Sexual violence punctures the lives of women in every conflict and crisis zone across the globe. Yet the women in these crisis areas who become pregnant from rape are almost universally unable to obtain safe abortions, even when they are legally entitled to them. As global crises escalate and refugee situations become ever more protracted, this problem only becomes more significant for a greater share of the world’s women, who often turn to unsafe self-induced procedures, risking their lives and health and driving up rates of maternal mortality.
Photographer Nichole Sobecki and writer Jill Filipovic have reported this story from Colombia, Bangladesh, Honduras and Uganda, each of which illustrates a different aspect of this overlooked global health emergency.
In this event, Nichole and Jill present their reporting on the issue, and discuss what they consider to be the most effective ways to tell this story. How can the trauma of women’s experience be visualised respectfully? How, when injustice needs to be witnessed, do reporters navigate the issue of what can and cannot be shown? And how do these considerations translate into a story with visual impact?
David Campbell: So Jill, I think is going to begin with a discussion of the topic and the reporting. And Nicole will come in and present some of her photographic work as we go along. And so if you have questions, we proceed, put them in the q&a box. And we’ll look forward to coming to those at the end, Jill.
Jill Filipovic: First, thank you so much, David, for hosting us and VII for hosting this event. This has been a project many years in the making. And so it’s really exciting and feels really good and important to be having this discussion. So I’m a journalist who spent a long time writing and covering reproductive rights and sexual violence, women’s rights, women’s health has been kind of my general beat for a number of years. And in covering these issues, and in reading other reports on women’s rights, and particularly sexual violence and conflict. It has been striking for me to see how much that reporting has evolved over the last two decades, that sexual violence is now covered. In major newspapers, that wasn’t necessarily the case, even 25 or 30 years ago, it’s covered with greater depth, greater although often not, not as great as it should be sensitivity.
And in nearly every conflict now, we do see reporters covering the question of sexual assault. What’s missing, though, often from those stories, and from the conversation is what happens after. So we may read a story about a woman becoming pregnant when she doesn’t want to be because of rape in conflict. What we don’t hear about is why that woman can’t legally safely and that pregnancy if that’s what she wants. So, this question kind of tooling around in my mind for years, we know that rape is endemic in conflict, we know that women become pregnant when they are raped in conflict. So why is it that women who are pregnant from rape can’t get safe abortions? So talking with Nicole, in both of our reporting, this is something that we’ve seen over and over, and we decided to work together on a topic that sought to answer that question.
And so where we started, was looking at the legal and policy landscape and talking to various experts who work on this issue to try to figure out, you know, is there some obvious answer to this question that we’re missing? And the answer was no, there isn’t really a great answer to the question of why women raped in conflict can’t access safe abortions. Some of the most obvious potential answers didn’t really stick upon further examination. So there’s this often built-in assumption that abortions must be logistically challenging to offer women, particularly in refugee settings. And that’s just not true. Abortion at this point is typically done via pill. So you can have pretty low-level mid-level health workers able to distribute abortion-inducing drugs. those pills are cheap, they are ubiquitous around the world. And in addition to that, unsafe abortion is so common in refugee settings, that there’s already a decade’s long cadre of well trained medical professionals in something called post-abortion care, which is essentially a procedure that completes an unsafe and typically illegal abortion, and that women often show up having had in refugee settings to help centers. The procedure that goes into completing an unsafe abortion, a post-abortion care procedure is functionally the same as an elective abortion. So you have cheap and accessible abortion-inducing drugs. You have an entire world of trained medical professionals in safe abortion techniques. So logistics and difficulty didn’t really apply. It’s not even national law.
Typically, while many, many countries in the world do still restrict illegal abortion. Most of those countries have exceptions for rape survivors. So while not every woman who’s pregnant in a refugee setting is necessarily entitled to a safe abortion. In most countries that have large refugee populations, any woman who is raped should be entitled to safely and legally endure pregnancy. And yet, overwhelmingly, this wasn’t happening. Talking to humanitarian workers, even folks who work specifically on abortion care, what Nicole and I heard over and over again is it just doesn’t happen not legally anyway, and not safely. Women still have abortions in refugee settings, women still have abortions in conflict settings. But those abortions are overwhelmingly clandestine many of them are extremely dangerous. And there’s pretty good reason to believe that women in refugee settings have higher rates of maternal mortality, and serious injuries from unsafe abortion because safe procedures have historically been so unavailable and so hard to get.
So when researching these questions, what it really came down to wasn’t logistics, it wasn’t ability, it was will. And it was the lack of will to provide safe procedures that was inspired typically by fear, by stigma around abortion, but it’s kind of it’s perceived as this controversial kind of slightly icky issue, and a fear of losing U.S. funding. So the U.S. government is the largest funder of global health in the world. And its laws and rules really dictate who gets money where that money can go. And there are two kinds of parallel rules that dictate reproductive health funding, and that really shaped a lack of funding for safe abortion.
The first one you may have heard of, it’s called The Global Gag Rule. The Global Gag Rule is put in place by Republican Presidents immediately rescinded by democratic ones. And that’s been the case since Reagan was in office in the 1980s. And that rule cuts off U.S. funding to any organization that promotes abortion rights with its own dollars, that performs abortion with its own dollars, or that refers women to help providers that provide safe abortions elsewhere. So if an organization does that, and it’s a foreign organization, the U.S. government under The Global Gag Rule will cut off money. So that happens under Republican Presidents, it ceases to happen under Democratic Presidents. But even under Democratic Presidents, zero U.S.A. aid dollars pay for safe abortions, including for rape survivors. And that’s because of a law called The Helms Amendment and Helms was put into place in the wake of the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationally in the United States. And Helms essentially says that no U.S. foreign aid money can be spent on the performance of abortion as a method of family planning. That’s been interpreted as a total bar on U.S. funding of abortions overseas. One thing that women’s rights advocates have been trying to argue is that how Helms shouldn’t be a bar on abortions for reasons other than family planning. So for example, abortions, because a woman was raped in conflict, abortions because a woman’s life or her health is threatened by a pregnancy. But again, largely because of lack of political will. No Democratic President has ever clarified The Helms Amendments and that’s something there’s currently a push to get Joe Biden to do. And on the ground, typically organizations that receive U.S. dollars are fearful of losing that money. And so they comply, which means that safe abortion is nearly totally off-limits to women in refugee settings, even if they’re sexual violence survivors. So that’s the kind of broad policy landscape that we were walking into.
