Fear Was Already Here
What do Romanian teenage girls have to say about safety and gender violence and who do they talk to about it?
Note: This is the English translation an the article originally published in issue #37 of DoR magazine. You can read the Romanian version here.
People were gathered by the dozens in front of the house in Caracal, a small town in the South of Romania, where they heard that a man had kidnapped and murdered 15-year-old Alexandra and 18-year-old Luiza, two hitchhiking teenagers he had picked up in his car. In the hot atmosphere at the end of July, they were debating the most appropriate way to punish the murderer, who had confessed an hour before. Many of them were trying to take the perfect photo with their phones and some were broadcasting live on social media. Some were shouting at the house, at the police and the television cameras: “He should be brought to the people!” or “Let’s all break into his yard and burn down his house!”.
In a pocket of shade, a man and a child were having ice cream. On the sidewalk across the street, a man had climbed a fence to get a better look at the action. Farther from the crowd, there was a group of middle-aged people. “We came out of curiosity and indignation,” they said. Two teenage girls approached the group, breaking away from the crowd, which had gotten louder. They were the daughters of one of the men and came to report that farther ahead some people had started fighting. The father said he brought the girls into this hubbub on purpose, “to have them see what can happen”.
The girls were brought there to be acquainted with danger. To become even more aware of what could happen to them. To become fearful and be on guard. All around the country, phones were vibrating and ringing as mothers, grandparents and fathers cautioned their daughters and granddaughters to be careful whose car they got into or not to wander alone.
I wanted to find out what it was like for Romania’s teenage girls to grow up in fear and how they felt in the post-Caracal commotion, when they had been reduced to potential victims, deprived of the chance to express their own thoughts and dilemmas. I talked to over 30 teenage girls from Bucharest, Breaza, Câmpina, Alba Iulia, Sibiu, Bacău, Alexandria and Caracal to see how they felt during these times and what their thoughts were about being a girl in Romania. Some came from families who encouraged their freedom, others, from families who controlled them too much. There were girls saying they couldn’t wait to leave Romania for their studies, and girls who already knew they would raise their own families here. What they all had in common was the fear they grew up with ever since childhood, fed and justified by their own experiences and those of their friends.
On the same Sunday, at the end of July, in a holiday camp in Portugal, 17-year-old high schooler Andreea was scrolling on Instagram. She stopped when she found a post about the protest “Cade una, cădem toate (When one of us falls, we all fall) in Bucharest, an event organised out of solidarity with the women who’ve experienced violence and their families. She had no idea that, for the last couple of days, the TVs in Romania had been buzzing with speculation about Alexandra, the 15-year-old girl who called the Emergency number 112 claiming that she had been kidnapped, assaulted and raped by a man who had given her a ride from her village to Caracal. Nineteen hours passed between the first call Alexandra made at 11:05 AM and the moment when the police entered the house she had been kept in. She was no longer there.
The post that caught Andreea’s eye was published by Girl Up Romania, the Romanian branch of a global community founded by the United Nations Foundation in order to fight gender stereotyping, that had 16-year-old Sofi Scarlat as a spokesperson. Some of Andreea’s schoolmates were members of Girl Up, so she knew what their activity was about, and she wrote several messages asking what had happened. She really would have liked to be in front of the Government building, together with the girls carrying banners, wearing armbands or medical masks with messages like “Police kills” or “Patriarchy and State, same shit”. At the protest, beyond the indignation caused by the way the authorities had dealt with Alexandra’s case, there was another, parallel narrative: for the first time ever, teenage girls were speaking out publicly about the fear they had been brought up with in Romania. “Believe us”, said the armbands and surgical masks the girls were wearing at the protest.
Even as a little girl, Andreea was taught to never take walks alone at night, to tell her parents who she was with and where, to pay attention to the license plates of cars she got into. She always told her parents where she was going, otherwise she wouldn’t have been allowed anywhere, and the condition for their approval was always having at least one boy in the group, who could accompany her home, or calling the parents to pick her up themselves. She, too, had met grown men who tried to pick her up at festivals. Her girlfriends, too, knew the safety measures Girl Up Romania listed in the message Sofi Scarlat read over the megaphone at the protest:
“Never wear earbuds when you walk alone at night; hold your house keys between your fingers; send your friends a photo with the license plate of the Uber or taxi and let them know as soon as you get home safely; pretend to stop and look for something in your purse, so that the person walking behind you can catch up and you can see them; avoid wearing your hair in a ponytail; if you can, always go places accompanied by a friend; don’t overuse your pepper spray, lest you might be accused of being an attacker yourself. We all have stories to tell.”
