Jimmie Briggs had been a combat journalist for over a decade, but all it took was one woman in a Congo hospital to end his career.
Standing in front of an audience at the Symposium on Violence Against Women Friday afternoon — a conference for professionals, Penn graduate students and community members to share research and learn more about abuses against women — Briggs recalled how an interview with this 22-year-old woman in a lone hospital room inspired him to start a movement to protect women’s safety worldwide.
Five soldiers had entered her thatched mud brick home and closed the door, where one by one they proceeded to gang rape her.
Outside, her three children prayed and shouted until the soldiers stopped and left the house. The children began to hug their mother and cheer with happiness.
When the soldiers turned around and saw this, however, they headed back and told the children to come outside where they would pray together.
One soldier walked behind the kids, fired three rounds with his AK-47, and then they all took the mother back into the house to finish raping her.
At this point in the interview Briggs looked up, and was surprised to find that they were no longer alone in the empty hospital room.
“I look around and the room is full of women, all survivors of violence and rape,” Briggs said. “They’re crying in the corner, they’re holding each other. And I lost it.”
Back in the hospital room, Briggs knocked the camera over, threw his pad down and walked out, unable to continue. But the woman called out for him to come back. She desperately wanted to share her story, in hopes that it would stop such abuse from happening again to another woman.
It was this moment that convinced him to make the switch from a journalist to an activist.
“Having a daughter, being a father, seeing what I saw in Congo and Afghanistan — I knew I could not leave this issue of women and inequality alone,” Briggs said. “I wasn’t done yet.”
Briggs was the keynote speaker at the symposium Friday, where he told his story and explained his work with The Man Up Campaign, a global initiative to stop violence against girls and women through the arts, sports and technology. The movement encourages youth across 25 countries to raise awareness through the creation of their own community-based projects.
The symposium, which took place at the International House, also featured panels from the Evelyn Jacobs Ortner Center on Family Violence. Affiliates presented their current research on topics ranging from sexual assault against college students to Iraqi women’s attitudes about wife beating.
For instance, half of Iraqi women believe their husbands are justified in beating them if the women go out without telling their husbands. About a third believe it is justified if they refuse to comply with their husbands’ sexual desires.
For first-year master’s of social policy graduate student Farah Azhar, the conference hit home on a personal level.
“Back in my country there’s such a different perspective,” said Azhar, who was born and raised in Pakistan. “It’s actually a topic that’s taboo. If a woman gets beaten she won’t tell that to many people. Obviously it’s not like here where people are more open to express whatever they want to.”
The event ended on a lighter note with a performance by Bloomers, Penn’s all-female sketch comedy group.
Susan Sorenson, the director of the Ortner Center, said she thought the conference was a success — especially Briggs’ speech, which she found poignant and powerful.
“People who are really out to make a change in the world often do come from a place of witnessing so many negative, horrific things, and transforming that into positive change,” she said. “Humans are incredibly resilient to be able to do that.”