In actually reporting the story, Nicki and I really wanted to make sure if you’re doing two things that we were telling a fundamentally human story that was grounded in what women experienced, and that could really show a reader and viewer the tremendous personal and human costs of these policies, but also the story that wasn’t just about an individual suffering, when instead of story, it was about power and a story that was about who was making the decisions very, very far away from the people those decisions impacted. How is it that millions of women who have no right to vote in the U.S. election, who have no ability to determine America’s laws and policies, were seeing their lives and their futures indelibly shaped by decisions made by mostly but not all men in places like Washington, DC?
So we reported the story from six different conflict zones across four countries. One of those was Uganda, where we reported from several different refugee settings, hosting refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and from South Sudan, in Colombia, where we looked at Venezuelans fleeing economic freefall in their country, as well as women who had been sexually assaulted and raped during the Colombian Civil War, looking at kind of the long trauma tail of that conflict, Honduras, where we were primarily looking at women who were victims of domestic violence, sexual violence, and felt totally unprotected by their own governments. And because Honduras has such restrictive anti-abortion, and even anti-contraception laws, the stakes of sexual violence were incredibly high. So many of the women that we talked to were seeking to leave Honduras and travel north to Mexico, and they hoped eventually to the U.S. And then Bangladesh where we’re looking at Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, who were really the first group of refugees who had ever actually had access at a pretty high level to safe abortion procedures. And looking at what made Bangladesh, the first refugee setting, really in world history, where safe abortion care was folded into the response from the beginning.
So, you know, I’ll let Nicki kind of get more into the actual process of talking through how we got these stories. And you know, how we got things like informed consent. But one of the things that both of us certainly wanted to focus on was making sure that we were telling women stories, not just about the single worst thing that had ever happened in their lives, but stories about who they were, who they were in the before, and who they were in the after, how these events, shaped their lives, shaped their hopes, shaped their aspirations, to try to tell a story of whole people, right, and not just symbols of a conflict or symbols of a problem. And so in doing that, in sort of very practical terms, you know, I would sit in a room with a woman, we were interviewing for a very long period of time, you know, the interviews would last kind of as, as long as they needed. And I tended to be less focused on, you know, the event itself, the assault itself, and more on trying to get the story of this woman’s history, and how these events shaped the trajectory of her life, to then connect that back to how U.S. policy, you know, words written on paper, can completely change a human beings trajectory.
It was an incredibly collaborative process, with Nicki trying to figure out also how to visualize these stories. And how to get consent from the people that we were talking to. It was very different kind of across place to place. Some of the women we were talking to, you know, had smartphones and read newspapers. And it was very easy to explain that we’re journalists, and this is how your story might be used. And do you feel okay about that? And some of the women we were talking to a grown-up in small villages where, you know, they had not had much contact with the world outside of their own community, as we’re trying to figure out how to explain what it means to have your name and potentially your face on the internet was a real challenge and something that Nicole and I spent a lot of time discussing with each other, with other folks who, you know, whose judgment we trusted on these questions, to make sure that in the process of reporting this story, we were being accountable to the people who were very bravely and often at pretty significant personal risk, sitting down and talking to us. You know, when you’re interviewing women about things like sexual violence, and abortion, in many communities, in most communities around the world that comes with a tremendous amount of stigma. And so we wanted to be sure that everyone who was talking to us was making an informed decision. And, you know, what we overwhelmingly found is that it was really hard to predict what a woman would want some women were very reticent and very much said, “I don’t want my face I don’t want my name, keep me anonymous.” And some women including those and extremely conservative communities where there is a hefty price to pay for talking about these things said, “No, I’m not ashamed. I shouldn’t be ashamed. Use my face, take my photo, use my name.” It was really incredible and really inspiring work.
And from there, I turn it to Nicki to kind of get more into the weeds of how we actually worked through that process of imaging the story and making sure that we were kind of sticking fairly to what the women that we talked to wanted and how they wanted their stories told.
Nichole Sobecki: Thank you so much, Jill. And yeah, I think I mean, I think you’ve laid that out really beautifully. And this is, as you said, a topic that we discussed, kind of, you know, countless times throughout the process of making this work. I think one of the hardest and scariest parts of telling these stories was, you know, trying to make sure that we are doing justice to the trust that had been placed in us, but also that we were not doing any harm in the act of spending time with women recounting some of the most challenging moments of their life, and then in the actual publication of their stories. And so that’s something we spent a lot of time, you know, thinking through and then working during the field.
There’s a couple of different things that we did. I mean, you mentioned this idea to have informed consent, informed choices. And that was really something that happened several times throughout the process of working with any, any woman or family, you know, we would explain who we were very transparently at the beginning of meeting someone before we sat down and began discussing anything, we would have another conversation, after the interview, before I started taking any photographs, at this point, I probably would have had my camera out just to make clear who I was and what my role is, but I wouldn’t have taken any photographs. And if sort of at that point, after we had, you know, had this deep conversation about their experiences. And we’re sort of shifting into a space where we might begin taking some photographs or talking about maybe returning the next day to spend some more time with someone, we would ask again, “How do you feel? What do you want?” And as Jill said, you know, part of that being, you know, an informed choice is being very, very clear, in a way that makes sense, in the context in which we’re having these conversations about where these images or stories could end up. “They can be on the internet, your father could see them, your neighbor could see them, it will be attached to your story. Is that okay with you? Is that what you want?”