In Vienna, 12th-grader Maria from the percussion class of the National Music High School “George Enescu” in Bucharest, who was attending a German class, was reading the news and felt at once angry and nauseated. She already knew she wanted to leave Romania after high school and she often researched statistics regarding the world’s safest cities. In Vienna, she was almost amazed that nobody approached her with unwanted remarks. When she came back to Romania, she went straight to the protest on August 10th, to shout out all the frustration she had accumulated: she thought of all the men making obscene remarks on the street, of the attempted rape her older sister had luckily escaped from years before, of her friend who had been roofied by five boys at the seaside, and of all the girls she didn’t know personally, for whose wellbeing she was now afraid. She says she has made up her mind to ask the manager of her school to organize a talk for boys and girls about safety, aggression and boundaries at the beginning of the school year. “Some will laugh and think it’s just feminist crap, but at least it will be out there. At least they’ll hear about these things.”
In Valea Seacă, a village in the county of Bacău, in Eastern Romania, 18-year-old Elisa, member of a group of Roma youngsters brought together by the organization E-Romnja, was talking to her cousin about the fear that got hold of them after watching the news. They were not able to discuss the Caracal incident in their group, because there were 14-year-old girls there whom they didn’t want to scare. Their parents had already been fearful every time the girls went to school, but after Caracal, it became impossible for Elisa to go out in the evenings. Terrified, her mother told her over and over to be careful whom she talks to, to call any time something seems suspicious. “The fear was already here,” Elisa told me. “Especially when we walked by taxies, downtown. They always shout things like «Hey, little girl, you’re so pretty, so young! Wouldn’t you like to talk to this man over here – he’s into young girls? Come with us!»” But now it got worse: she felt the disappointment and certainty of only being able to count on her loved ones, of wanting to be a grownup, but still having to call mom or dad if she was afraid.
Girl Up Romania was one of the first organizations to ask girls to write about moments when they hadn’t felt safe. They received so many written accounts that they decided to create a special Instagram account named oriundeoricandoricui (Anywhere, anytime to anyone) dedicated to the dozens of incidents which had happened to girls as young as 10 or 11 years old: “I was 11. (…) I don’t like to wear striking clothes and I didn’t like to back then, either. I was wearing flared cargo pants, an oversize shirt and Converses. A very stylish woman had just got on (the bus) accompanied by a man dressed just as well. They were glaring at me. The bus was almost empty. The man came closer and sat next to me. I was staring into my phone angrily, not wanting to make eye contact. He started playing with my hair. I tensed up and pulled my head away. He said: «Why are you shying away, pretty girl?»”.
“One of the younger kids I was playing with pulled on my dress and exposed my bare chest, which was starting to show. I went to tell the adults and one of the men, who had a daughter himself, said: «So what? Are you saying you didn’t like it?» (…) At the age of 13, boys asked for nude pictures of me, and it was the only reason they tried to socialize. At 14, men who were much older than me whistled at me and harassed me on the street. At 15, I was almost raped by a high school mate.”
Many of the teenage girls I talked to saw themselves in these stories and felt the need to share their own experiences. The stories “were painful but totally relatable”, Andreea told me. “As I was reading, I was thinking, yeah, me too. Yes, this happened to my friend. Yes, to that girl I know. Yes, it happened to me yesterday. It can happen to anyone”, other girls also said. When they told me their own stories, almost all of the girls started with what they were wearing and what kind of make-up they had on when they were harassed on the street. Sadly, the instinct to apologize so that others don’t end up thinking it was your fault is more powerful than the theory they all know by now: that it should not happen, no matter what you’re wearing.
Seventeen-year-old Maria, the pupil at the music high school, told me she felt “a deep hatred against all the people whose job it is to keep us safe in Romania”. She has been feeling this mix of fear and rage ever since she was 12 or 13. “I don’t think it’s normal to have to walk around holding your keys tightly in your fist; and it didn’t start now, after the Caracal incident, it started a long time ago”, she told me, shaking. “After Caracal, no matter who I talked to, they all knew a victim or had their own story about abuse. This is not normal!” The helplessness of the situation was what made her shudder and feel alone. Even her mother asked her sister what she was wearing when a stranger tried to rape her.
