It's not very often you hear the words "actress" and "human rights activist" in the same sentence, or read about a star using his or her power to bring attention to atrocities happening around the world.
We expect our celebrities to act in ways that generate entertainment and buzz, but not necessarily social change. It's why we aren't surprised when Britney Spears makes headlines for buzzing off her hair, or Kim Kardashian for posting another pic of her derrière.
We never expect to read a headline like this: "Angelina Jolie speaks out against ISIS rape 'policy' in wrenching Parliament speech."
But that's exactly what happened Tuesday.
Filmmaker and United Nations special envoy Angelina Jolie Pitt provided evidence during a British Parliament hearing, concerning the issue of sexual violence against women in Iraq and Syria.
Her testimony included horrific stories, including one about a 13-year-old girl from Iraq who was repeatedly raped along with her friends, many of whom were eventually sold for $40 or $50.
The actress recommended "a very strong response" to ISIS, but anyone who wants to heed her call-to-action is probably wondering, how? How does the next generation — or any generation, for that matter — combat this widespread global violence and terror?
We cannot solve it alone or in one day, but here is how we start:
1. We have to know exactly what it is.
According to the World Health Organization, violence against women is defined as "any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life."
2. We have to know what it's not.
The inclusion of deprivation of liberty in the above definition is important. It means we have to see this issue as larger than rape and address it for what it is: a human rights issue.
As Angelina Jolie Pitt pointed out in her testimony, "I think the most important thing to understand is what it’s not. It’s not sexual; it is a violent, brutal, terrorizing weapon."
3. We have to recognize the many forms.
The weapons being used against women take many forms. For instance, UN Women reports that:
- Around 120 million girls worldwide (slightly more than 1 in 10) have experienced forced intercourse or other forced sexual acts at some point in their lives.
- More than 133 million girls and women have experienced some form of female genital mutilation in the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East where the harmful practice is most common.
- Trafficking ensnares millions of women and girls in modern-day slavery. Women and girls represent 98 percent of the estimated 4.5 million forced into sexual exploitation.
- In the United States, 83 percent of girls in grades 8 through 11 (aged 12 to 16) have experienced some form of sexual harassment in public schools.
4. We have to make the connection.
We have to realize these practices — rape, genital mutilation, sex trafficking and harassment — are not separate issues, but many facets of a larger, broader problem. They all have one thing in common: the subjugation and systematic deprivation of women's liberty with inhumane effects.
5. We have to remain committed to change.
By using her voice to speak up for thousands of women everywhere, Angelina Jolie Pitt set off a spark, a source of inspiration. We have to stop feeling hopeless about these issues. We cannot be daunted by something we believe is too massive to handle.
We have to tackle global cultural norms, shouting louder than the groups that teach boys sex and violence is an accepted policy and cultural norm.
Many countries are enacting laws to protect women. We have to keep up the pressure. We must demand such laws to be passed, and we must advocate the punishment of those who violate them.
We have to be aware. We have to keep fighting for women's rights to education and equal employment, the two things that empower women and lift them out of desperation and dependence.
We have to continue to fight for women, and we must give them the tools they need to succeed and thrive.
Above all, we need to believe we can end this, and it is imperative we know where to start.