And to be I mean, I think that one of the things that’s really interesting about that, and about this sort of concept of choice, is that no matter how long we worked on this, I don’t think either of us ever really got better fully, being able to predict what a woman would want. It really came down to her. And there’s so many reasons why people make these choices. And so I think, what we, what our goal was, was to not step in and sort of say, “Oh, no, we know what’s good for you. Or we know what you want better than you do.” But to make sure that we were giving enough information and enough opportunity for women to make their choices and then remake them if they felt differently a little bit later. So there were a number of situations where I maybe thought that a woman was going to say, “Yes, please spend time, I’d love to do some images,” and she wasn’t comfortable. There were situations where I was very surprised when someone said, “Absolutely, that’s something that feels right to me, and I would like to, you know, work with you in that way.” And I guess, the third time that we would have this conversation would be before we left, after we had spent time talking together with Jill completed her interviews, where I completed all the photography that I was planning to do with this particular woman or family. And I would then ask them again, you know, “Does this still feel good to you? Are you still happy with your choice?” And I guess the final aspect of that, really for us was to ask for women who did want their name used who did want their face shown to ask them, “Why?” What that choice meant to them. To make sure that we knew very clearly why they were making that choice and that there was no sense of pressure or obligation in any way. And so at that point when we had sort of asked three times, gotten to know each other, built a space of trust and mutual respect and they were able to articulate to us what that choice meant to them, that was sort of where we felt comfortable moving forward and publishing their stories.
So I think that’s, you know, that was a little bit about our process, please feel free to, you know, dive into that and ask us more specific questions during the q&a. And otherwise, I’m going to dive into some of the images and really speak a little bit to the specific stories of the women that we worked with on this project and their experiences.
So this woman in the center here in yellow is a 17-year-old Congolese woman with her three-year-old daughter and her 14-year-old sister, and they’re in the church where she sings at in the Kyangwali Refugee Camp in Uganda. Both South Sudan and the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo topped the list of the world’s most dangerous countries for women, as militant groups have used extreme sexual violence as a weapon of war in both places.
And this is a woman carrying water home near Rhino camp also in Uganda. Uganda has become a temporary home for women fleeing both crises, and it currently hosts more than one and a quarter million refugees. That’s more than almost any other country in the world. Here newly arrived refugees from the DRC line up as they wait for transport to the Kyangwali settlement. At this point in their journey, they reach some form of security. But abortion in Uganda is almost entirely illegal, leaving women who find themselves pregnant from rape with very few safe options.
This is Anita, a 25-year-old South Sudanese refugee, who self-induced in abortion using a bitter root and neighbor offered her that can be pounded mixed with water and drunk to induce miscarriage. After drinking the concoction, Anita told Jill that she wanted to die. Luckily, after falling ill she was taken to a hospital outside of the refugee camp where she received treatment and survived.
This is a 15-year-old girl was raped at school and impregnated and she had traveled close to two hours to a clinic that would help her to safely complete an abortion. The lights went out in the middle of the procedure and they were able to continue using only window light and a battery-powered flashlight. And here the same young woman dresses after the procedure is completed. A young girl’s dress dries on the line in Bidi Bidi Refugee Camp.
And before I move on to talk about Honduras, which is one of the other countries where we reported, I wanted to share some numbers with you that Jill collected for her piece. Worldwide 61% of unplanned pregnancies end in abortion, and unsafe abortions cause an estimated 13% of pregnancy-related deaths. Every year, mothers who die from unsafe abortions leave behind some 220,000 children. Another 5 million women worldwide are hospitalized annually due to complications from unsafe abortions. This is a phenomenon restricted almost exclusively to developing countries that limit abortion access. In my opinion, we have to stop seeing this topic as something political or stigmatized and recognize that this is an issue of access to health care. It’s a basic human right and one that’s regularly denied to women all around the world.
This is during a police patrol in Honduras in La Rivera Hernandez, which is one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in San Pedro Sula, which is one of the most dangerous cities in the world for women. There are just 50 police officers to watch over 189 neighborhoods here, and well-known gangs like the 18th Street and MS-13 operate freely. The girl in this image is 12-years-old, and just weeks away from giving birth to a baby after being raped by a family member of her mom’s boyfriend. Violence against women and girls is endemic in Central America and in Honduras, it has a particularly high cost. Emergency contraception is outlawed, so rape survivors can’t prevent pregnancy. Abortion is criminalized in all cases, and women who end pregnancies can face up to a decade in prison.
This portrait was made in Choloma, which is one of the most dangerous cities for women in the world. It was really hard for me to actually understand what that meant until we spent time with this young woman. She told us about her sister, who is beautiful and tall, about discovering how she’d been murdered on a TV segment she was watching. About being too young to remember when her stepfather began abusing her. A child forced by a country’s draconian abortion laws. The stranger abducted her on her way to work. She told us about how recently she’d asked her son what he was praying for, and he answered for all the sadness to leave your heart. And this is a portrait of Deborah Castillo outside her home in Corazol six months after she miscarried twins. Her family buried the children in the nearby cemetery while she was still in the hospital, but she goes to visit them sometimes. “For a while, I feel like they’re with me,” she told us. Several of Castillo’s cousins have migrated to the United States and it’s a future she’s considering for herself.
A pregnant woman is drawn on a wall outside the room, the bedroom of Alma, not her real name, a 22-year-old living near Tegucigalpa. Abortion is a criminal offense in Honduras, and stillbirth or miscarriage can land you on the wrong side of the law. Alma had been charged with ending her pregnancy. Even though she said she didn’t even know she was pregnant before she had the stillborn. For some, the answer to violence is simple. They have to leave. Here families race to a bus terminal in San Pedro Sula, after news of a new migrant caravan had spread. When exhausted families, mothers toting babies and young women traveling alone arrive at the southern border of the United States it’s not just gang violence or criminality in general, they’re fleeing. It’s also men who beat, assault, rape and sometimes kill women and girls, law enforcement that does little to curtail them and laws that deny many women who do survive the chance to retake control and steer their own lives. Posters pasted around downtown Tegucigalpa read “Yo no quiero ser violada” or “I don’t want to be raped.” Police patrol the streets of La Rivera Hernandez as of 2015 Honduras ranked among a tiny group of nations including war-wracked Syria and Afghanistan with the highest rates of violence against women. Murder remains the second leading cause of death for women of childbearing age. Another police patrol this time along the river in El Morro where the bodies of two women were found in January 2019. Their bodies showed signs of torture. 9 out of 10 murders of women here never even make it to court.