The Out of the Shadows research launched by The Economist Intelligence Unit in 2019 ranks Romania lowest in the European Union in regard to measures taken against child sexual abuse and exploitation (52.1).
Statistically, our situation doesn’t look that bad. In 2018, out of the 15,253 child abuse and exploitation cases reported by the National Authority for the Protection of Child’s Rights and Adoption, 977 cases were about sexual abuse and sexual exploitation. In the first six months of 2019, there have been 946 reports of rape-related crimes, and the yearly average in recent years has been constant, somewhere between 1,800 and 2,000 cases. It might seem that we are a safe place, compared to countries such as France, Sweden and Great Britain, where tens of thousands of rape and sexual assault cases are reported (16,815 rapes in France in 2017, over 100,000 cases of sexual violence in Great Britain).
But that would be a trap.
In Romania, people don’t file complaints when they are assaulted by family members or partners, and sexual violence is a well-guarded secret. This month, whenever I held a talk with a group of girls or women, there was always at least one who had gone through sexual abuse. In most cases, they hadn’t filed a complaint. And the ones who had, had been discouraged by the hours of statements and standard police questioning that they paraphrased like this:
“Are you sure you didn’t know the guy?
What were you wearing?
Are you sure you did not provoke him?
Why did you go with him?
Were you drinking?
Do you really want to ruin this guy’s life?
Isn’t it true that you liked it, but want revenge now that your boyfriend found out?
You’re just making our life hard, so your parents don’t punish you for going with him.”
The scenarios we grow up with
From their own experience and that of their friends, girls learn to create scenarios in their minds. If I walk on this street alone, what’s the worst thing that can happen to me? If the taxi driver locks the doors and won’t let me out, what can I do? If the guy following me enters my building, what should be my next move? It’s a process that promotes anxiety, but it also helps you to be on guard, be prepared and have options. These thoughts appear as soon as someone makes that first unwanted pass at you, and they turn into strategies as you learn how to protect yourself.
“You know, sometimes I think, if we’re ever attacked by two really big guys, they’ll just hit you over the head and rape me right there in front of you”, an 18-year-old red-haired girl told her boyfriend, when we met to have a drink and talk about “the Caracal thing”, as they referred to it. She was so infuriated by the incident that she claimed she felt like she hated all men. In turn, he had gotten scared and offered to buy her pepper spray, to have her better protected.
“I don’t think it’s that bad. Big guys don’t just come and hit you over the head and rape you… psychos are another thing,” countered the 20-year-old boy with waist-long locks and thin, tattooed arms. Still, he was well aware that, physically, he wouldn’t have been able to protect her, and that they had to hang around in groups to be safe.
“You don’t know that! It might happen,” she insisted.
The same girl often returned home or called her friends to pick her up from somewhere because she didn’t feel safe. She started to be fearful around the age of seven, when she walked to school and ballet class alone, and by the time she was 11 or 12, she discovered that grown men had no problem making passes at her on the street. She thinks she’d yell and kick if it ever came to a life or death situation.
“It’s my chance to hit hard,” she says. She’d rather not walk alone, makes sure she’s got someone on the phone talking to her, takes the long way around, scans the surroundings looking for people to ask for help. She does this instinctively, without having to think about it too much. And she doesn’t tell others that she’s afraid or that she often imagines such scenarios – she thinks that would be too cringey. Because “guys are selfish, they think this just boils down to victimization and exaggeration,” and nobody else is talking about this in school. “It only matters for the girls, anyway. It’s what could happen to them and what it would be like for them to be treated fairly. Boys don’t give a damn.”
“Boys can’t understand this,” Elisa from Valea Seacă confirmed. “Maybe if we talked about it together. Now, they are also disappointed with the police, what happened seems like a scene from a horror movie. But they’ll forget all about it by the time school begins.”
