As her new memoir recounting her own sexual abuse hits the shelves, the actress and crusader reflects on her visit with a young African woman forced into childhood prostitution
Over the past nine years, I have traveled to 12 countries on three continents to see health programs at work. I’ve seen how innovations in health products, interpersonal communication and service delivery are changing – and saving – lives. And I’ve also seen all that remains to be done in order to reach those most in need, especially women and young girls.
One of my most memorable trips was to the Democratic Republic of Congo – a country where modern family planning prevalence is a mere six percent, where four women die every hour in childbirth and, for each woman who dies, 20 to 30 more have serious complications. Women also comprise more than half of adults living with HIV. DRC is also where I met Melodie, a girl who should have been a statistic.
We sat together in tall reeds by a fetid river in the rural village of Kingabwa. Keeping her voice low so the curious children who darted around us could not hear, Melodie began to tell me her story. She was forced into sexual exploitation at age 13 when her father, to whom she was returned by another relative, rejected her siblings and her. “Go eat dirt,” he said to her before leaving. Homeless and desperate, the four children – one had died of starvation – lasted as long as they could without shelter, food and clothing. Finally, Melodie did the only thing she felt she could – she gave up her bodily integrity and sexual autonomy, selling her virginity to the adult men who were ready to prey upon her. She began being paid for sex.
The health consequences were immediate. At 14, she nearly died from an abortion conducted at home and unsafely. To try to pay for health services she accepted more adult male clients who paid her pennies for exploitative sex. Melodie continued in forced prostitution until she was 23, when her life changed. She met Elivre a dynamic community outreach workers. Melodie was shocked to learn about her risk for HIV, of which she had no prior knowledge. With Elivre’s support, Melodie became hopeful that she could change her life. Elivre helped her by starting her training as a hairstylist.
Melodie didn’t want to talk much about her ten years trapped in sexual violence. She wanted to talk about her health during those times and her life now — wonderful by comparison. She enjoys the regard she receives in her neighborhood for her artistry as a hairstylist. And what does Melodie do with her earnings? She financially supports her aunt, uncle and their six children, as well as her four surviving siblings. When asked where she’d like to be in five years, she cited financial independence as a key goal. Melodie’s dream is to have her own salon and, yes, a room of her own.
Melodie is a perfect example of how women drive economic development within their communities. When women earn an income, they are more likely than men to put their income toward food, medicine, education and other family needs.
Melodie’s story contains many stories: abandonment of girls, child-headed households, poor education outcomes, exceeding sexual vulnerability that leads to terrible exploitation and cycles of pregnancy, associated morbidity and mortality, and the tragedy of children having children.
Her story also shows how there are many places and many ways to effectively disrupt cycles of poverty and exploitation: peer education, universal access to family planning, reproductive health products and services, HIV education and job training, to name but a few.
We can do these things. We must do these things. Melodie’s story was transformed from one of contamination to redemption. But there are tens of millions of Melodies waiting.
My own personal journey began with seeing the work on the ground – including the despair – but it’s the hope and ultimately the solutions that keep me engaged. We have the power to lift women all over the developing world out of the unending cycle of poverty and disease that disproportionately affects their well-being. And by improving one woman’s life, we improve the life of her family, her community and her nation.
Editor’s Note: Actress and humanitarian Ashley Judd is the author of new memoir All That Is Bitter and Sweet. Ms. Judd has visited legislators on Capitol Hill, addressed the General Assembly of the UN, and testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in her quest to help empower the world’s most vulnerable populations.