And this is a series I made on the tools of abortion tools which largely depend on access and the freedom to choose. They can be safe and efficient, or terrifyingly destructive. When the options are few women find what’s available to them— Holy Water, the roots of a local tree, hot bricks, Mifepristone, Misoprostol, a coat hanger, the leaves of a hyptis verticillata plant.
And that brings us to Columbia. Here a car’s headlights project a man’s shadow across a roadblock riddled with bullet holes in Fundación. In Colombia, widespread availability to abortion-inducing drugs and the recent legalization of the procedure means abortion access looks much different for today’s migrants from Venezuela than it did for many women displaced by civil war. Women like Silvana, who naps here with her grandson in their home in Riohacha. It’s been seven years since Silvana first spoke publicly about being raped by members of a guerrilla group who kidnapped and tortured her when she was a young woman. More than 15,000 Colombian women and girls were raped or otherwise sexually abused during the country’s Civil War. Many remain too terrified or ashamed to tell anyone. Silvana’s son Junior relaxes with his girlfriend and siblings in the room they share after returning home from the hospital after harming himself. Even more than a decade later, the trauma Silvana experiences continues to reverberate down her family. Junior’s girlfriend shows off a tattooed across her shoulder, looking for happiness and a promise of love.
Migrants here across the border into Cúcuta, Colombia— the busiest border crossing between both countries. Each day around 50,000 people enter Colombia through Cúcuta, mostly Venezuelans in search of food, medicine and medical treatment that’s not available to them at home. Venezuelan migrants knock on the ground of a shelter known as “The Parking Lot” in Riohacha. Some come here legally, but most were undocumented and female border crossers face particularly high rates of rape and sexual extortion. Some were pressed into sex work. Many found themselves pregnant, either from a longtime lack of contraception at home or from rape as they were leaving.
And finally, Bangladesh. This is Oma in her home in the Kutupalong refugee camp, rocking her infant young son. Systemic rape was an essential component of a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority, more than a million of whom fled to neighboring Bangladesh. Sexual violence was so prevalent that when the first refugees arrived on Bangladeshi shores, humanitarian workers feared an epidemic of abandoned, murdered or neglected babies. Here, a 26-year-old woman waits to receive an abortion in Kutupalong. The predictions made by aid workers did not come to pass. That was because for the very first time in a major crisis, comprehensive abortion care has been folded into the humanitarian response from the beginning. Given the option of a safe abortion, a great many women took it. Nur’s aunt was raped alongside her daughter by a group of men who she believes were members of the Burmese military, and they both became pregnant. After fleeing to Bangladesh and learning about their options, they both chose to have abortions.
Soyoda tears up in her kitchen, as sexual violence survivor, Soyoda realizes she was pregnant after fleeing with her family to Bangladesh and had an abortion at a local hospital. To date, health care workers have provided more than 21,400 safe abortions and more than 7,800 post-abortive care treatments in the Cox’s Bazar camps. While imperfect, Bangladesh remains the only example of a refugee context where choice was folded into policy. And amidst a growing global anti-abortion movement, a small ray of hope that women might one day live free of stigma and shame for making choices about their own bodies. Thank you.
David Campbell: Thank you so much, Nicole and Jill, for that. That’s a great presentation, both of the issue and also the process of actually reporting on this, both through text and through the visuals. We got quite a few questions. One of them is, “Are these stories that you’ve been working on are they commissioned or are they something that you have to pitch to media outlets? And how have you funded the reporting given that it has taken place over years?”
Jill Filipovic: Yeah, that’s been a pretty significant challenge in a variety of directions. One, it’s very hard to get stories about abortion covered and funded. And then you double that to making it about abortion access for women in developing countries— it becomes even more challenging. So yes, we did have very, very generous support for these stories. We applied for a grant through the European Journalism Center in their Innovation in Development Reporting Grants. And that gave us the funds to do the reporting from Uganda, Colombia and Bangladesh. The Honduras story was supported by a grant from the IWMF, which enabled us to go there and do the reporting. And by the time we were doing this reporting, no, we didn’t have any stories commissioned. We had interest from editors, we had reached out to a variety of publications, but there was nobody sending us to these places to do this story. So by the time the reporting was complete, then it became time to pitch these stories to a variety of places. So the Honduras story wound up in Politico and was the cover of their magazine, which felt great. It was sort of right at the heart of what was being called at the time “The Migrant Crisis from Central America,” not phrasing that I love but it was a topic very much in the news and Nicki and I were trying to illustrate what might be behind some of the choices of so many of these women to be coming to the US. And then the various pieces from Uganda, Colombia and Bangladesh found homes at the New York Review of Books, Les Glorieuses, which is a French feminist publication, and Unheard, which is a UK web publication.
David Campbell: So you’ve managed to find a certain amount of appetite with editors once the story is done, and someone else has funded it through grants, but not enough appetite that these publications have themselves sent you there or commissioned that work. I mean, do you feel that that’s particular to your story? Or is that sort of a general condition now for media?
Jill Filipovic: I think this is, unfortunately, an endemic reality of media today, budgets are being slashed foreign reporting budgets, in particular, seem to be narrowing. And so it is a challenge. It’s a challenge for every journalist I know, although obviously, particularly the freelancers among us. And so I guess I would say, you know, if folks are interested in these stories, some of the most important things you can do, you know, are read them, share them, make it clear to the publications that publish them, that there actually is reader interest. I mean, unfortunately, we live in a universe of metrics now, right? And every story tracks clicks, and you know, time on a page and editors do pay attention to that. It’s not the only reason stories get commissioned. But if editors are able to see that there is interest, that can go a long way.