Two 16-year-old girls told me they went out for a run in Bucharest two weeks after the Caracal case. A group of boys approached them, and the girls started expecting something unpleasant. After a while, you start to feel the inappropriate words or touches coming. They kept looking down, hoping that the lack of eye contact would discourage them. “Wait a minute! Have you seen my uncle by any chance?” one of them said. “No, let us be!” the girls answered. “His name is Gheorghe Dincă and he wants to take you for a ride!” the boy continued, citing the name of the Caracal rapist and murderer, then they all laughed. The two girls ran home, close to tears. “How could they joke about this?” they asked me. But, just as guys don’t understand what it feels like to be a 16-year-old girl who hears a joke like that, we don’t really know what it’s like to be a 16-year-old boy who doesn’t understand.
Some teenage boys do understand a part of this fear. One of them is Diana Ducu’s boyfriend from Sibiu: when he comes home late at night and sees a girl walking alone in front of him, he picks a different route to avoid giving her the feeling he’s following her. This is because he’s heard the girls around him talk about it and because Diana explained what this fear feels like. When she told the fellow participants at a journalism class about her boyfriend, the other girls went: “Wow! It’s the first time I hear anything like this. How cool! Good for you!”
“I know, he’s a keeper,” the 15-year-old girl proudly answered.
Andrada, a member of the Brainstorming teenage theater group in Bucharest, found out about the Caracal murder from her parents, who often tell her about scary news stories involving raped or murdered girls. “I try to ignore them, because they annoy me. These things are far away from me, I’ve never been through something so bad. It’s hard for me to see this as a part of reality,” says Andrada, who feels safe in Bucharest, but still sends her parents messages with the company and number of the taxi or Uber she gets into. “Just to make sure someone knows where I am.”
It’s a habit her parents nurtured, that she sticks to because it helps her feel safer. After participating in the Young Theater Festival Ideo Ideis in Alexandria and hearing a fellow group member recite a feminist poem, Andrada started wondering whether she could use theater to “save her friends”. She thinks, however, this is hard to do in a small town like Alexandria, “where it seems like you’re travelling 50 years into the past”. “Anyway, fear only becomes active when something bad happens. It’s just like Colectiv (the name of a nightclub in Bucharest where a sudden fire killed 65 people in 2015 – t.n.) – it made us wake up. But after a while, people get over it and only about 1% of the problem gets solved.”
Sofia Ulubeanu, a 17-year-old high schooler from Bucharest, also told me that she would like to live in a country where she didn’t have to occupy her time and mind with this fear. “Permanent precaution is norm,” she says. “In our society, the idea of danger has become normal, as is distrusting the people who live in the same city as you, and the fear of remaining alone in the street. It is common sense to beware and nobody even considers the possibility of having nothing to worry about when you go out.”
Most teenage girls try to brush off the terrifying scenarios. But they all feel they have been lucky on so many days and nights when they were alone and managed to get home safely. Luckily, they were just cussed, just groped, just kissed against their will. Just harassed. Just raped, not killed.
If I don’t tell, it didn’t happen
It’s hard to say when the fear of the unknown you feel as a small child turns into the fear of being touched by unknown people.
I’ve been writing about violence against women since 2014. I’ve interviewed heaps of teenage boys and girls regarding violence in couples. I grew up as a witness of domestic violence in my own family. I was hit by a boyfriend in high school. But in the winter of my 12th school year, something else happened – something I didn’t tell anyone for 13 years, until all the Caracal aftermath made me spit out the story, at first to the women I work with, then to my husband.
I can’t say what happened exactly, because hearing myself list the details would make it true, would make it a part of me, would make it impossible to pretend that it didn’t happen. Also, because I’m ashamed of not filing a complaint and, possibly, having contributed to some other girls’ rapes. My lack of reaction validated the aggressor’s impression that it was enough to bully a teenager to make her go with him.
I often wonder how many times he tried the same tactic and how many times he tried it before me: in plain daylight, at a tram stop, a tall, young, dark-haired man pretended to know me by greeting me with a hug, then he held my hand tightly and whispered in my ear that he’d use his knife on me if I yelled or tried anything. I can’t remember if he actually showed me the knife. I only remember the feeling of dizziness I had as I was trying to find a solution in my head. None of them seemed helpful. I also remember the dark blue jacket that I refused to ever wear again, to the exasperation of my mother, who had bought it for me and could not understand why I was shivering in other light coats instead of wearing that one. I remember it so well also because I, too, was shocked that this could happen to me on a Sunday when I was wearing jeans, a backpack and a heavy jacket, not on one of the many days when I had walked around showing my bellybutton and flaunting miniskirts, days when danger seemed to be much closer.
