that after the rape, she immediately told her husband what happened.

He got angry, and told Fatmire he couldn’t accept it. They stayed together for awhile — mostly for the sake of their kids — but Fatmire says her relationship with her husband never went back to normal.

She says she always felt like she was walking on eggshells with him.

A few years later, he left her.

[Fatmire crying.]

Since then, Fatmire has kept the rape a secret.

LEONITA, FOR FATMIRE: I’m afraid that my kids will find out about what happened… about me.

REBECCA ROSMAN: Fatmire has been undergoing counseling for nearly a year now to help her process what she went through. A counselor was with us during her interview and helped translate for Fatmire:

LEONITA, FOR FATMIRE: But I am mostly I’m sorry about myself about what happened to me. I feel very bad about it and, and every time that I looked around I thought about death. It was better to be dead then whatever happened to me.

REBECCA ROSMAN: Fatmire is not alone. An estimated 20,000 women and men were raped and tortured during the war. The majority have stayed silent about what they went through.

Now, some are starting to come forward because of a new government pension offered to war victims of sexual violence.

[Music plays.]

When the war ended, veterans and civilian victims became eligible to receive government benefits. But for a long time, rape survivors were not eligible.

ATIFETE JAHJAGA: So when I took over the office I said that this has to come to an end.

REBECCA ROSMAN: When Kosovo’s former president Atifete Jahjaga came to power in 2011, she made the government recognition of wartime rape survivors a priority. It had been something women’s rights activists had been lobbying for since the war ended 20 years ago. In 2014, after years of silence on this issue and nasty debates in parliament, survivors were finally legally recognized as civilian victims of the war.

Jahjaga says she still remembers her first encounter with survivors early on in her presidency.

ATIFETE JAHJAGA: They still had the marks of the knives throughout their body, throughout their faces. They had the marks of the shots of the cigarettes throughout of their body.

REBECCA ROSMAN: After years of work, rape survivors became eligible to apply in February 2018 for a special lifelong pension of about $260 a month, which is close to a woman’s average monthly salary in Kosovo. Only a handful of countries offer this type of reparation. But so far, less than a thousand people have applied for the pension… only a fraction of those who were raped during the war.

[Driving noises.]

VALERIE PLESCH, REPORTER: Right now we’re driving to Northwestern Kosovo to a village where we’re going to meet a survivor and her husband to talk about what happened to her and she, from what I’ve learned, she recently received the pension.

VALERIE PLESCH: Emine waits for us on the side of a village road near her home — about an hour outside the capital, Pristina. Emine also asked that we not use her real name

Unlike Fatmire — Emine’s husband has been supportive throughout her healing  process. He agreed to talk to us:

TRANSLATOR, FOR EMINE’S HUSBAND: I do feel that I have to support her because I know how much she suffered I know through what she went so they weren’t people that they did all those things they were animals.

VALERIE PLESCH: Emine tells us she would like to invite us in but her husband’s family — who they also live with — don’t know about the rape. So they take us to a nearby field to talk privately.

[Car door slamming.]

It’s quiet here. Except for a few tractors that roll through. But twenty years ago it wasn’t that way.

[Emine talking in the background.]

VALERIE PLESCH: Thousands of families fled from their homes as the Serb paramilitaries advanced nearby.

Emine and her family hid in this field. One day, she and her husband were separated and she, along with her children, were taken by a group of Serb soldiers and brought to an abandoned home.

That same night, she and her two teenage daughters were raped. Her daughters managed to escape, but Emine was unable to follow. She had her four-year old son with her, and he had been injured in a grenade blast shortly before being taken by the Serbs. They were held captive for 22 days, and she was continuously sexually abused by the same soldier.

And then one day, the house fell silent. Emine and her son climbed out of a window and escaped. No one stopped them — there weren’t any more Serb soldiers at the house or nearby. The war had ended. It was June 1999.

[Emine talking in the background.]

Soon after reuniting with the rest of her family, Emine sought out counseling, which means she’s farther along in her healing process than many others. Emine was also the first survivor to apply for the pension.

[Emine talking in the background.]

She says she uses the money to buy food and medicine. Her first purchase was a huge bag of flour — 200 pounds worth.

She still keeps a large sack of it in her living room to remind herself that she is able to provide for her family for the first time in her life.

Because she was the first survivor to apply, Emine’s application was processed and approved in less than two weeks. But the process is an involved one… survivors need to gather evidence… medical records, testimonies, therapist notes… which are examined by a special committee.

REBECCA ROSMAN, REPORTER: So far, 780 survivors have applied, but only 143 applications have been approved. Because of all the paperwork and scrutiny, applying can be a daunting process, especially for survivors like Fatmire… the woman who kept her rape a secret for twenty years after her husband left her.


It wasn’t until she read about the pension that she considered sharing her story again. So less than a year ago, she reached out to the NGO where the rape counselor Leonita works.

LEONITA, FOR FATMIRE: It was very hard for her. It was like the first time when the traumatic episode happened it’s like that from the beginning.

REBECCA ROSMAN: Fatmire doesn’t have medical documents to support her application, but she does have the notes from therapy, and she plans on applying for the pension.

LEONITA, FOR FATMIRE: It’s very good for me to at least have a support from the state to have something maybe just for just to eat.

VALERIE PLESCH: The international community has applauded Kosovo’s efforts to recognize the trauma and sacrifice these survivors have endured for the last twenty years, but Former Kosovo president Atifete Jahjaga says more is needed to ease their suffering.

ATIFETE JAHJAGA: The only thing that they will find their peace in their hearts and mind is when they see that perpetrators face in with a justice.

REBECCA ROSMAN: To date, only four of Yugoslavia’s senior military and political leaders from Serbia have been found guilty by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. They were convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity including sexual violence in Kosovo. No individual perpetrator of rape has been convicted and the international war crimes court was dissolved in late 2017.

ATIFETE JAHJAGA: When we speak about the culture of impunity it’s a global  phenomenon. Starting from the First World War, Second World War,  and now this. It’s time to act. Better now than when is too late. It is the right of every victim.

[Theme music plays.]

MELANNE VERVEER, HOST: That was Valerie Plesch and Rebecca Rosman reporting from Kosovo. To see photos from their story go to our website: giwps.georgetown.edu/seekingpeace.

Next time on Seeking Peace, we hear from former Farq combatants, making the hard transition into legitimate political and civilian life in Colombia.

Seeking Peace is a production of Georgetown University’s Institute of Women, Peace and Security and Foreign Policy and Hard Listening Media.

This episode was made in conjunction with UN Women.

Our associate producer is Ali Post. The show is edited by Ibby Caputo and sound designed by Sara Curtis, with help from Steve Bone.

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