David Campbell: Thinking about the role that each of you played in the reporting, one, principally as a writer, one, principally as a photographer— how did you think about the role of the images in the story? Were the images meant to simply illustrate the story, or were they meant to have other dimensions? Do the images do work more than illustration? Or just illustration do you think?
Nichole Sobecki: Yeah, I mean, this is, um, you know, this is a concept that Jill initiated, that we worked as partners on for years, you know, alongside a very strong friendship. And so I think that allowed us to have what I consider to be kind of the ideal partnership in a reporting environment like this, where you are each trying to use your medium to tell the fullest, most sensitive, you know, respectful version of the stories, not simply to kind of mirror the other, but to work together to tell a more complete and nuanced, to communicate a more nuanced version of the lives of the women who we covered the policy aspects. I mean, certainly, there’s, I think that there are things that I was able to do through my images in terms of evoking an emotion from or showing what someone’s life is like or setting you in a place that were really critical to the final product. But there’s so much that I wasn’t able to do that I really, you know, relied on Jill for, which was to kind of set these stories and context to illuminate the policy dimensions to, you know, give readers who are engaging with us space to understand how they can, you know, be an advocate and work for a different future. And so I think it really, you know, it was the type of partnership that I really believe strongly in and think it allows for the best possible storytelling.
David Campbell: And that was designed, as you explained at the beginning, Jill, to tell the human aspect of the story, you wanted this to be not only women as victims, but women in their best lives, their prior lives and so on. I mean, is that something that the images brought to the story that would have been more difficult to do if it had been without photographs?
Jill Filipovic: Absolutely, um, you know, as a writer, of course, you want to tell as much as you possibly can about another human being, but there really is nothing like seeing a person’s face or their home. You know, one of the images that’s one of my favorites that Nicole took, is the one of it’s a girl that we called Sophia, who was the pregnant 12-year-old in Honduras, and it’s the one where she’s, you know, got the big belly and she’s holding this little stuffed bunny. On the lead and the story I wrote, you know, it talks about how, you know, Sophia would whisper to her bunny at night, you know, all of her fears, and her bunny was the only person she trusted to talk to, and, you know, as a writer, you can paint that scene. And you know, it’s a very compelling scene. But there’s really nothing quite like then seeing the photograph of a little girl who’s being forced to continue a pregnancy, clutching a stuffed bunny. You know, there’s, I wish I could write that scene, as well as, as that photograph captured it. So, you know, as Nicole was saying, you know, it’s both about illustrating something. And perhaps that photo is, you know, one example of illustrating a dynamic I was writing about.
But it’s also about giving the reader an added level of depth of seeing what a place is, like, for example, with the abortion tools, photos, giving the reader the ability to actually look at, oh, here’s, here’s what the roots of this tree look like that women are inserting into their bodies. Here’s what the brick looks like, um, you know, that a woman might put heat up and put on her belly to try to induce a miscarriage. Then as a writer, I don’t have to go through, you know, three paragraphs of all the different ways a woman might induce an abortion, right, the images just do that work, and they stand on their own. So it was quite collaborative. And I think both of us thought about our roles as certainly intersecting. But both seeking to tell the same story, but in the best way, we thought possible, which didn’t necessarily mean that I said, “Well, this is the woman who I’m going to use in the story. So then, like, send me that portrait.” You know, it was much more each of us thinking through the dynamic of the story, and what we wanted to tell and coming up with two very strong, you know, in parallel, but not identical ways of doing that.
David Campbell: The flip side of that is that you, Jill, you described very well, the policy context, kind of the International Relations context for this, and so on. And I’m wondering if you think that that is something that required text journalism to tell that story? Or Nicole, did you think that there were images that you could have conceived of, in certain circumstances that also might have told that story about the international policy context for these women’s lives?
Nichole Sobecki: Well, I guess, I mean, first, I mean, no, I don’t think that the images could have conveyed that nearly as strongly or with the same level of nuance that Jill was, you know, able to write about. I mean, I worked on this story with her for years, and I still learned so much reading her piece. But I guess where they intersect for me is this space of really, bringing a greater level of awareness to the ways in which the policy decisions of someone very far away affect someone’s daily life and the immediacy of that. And so I think that’s something where both text and photos have a role to play. And I hope that that’s something that people who spent time with these stories walk away with, with the understanding that, you know, there might be a very great geographic distance, or I might feel like someone’s life is very separate from mine, but actually, these policymakers are condemning someone to a life that they do not want, and that they have no control over. I think that’s a very important and damning aspect of the story that really required both of our efforts coming together.
David Campbell: We’ve got a question from Aki who says that it’s incredibly hard to sit in and listen to a lot of these stories of the situations that the women have faced. How do you distance yourselves from it? Or do you distance yourselves from that? How does the journalist handle the emotional stress of those situations while also still reporting the situation?
Nichole Sobecki: Yeah. I can start and then I’ll hand it over to you Jill. I mean, I, this was one of the most emotionally challenging stories I’ve ever worked on. And I felt very grateful to be doing it with someone who I both have such tremendous respect for and also consider a good friend because I think that we’re able to lean on each other at different times in ways that felt really important. And I guess the other side of that is that as much as I mean, I did feel this way even as I was presenting the images like so many difficult stories, one after another. But the flip side of that and something that I hope is also captured in the storytelling that we did is that, you know, every example of something traumatic that someone has survived is also a story of resilience. And the women that we met and the strength that they showed, and like the courage that they had in speaking to us about their stories and allowing us into their lives, the warmth and humor that they brought into all of our interactions, that I mean, it’s not just the worst moments of their lives. And it wasn’t, that wasn’t our experience reporting that either the series sort of fully full human-beings who are complex and, you know, have both pain and joy in their lives, and also, having survived so much have tremendous and inspiring strength. So I think that really, you know, helped me through the reporting.