Today, I tell myself that I am lucky to be alive, not having been hit or trafficked. I learned that it wasn’t my fault from other victims and specialists who told me dozens of times that not all of us scream, some of us just freeze. However, I know I was completely unprepared to react, so I felt as if caught in a trap, as if the only way to get away alive was to do what he told me to. I also know now that I might have been equally paralyzed by fear, even if I had had all the information about what to do in such situations.
Still, it’s difficult to brush away all the scenarios where I could have acted differently. What would have happened had I screamed in the tram, had I pleaded to the vendors in the market or the taxi drivers we walked by, hand in hand, had I screamed in the hallway of the building where he dragged me, after entering the intercom code, had I pushed the alarm button in the elevator he blocked?
Until now, I didn’t allow myself to feel this trauma and I dissociated from the teenage Ana, so I could live as if it hadn’t happened. But reading and listening to accounts of other aggressions day after day makes your brain feel and experience them and brings back everything you thought was locked in a box you threw away a long time ago.
Three years ago, I interviewed Leslee Udwin, the author of the documentary India’s Daughter, which tells the story of a teenage girl from India who was raped and killed. “I was a victim of rape, too,” she told me. “It’s no surprise to say this, even though I’ve hidden this fact for years. One in five women all over the world has been raped. Meeting a victim of rape is not at all infrequent.” Not for one second did I think that I, too, was one in five – that’s how well hidden I kept what happened when I was 18. “It is the crime that goes unreported most often and it is very common,” Leslee went on. “We don’t talk about it. I didn’t talk about it for 20 years until I admitted it to my husband.” As I was transcribing the interview, I remembered a little of it, then I told myself: “I won’t tell. Ever.”
In the past couple of weeks, I started and ended each day reading accounts of girls who decided it was the right moment to tell their stories. I kept the TV on and got angry watching more and more cases of underage girls going missing or being raped, cases managed horribly by the people who were meant to protect these girls. I kept telling myself that I was consciously taking on the weight of these stories to better understand what these days meant to our society.
Every day there was a new case. There was the 14-year-old girl from Galați, with blood dripping down her legs and who needed a surgical procedure, about whom the manager of The General Directorate for Social Assistance and Child Protection in the city of Galați had the audacity to say that she had participated in consensual sex.
There was the 16-year-old girl from a foster home in Bistrița who wrote to an activist for institutionalized children’s rights that she was being forced to have sex with multiple people under threat of beatings.
When I didn’t see them in the media, I saw them in my personal inbox. An acquaintance who had been raped by a guy on Tinder told me that, after deciding to publicize her story, three other women had told her they had been raped, too. They were like me; they hadn’t admitted it until then.
It was easy to get to the point where I found myself at the beginning of August, when I realized I had to tell the story of what had happened to me at 18. I could no longer sleep; I wanted to stop the flow of information and stop feeling anything. I wished I did not see myself in all these cases, both as an abused person, and as the parent of an almost four-year-old girl and two-year-old boy.
And I knew the theory all too well. That the media was now looking for cases following pretty much the same pattern of the one case that had gotten us all worked up. That a bit of anxiety is normal after a traumatic event that you follow in the media. If, after several days, you don’t go back to your life and detach from the subject, it’s a sign that you have to stop following the case, because it is harming you. Still, I could not stop, because, for the first time in the 13 years that had passed since that rape, I listened to teenagers speak about experiences that were similar to mine, to a lesser or greater extent, and I was able to go back to the person I was back then.
After asking whether this collective narrative made me feel the need to tell my own story, the psychotherapist I was talking to while I documented this text told me that acknowledging the incident, in itself, was not so important. She also asked what was stopping me from mentioning it in this text. With my eyes closed, I heard myself utter all the stereotypes I didn’t think I could ever internalize: that I did not want to feel defined by this experience, that I would feel ashamed to expose myself to colleagues and family, that I did not want to be “the raped journalist”. I decided that I wanted to face these fears, without, however, writing a detailed account.
The account, in itself, is not such a big deal. I used to be on the long unwritten list of girls who never told anyone what happened to them, now I’m joining those who decide to speak in order to emphasize the fact that abuses, even apparently inoffensive ones, are not isolated events, but rather a part of a continuum that any girl and woman has to live with in Romania. The much harder part will be for me to understand how this event influenced me – and that is a long process I am afraid of but choose to embark on anyway.
Do we talk to our parents?
Beyond fear, beyond the desire to change something and beyond seeing themselves in Alexandra, many of the teenage girls I talked to this summer felt like the Caracal issue also affected the relationship with their parents. The girls told me that they were no longer allowed to go to camp or to the seaside, that some parents forbade them to go out in the evening, that they incessantly requested information about where they were and who they were with, while some even installed phone apps that would tell them in real time where their daughters were and what means of transportation they were using. “I see you’re in a car! Who are you with? I told you to avoid Uber!” they tell them during panicked phone calls. “I’m on a bus, mom,” the girls lie in return. Many parents frown upon and object to skirts or shorts.
“Let’s talk about festivals and about the impossibility to wear shorts or short skirts, for fear that my parents would go into anaphylactic shock,” 17-year-old Sophia Țigănaș from Bucharest told her mates from journalism camp one afternoon. They all agreed that parents have absurd reactions, but they also admitted they don’t feel safe dressed like that. “I heard this discussion so many times before: oh my, how the girls have changed, they act like boys now, they never wear skirts anymore. But when you do wear one, they all go crazy,” another girl added, and said she hasn’t worn a skirt since the eighth grade because she couldn’t stand people lifting her skirt up anymore.
“I mock the system! Shorts under a dress,” said Sophia and showed them the short black jeans she was wearing under her floral dress. She also told us the special bracelets made for minors at festivals, with different colors from the adult ones, don’t stop grown men from making improper comments, trying to touch them or persisting even after they get a firm “NO!”. She said she didn’t want to become paranoid and start believing that anyone around is capable of the darkest things, she just wished for some clear boundaries.
Magdyz, the 18-year-old vlogger Magdalena Roșian, posted a YouTube clip that got over one million views about how she almost got raped in the eleventh grade by a taxi driver. She, too, started her story by highlighting the fact she was not wearing provocative clothing and that she had no make-up on. The driver told Magda that he knew her, he showed her an unanswered message he had sent her on Facebook a while back, he tried to touch her leg and told her he’d take her home – just not her home. She got away because she ran from the taxi when it reached a traffic light and hid in a store. She memorized the taxi’s registration code and called the taxi dispatching center to report the incident. When she went to the police, they told her that as long as there was no material proof, the rape attempt hadn’t happened. It was her word against his. But, two weeks after posting the video where she mentioned his Facebook ID and taxi registration code, the man was caught by the police. “He had raped a woman,” Magda says.
A year has passed since then and Magda says that she always writes messages to her parents or brother including the code of the taxis she takes, or she uses Uber’s share my ride with a friend. But she won’t lock herself inside her home. “Hiding is not a solution. We give men so much power, that they believe we’re still in the 1400s. Women still think they need to dress a certain way. I know there’s a museum where they exhibit victims’ clothes and most of them are children’s clothes or clothes with absolutely no sexual connotation. As a parent, you should not instruct your daughter to avoid going out after 11 and wearing short skirts, but rather instruct your son not to do such things.”
When you’re 16 and you’re on holiday, no matter how much you pity Alexandra or how angry you are at the society you were born in, it also hurts a lot to not get permission to go to camp because your mother can’t take her eyes of the TV and is completely mortified even when you go out for an hour with a girlfriend. Before Caracal, there were days when parents didn’t call to check where you were and with whom. There were days when they didn’t open the tracking app. Now you see them online all the time, checking where you are hour after hour. They force you to lie and hide better.
“And it makes no sense. Did I kill someone, to have to feel like a criminal and hide?” asked Cami, a 16-year-old girl from Bucharest who really wanted to talk to me, but remain anonymous, because she already had enough trouble with her parents who no longer allowed her to go anywhere. She felt torn between the pressure of her parents’ controlling attitude and the visceral fear she feels whenever she walks the streets alone. She feels the danger her parents keep reminding her of in her gut, she feels the anger and nausea caused by the Caracal murder, but, of course, she still wants to see her friends. What else is there to do in the summer?