Jill Filipovic: Yeah, I definitely felt the same way. And I guess, for me, it was a couple of things that helps keep it all in context. You know, one was this continued focus on power structures that Nicole and I talked about throughout the whole project, that we weren’t there just to gather stories you sort of extract stories only for the purpose of looking at suffering. Not that there’s never any value in that, but that just wasn’t really the project we were interested in doing. We really wanted the women who were telling these stories, to have a purpose in doing so, you know, in the hope that maybe these stories will make their way to the ear of someone who could actually change this landscape. So that sense of purpose, I think, for me, was really useful, encountering that sense of, you know, feeling like a bit of a vulture at times right showing up in someone’s home and asking them to recount for you a stranger or something tremendously difficult. Um, so, so that was very important.
The other aspect that I think is often not fully recognized as how much most people in the world just do want to be heard and seen. And that for a lot of the women that we were talking to are coming from circumstances where they are really often treated as kind of less than human, profoundly unimportant, treated with great disdain and neglect by everyone around them, whether that’s folks in their community, or whether it’s even frankly, some of the aid organizations tasked with helping them. And so at least in my experience, a lot of the women who I talked to seemed to find or told me anyway, that they found it cathartic and useful, to sit down with someone who just wanted to listen to them. And didn’t, you know, want to just focus on this one terrible event, but actually wanted to hear about their lives wanted to hear about their hopes, wanted to hear about, you know, where they were headed.
It was really important to me to end every conversation with something a little bit positive so that I wasn’t leaving somebody, so totally emotionally exhausted. And one of the questions that I found myself kind of going back to and relying on and a lot of these interviews was ending by asking women, you know, “What, what in your life were you proud of? What do you feel good about?” And there was one woman in Bangladesh, who had a really, really difficult story, and had been very much been sexually assaulted, been raped in the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, had been very much ostracized by her community, you know, was essentially looking forward to a life of extreme poverty, loneliness, you know, said this, one of the best she could hope for was being, you know, an old man’s second or third wife. Um, and, you know, when I asked her, what in her life she felt good about, and she was proud of, you know, it took her a minute and, you know, she said, she had gone out of her way to end a pregnancy that resulted from rape. And what she said was, “You know, there’s, there’s not a lot in my life that I’m proud of. But I tried to save my own life.” And so stories like that always stand out. And moments like that and you hear in my voice how emotional that still makes me even now. But I do think being able to have that exchange, to have a woman reflect back and say, “You know, what, I do have something to be proud of, I saved myself. I did this for myself for my future,” is both a powerful thing to witness and I hope, a powerful thing for her to experience.
David Campbell: Ria in the audience, has Nicole describes your photos as beautiful, but wonders if it’s wrong to say that about the photos when they’re on this sort of topic. How do you how do you view the images? And how do you feel about if someone reacts and says, “Well, this is a beautiful image,” when it’s reporting this sort of story and the sort of circumstance?
Nichole Sobecki: Um, yeah, I mean, I think it’s a really great question. It’s an important one. It’s one that sort of runs throughout the history of photography. I mean, I think there’s different answers. And to be honest, like the answers that I have, for myself often change throughout the process of working on a story. And throughout my career. I guess on one level, I feel like my goal here, what I’m trying to do is to get people to spend time with these stories, to listen to these women, to consider their lives and to act in some way positively, to try and change the situation. And I tend to believe that people are more likely to do that when they are engaged with an image. And so, you know, I think that that’s part of it, just sort of bringing people in to do the work of considering these tough questions. I think that I’m trying to not only illustrate something but to evoke an emotion, which often I think is a much more powerful prompt to change than a purely intellectual one. And beauty does play a role in that. I also think that you know, beauty is such a vague term. I mean, other things that I guess I hope come across that might be sort of fall into that category are, you know, strength, resilience, the sort of capacity to survive in extremely challenging circumstances. And so that is a form of beauty. But it’s not necessarily as simplistic as you know, beauty, consider in a fashion magazine or something like that. So, you know, that’s my goal, at least.
David Campbell: One of the things that you both described very well was the process of getting informed consent, and how it took quite a lot of time. It was something you pose questions at least three times, you would come back to those things, and so on, make people aware of how the images were going to be used. And you were also surprised, in that you couldn’t predict always what the answer was, was going to be in some circumstances. Did anyone ever say no, to you, after going through that process? And did you get a sense of why they said no, in those circumstances?
Nichole Sobecki: Um, I mean, I would say that we’ve sort of, you know, met with all different types of responses. One that stuck out, I think it’s the only time where someone had sort of been comfortable. And throughout the process, and then sort of, you know, the third time that I mentioned, kind of, as we were leaving, expressed some reservations was a woman in Honduras, who was in the midst of a criminal trial for a miscarriage that she had had that was perceived as an abortion. And I think she wanted to spend time with us and wanted to share her story, but sort of, on further reflection felt like, it might be risky for her to do that, at that point in her trial. And so we, of course, understood that and let her know that you know, those images would not be used, there would be nothing showing, you know, and then we then had a deeper conversation about like, “Well, do you want- is it okay for your story to be used without your name, without your face?” And had to sort of deeper conversation there. And I think, in general, you know, I think that was the one that stood out where there was a sort of full reversal, but it was really, you know, it’s a constant conversation. And I think we’re just trying to create a comfortable space for someone to make the right choice for themselves.
I think we really were throughout this process, trying to check ourselves as well to sort of say, not every story is going to be publishable. Not every story is going to sort of make it in. We just have to create a space where we are not applying any pressure where we know if it’s not the right choice for this person if they’re in a particular part of their healing process, where it’s not right to share your story, or we’re spending time with us could potentially be triggering or cause more harm then we just we also need to know when to back off and when to let things go. And so I think, you know, some of that was being in communication with someone and allowing them to make their own choices, some of it was being intuitive and thoughtful about what someone else’s experience might be, and just make sure that we weren’t even subconsciously applying any undue pressure.