“Why do I have to walk around looking down, afraid of making eye contact with someone who is ready to make an improper comment? Maybe I’d like to walk around with my head held high, smiling,” she revolted, then she answered her own question: “But it’s better like this, with your eyes down, than to have something happen to you”.
Keeping her eyes down is what she did in a camp she volunteered for, where an employee who “was certainly over 40 and married” started to give her compliments and persistently seek her company. One night, a girlfriend sent her messages inviting her to have a beer with him. She had a pit in her stomach every time the phone buzzed. She refused, tried to tell her friend that she wasn’t feeling comfortable, but she didn’t end the conversation firmly. She didn’t want to upset anyone. She was trying to be nice, even though she felt sick and found the whole thing inappropriate.
When I asked her why she thought some of us have this tendency to be “nice”, to refrain from a firm “no”, no matter whom we upset, her expression changed:
“I think we got it from home. Whenever she scolded me, my mother always said that I had upset her very much, that she was sad because of me. That’s why I started feeling responsible for her feelings. So, I always tried to behave, to be good, not to make her go through this.”
Ioana Budura is in the 12th grade at the National College “Iulia Hașdeu” in Bucharest and she says that she has a trusting relationship with her parents, talking to them frequently about staying safe. Ever since she was 11 or 12, they taught her to scream and wave her hands and legs around if she felt she was in danger.
As a child, she played with her friends on the streets of Giurgiu until 11 o’clock at night. Her parents trusted her – Ioana is amazed at their trust and thinks she would be a much more panicky and controlling mother. They only checked to see if she was safe if they stopped hearing voices outside. Around 13, though, she stopped feeling safe in the evenings. She doesn’t go out frequently and even when she does, she asks her parents to pick her up at the bus stop or stay on the phone with her. Even so, there have been men who approached her. At the beginning of June, Ioana joined three of her friends at the seaside, in Constanța. They had to walk for 30 minutes from the beach to where they were staying. A teenage boy got close to her friend, who was wearing a wrap over her bathing suit, he pinched her breasts, then ran. Ioana started to shiver and was unable to snap out of it.
Her friend told her: “These things happen. Just move on…”.
“How can I move on?! This person just touched you in a private place, without your consent. No, it should not happen. Not anymore! It’s 2019!” Ioana told me, convinced that she would have hit the boy, had he returned.
After the Caracal incident, Ioana accumulated even more anger. When she came back home after a holiday spent with her grandparents, she felt that her anger was turning into courage. She came to talk about what she’s been feeling these days wearing short jeans and a tank top, clothes she thinks she wouldn’t have chosen last month. She wanted to be quoted with her real full name, because she wants to go public and leave the fears and hidden stories aside. She bought a mini skirt and got angry when her father told her to be careful.
It seems to her as though more and more girls wear long pants even during scorching hot days. She imagined people asking her: “How come you still have the guts to wear that after what happened in Caracal?” and she prepared a speech about how girls aren’t looking for trouble and how it isn’t OK to feel entitled to say dirty things to them because of something they’re wearing.
The difference between the courage Ioana feels she’s earned these days and the fear and shame Cami feels, while hiding from her parents so she can meet her friends, depends on the way their families talked to them about safety and sexuality. Ioana knows that she can tell her parents anything, that they are willing to listen to her, and it’s only a matter of her accepting their help. Cami would never talk to her parents about a problem she had at school or at camp, because she’s afraid they would take the matter in their hands and lock her inside the house.
Of course, it’s hard to trust the world and your teenage children. To refrain from controlling them. Even they say that they would be controlling and fearful with their own children. It sounds strange to hear them say that they would use tracking apps and not allow their children to go out in the streets alone. I don’t yet know what it’s like to be the parent of a teenager. I’m 31 years old and I walk the thin line between the fears any mother feels every step of the way and the need for freedom, respect and peace I remember from the time I was a teen, myself. I hated having to explain. I forgot to let anyone know I was running late. My phone battery would die and I would get home, carefree, hours and hours later, to my mother’s mournful face.
I didn’t get it back then and I found it annoying, although I had plenty of freedom to go out, to drink, to smoke. I wanted to get on with my life without having to estimate how long it would take, without having to ask for permission to stay longer, without expressing gratitude for the permission. I thought my life was mine and mine alone. I hope I will be able to give my kids space without being paralyzed by fear. Teach them to defend themselves and speak up when they notice abusive conduct around them. But, at the same time, I understand all these parents that shortened curfews and forbade trips and camps this summer.