Jill Filipovic: There were certainly moments. I mean, it was one interview, in particular, that stands out to me, where it became very clear very early in the conversation, that this woman was very, very not okay, and was not far in her healing process was having a really intense reaction to the conversation. As I, you know, very nicely ended the interview was very clear. In that moment, you know, she was holding her knees and rocking back and forth, and I just thought to myself, like, there’s no, there’s no story that justifies me doing this to this person. So, we’re gonna, you know, spend the next 20 minutes talking about her hobbies, and very safe zone stuff, and thank her for her time. And, you know, not even get into the question of whether or not we can use her story, because this, this particular woman was really not getting any psychological support. So one of the things we did do was, then, of course, connect her with an organization we knew of that could potentially be helpful.
You know, so there are those moments where you do have to make a judgment to the best of your, you know, not psychologically professional abilities, to just say, you know, I feel like I’m really doing some harm here, and I need to back off. And then there are other moments where you have to trust that someone else has their own best interests in mind, you know, and often in these stories, you’re finding sources, through NGOs, through organizations that are doing psychological support for survivors of sexual violence. And that’s a real strength, right? Because those organizations can help connect you with women that are a bit further along on the journey that are comfortable. And then you have this kind of middle person, this mediator, who the woman knows and is comfortable with, and can say, like, “I don’t want to tell this stranger ‘No,’ but really, I don’t want, you know, my picture taken or I don’t want my name in the story.” And so that can be helpful to have that third point of contact.
Um, you know, it can also be a challenge in certain circumstances, that at least part of our experiences, is there were some folks not usually the psychological workers, but some of the sort of NGO folks, you know, who told us, for example, in Bangladesh, don’t use anyone’s name or use anyone’s photo. And it was sort of like, well, I understand that you think that that’s right, for every single woman in you know, this million person camp. Um, but maybe, maybe you should give individual women the right to make that decision. And so there are those challenges as well. There are a lot of folks, you know, who I think are quite well-meaning, but often have an attitude that I would say is a bit condescending, particularly to women, who may not be literate to women in developing countries, to women who come from poor backgrounds.
And it was really important to, you know, to Nicole and I, to give the women that we were talking to no matter what their background, the fullest information possible, contextualized so that, you know, somebody had never been on the internet, we could explain to the best of our ability, what it means, but to still give them the freedom to make their own choice and to not assume that we knew best.
David Campbell: ??Yeah, I mean, in journalism, generally, and particularly in photography, these issues of consent, informed consent, are often dealt with by calls for codes of conduct, codes of ethics and how do I approach situations? Did you feel that you were guided by any code in particular, and given your experience of not being able to predict certain responses and the complexity of some of those responses— do you think that that’s the best way to go? Or do you think that there are other ways in which these questions of seeking informed consent should be approached?
Nichole Sobecki: It’s a great question. I mean, I think I would not point to any specific code of conduct that fell up to the task, maybe of addressing this particular situation because of the intense sensitivities. I think that those I, you know, I appreciate the thought that goes into kind of what best practices are for our industry and the ongoing conversation around that. I think it’s vital. And I’m so glad to see more of that happening. But I also think that at the end of the day, you do need to, you know, especially in a story like this, where almost everyone we talked to had survived some pretty significant trauma. You know, it’s not really enough. And so I think, you know, we both did a lot of, had a lot of deep conversations, not only with each other but with people with far more expertise than either of us on these topics before working on this story. And we’re continuously re-evaluating throughout, and we had our sort of best practices that we had set for ourselves based on those conversations. But then, as Jill just rightly pointed out, you know, even in the moment, you’re constantly re-evaluating, and that’s something that no, sort of like 10 rules is going to tell you how to do. To some degree, there is a gut level, just sort of one foundationally knowing that your story is not worth causing harm to another person. You do your best in the field to not do that and to listen to the signals that people are giving you and to know where something feels emboldening cathartic and healthy and where something feels potentially destructive and to back off in that case. It’s yeah, it’s I think it’s, it’s a combination of doing a lot of deep thinking and preparation beforehand, but then really listening to your instinct in the field.
David Campbell: ??Do you think there are issues or problems with you being journalists from outside the community that you’re covering? And do you think say, for example, in Bangladesh, would a Bangladeshi journalist necessarily have a different viewpoint? Did you encounter any Bangladeshi journalists covering this issue in Bangladesh? And we could ask the same about the Sudan or Uganda and whatever. So how do you think about your position as being outside those communities? And did you see people from those communities themselves actually covering the stories?
Jill Filipovic: Yeah, that’s I think that’s a sort of ongoing tension, right? That’s sort of insider/outsider question of journalism. And to me, they’re strengths to both, right? An outsider is going to see things that perhaps an insider may not notice as interesting or newsworthy. In some ways, outsiders can get more access, sometimes. And this was certainly I think, a dynamic that Nicole and I recognized in this story, particularly for the Bangladesh example. You know, the women that we were talking to were Rohingya refugees, they were coming from a pretty conservative community. And I at least got the sense. And, you know, frankly, I think this was, this was reinforced by a lot of folks in that community, um, that part of the reason women were willing to talk to us and tell us these stories, is we weren’t part of the community. We weren’t people that were going to judge them. We weren’t people that they had, you know, kind of any relation to, right? We were these sort of blank-slate outsiders. So I do think that for this project, in some contexts was really useful, that opening up about these really, really stigmatized issues can sometimes be easier to a total stranger, and someone who is not a member of your in-group. You know, that said, of course, journalists from, from the inside from the in from the in-group are going to understand the dynamics of these communities better, right, are going to have an existing rich knowledge. And so these are sort of bigger questions about what journalism should be and what it should look like. But to me, the best model is kind of a both-and model. Right? And that the challenge, one of the critiques, you know, foreign correspondents is that it is white Westerners coming into developing countries, and then telling those stories. I mean, to me, the primary problem is the reciprocity. Right? And making sure that folks kind of from all over the place have the ability to tell stories that that are interesting, that are useful, whether those are stories from within their own communities, or stories from communities that are outside.
Nichole Sobecki: Yeah, just to kind of add on to that. I mean, yeah, I agree with what Jill said. I believe strongly in the, you know, not the either-or, but the and-and model where we just need stories from a far greater diversity of perspectives. And that has traditionally not been, that have not been represented in our industry nearly as much as they should be. I mean, I look at what’s happening in Texas right now. And to me, it’s a great example of something that I want to be reported domestically. But I also hope there are a hell of a lot of international reporters from far, you know, a wide variety of geographies and perspectives that are also reporting on that. Because it terrifies me. And I don’t think that domestic coverage is enough, or that it’s unbiased. And so as an American, I hope, I would hope that the international community of journalists would also take up that story.
Also, just to say that, you know, in every single one of these places, we worked with an amazing community of local journalists and translators, without which we would never have been able to tell this, do this reporting. And in fact, I think because it was such a challenging story. And it kind of eliminated a lot of people that we might have worked with on a more general story, I don’t know that I’ve ever worked with such remarkable, such a remarkable team. It was really, you know, set like one of the great privileges of working on this project. Um, and then there was something else I was going to say that I forgot it. So I’ll leave it at that.
David Campbell: Well, we’re coming towards the end of our time, there’s still a minute or so if someone in the audience wants to drop in another question. But my kind of final question is about the purpose of the stories and impact. What do you hope the reporting will achieve? And have you seen evidence of it having an impact in some cycles, being read in some cycles, leading even to policy change in some circles? What sort of impact are you looking for? And what have you possibly seen?
Nichole Sobecki: That actually reminded me of my point that I’d forgotten, and then I’m going to talk about the kind of long-term impact. But I do think that the one other elements in this that I think we maybe brought to the story as outsiders was the ability to connect it back to American policy. And to really take that big-picture look at not only what was happening to specific women on the ground in each country, where we reported, but to really then take that, that big picture, you know, to pull it back and to look at the tremendously destructive impacts of U.S. policy. And at that point, I will pass it on to you, Jill. But just to say that, you know, we have a new administration, and a lot of things do seem to be a bit better, but it’s not nearly enough. And we really need to see a much more demonstrative and proactive, you know, response to an issue that is affecting millions of women around the world. This is not a small issue. This is something that is dramatic and sweeping and affects women in almost every country around the world. And it’s time to act.
Yeah, so there are a few ways that that can happen. Um, you know, at the beginning of this conversation, I introduced it by saying that, you know, we approach this first with the question— why can’t women in conflict zones get abortions? And the answer to that is lack of will, tremendous global cowardice and U.S. policy. So those were kind of the three buckets to solve. We’ve seen some uptick in will, that She Decides was this global effort led. And now I’m going to forget which of the Scandinavian countries led it. But, you know, by one of those great feminist states to raise money to specifically fund abortion services and reproductive health services, in both development and humanitarian settings. So one thing that other more progressive countries can do, any country can do, would be to give money specifically to women’s health, including safe abortion care. The U.S. doesn’t do that. It’s a tremendous funding gap.
Jill Filipovic: Humanitarian and development organizations can certainly be much braver on this point. A few of them are organizations like MSF are providing safe abortions all over the world. Organizations like Ipas are training abortion providers. So there are a handful of groups that are doing this work, and that frankly, refuse to comply with The U.S. Global Gag Rule, for example, when it’s in place and raised their money elsewhere, but more humanitarian organizations can be braver. There is even within the humanitarian space, often a reticence to talk about abortion, family planning, contraception, that’s kind of all fine. But the second you start talking about abortion, and it’s like, “Oh, now that’s politics.” And the point that Nicole made earlier that’s really important is that well, women don’t experience abortion care as politics, we experience it as healthcare. And it is healthcare that one-in-four women around the world will utilize at some point in real life. So humanitarian organizations very much dedicate themselves to not being super political, to not choosing sides in a conflict, to instead providing care to whoever needs it. And they should do the same for women.
And then finally, on the U.S. side, there’s very simple but incredibly impactful policy changes that the American government could make right now that Joe Biden could do tomorrow, if he wanted to, with the stroke of a pen. Joe Biden could on the most basic and kind of easy level, simply clarify The Helms Amendment to say that Helms does not apply to abortions for rape survivors, or abortions that threaten a woman’s life or health. He could have done that yesterday. He’s not doing it. And so I have heard from many different reproductive health organizations that they are putting pressure on him to make that happen. He could also single-handedly work to strip Helms out of foreign-aid budgets. I’m less optimistic that that would happen, but it is in his power to do so. And Congress could overturn Congress could permanently overturn bloat both The Global Gag Rule and The Helms Amendment. There are bills in the House to do both, I think the one permanently overturning The Gag Rule is more likely to to come to fruition. But if there was congressional will, they could get rid of both of those laws. So there’s a lot that the U.S. could be doing. But the U.S. really isn’t the only culprit here. You know, philanthropies, humanitarian organizations and governments all over the rest of the world could be doing much more to ensure that women the world over have access to the safe health care that they need.
David Campbell: Well, thank you, that brings us to our time. And I really want to thank both of you, Jill and Nicole for your time. But it also thank you for your reporting, and taking the opportunity today to talk about the processes behind it because I think that’s been very illuminating for everyone. So thank you very much.
Nichole Sobecki: Thank you very much. And just a very final shout out to see that Laura, from Colombia, is here. Laura was one of the absolutely remarkable women that we worked with in the process of doing this reporting, and none of it would not have happened without her, so I just wanted to, you know, acknowledge her being here and thank her.
David Campbell: Great. Thank you both.
Jill Filipovic: Thank you.
Nichole Sobecki: Thanks so much, David.
David Campbell: Bye