It’s hard to let go of your children when you keep watching the news on TV, especially if you are familiar with abuse yourself. When the news terrifies you, the easy way is to forbid them from going to camp or to a theater festival during the summer. But then it’s infinitely harder to repair what you lose on the way: mutual trust and respect.
Let’s talk about sex
In July, at a housing center for emergency situations, more than 10 girls aged 14 to 16 gathered to watch the evening news about Alexandra and Luiza. It was their only connection with the outside world, because most of them had been brought there by the police after having ran away from home – in most cases, to join their boyfriends who were under investigation or suspicion of human trafficking. The rule at the center is they aren’t allowed to carry a phone or access the internet for several months, to help them settle down, and they can only receive visits from family members; meanwhile, the team at the center is looking for solutions for their return home. The phone would make them vulnerable, the psychotherapist says, because they all want to contact their boyfriends, who are always hanging around the gate anyway, insisting for the girls to come and talk to them.
To keep them from feeling completely isolated, the personnel uses the evening news to inform them about society and what is going on around the country – and now, the country was raging about rape, deprivation of freedom and blind authorities.
The center’s psychotherapist used this opportunity to spark a conversation about the danger the girls were in. She created a questionnaire meant to show them if the boys they were in love with were potential pimps trying to traffic them. All the girls denied. The tragedy in Caracal had been committed by a psychopath and felt very distant from their own situation. The boys they had run away with were different, they would have never hurt them. They gave them gifts, made them feel beautiful and loved. Some of them had asked the girls to become prostitutes “because there was nothing to eat”, not out of some hidden intention. They sold drugs to make a living.
“They are not afraid of their boyfriends, of the danger right next to them – they’re afraid of the boogie man, the psycho who preyed on the girls in Caracal. They see no connection to their own vulnerability,” the therapist who had been talking to the girls daily about their precocious sex lives told me. She showed them videos made by Adriana Radu on “Sexul vs Barza” (a sex education YouTube channel whose name translates as “Sex versus the stork”). It was obvious to her that nobody had ever talked to these girls about sex. They had questions, they had stories, they felt the need to ask things and be heard. For the therapist, it was obvious that a child with major affective deficiencies would start her sex life and give away her body just to win acceptance and love. That nobody had ever talked to them as nicely as these boys who promised they would get rich together. But for the police and often even for their families, these girls are still just “sluts”.
“Even nowadays, the police continue to do nothing for dozens of girls. Nothing has changed”, said the therapist who has been working for 15 years in the same center and feels like she needs to leave the system because she can’t take it anymore. “Hundreds of Caracal incidents won’t change the way they see them. The institutions don’t work. The rapist is allowed to stay at home with no care in the world, while the child is doubly traumatized, once by the institutionalization, by the fact that she misses the boyfriend or her family, and a second time by the procedures applied at the Institute for Forensic Medicine, the hearings and so on. I’ll disappear from their lives as quickly as I appeared. All I can do is keep telling them that family matters most. Try to turn them towards their families.”
There are two Romanias we live in, we often tell ourselves, both as a red flag and as a mantra of safety. It can’t happen to me and my children. We don’t have to deal with extreme poverty, poor education, social stigma, ethnical barriers, lack of public transport. But the two Romanias oftentimes meet in the lives of Romanian women.
Neither the girls who ran away from home, risking being trafficked, nor Elisa from Valea Seacă, nor Maria from the music high school in Bucharest, nor any of the 30 teenagers I talked to has ever participated in a school-organized discussion about relationships, consent and harassment. Nobody talked to them about all the things that preoccupy them. And taking this discussion to school could be a solution to the way people address one another on the street or the way we build relationships starting from pre-adolescence.
The documentarist Leslee Udwin founded an NGO, Think Equal, and is working together with the UN in order to bring a mandatory subject to schools – one that “educates our children to cherish and respect one another. Shouldn’t it be mandatory for each child to learn the value of each human being?”.
I started these interviews with teenagers wondering how they related to the fear and anger that we all felt this summer. I thought they would have a hard time putting into words the situation we all grow up with: that girls must be smart and careful. What I didn’t expect was to find dozens of girls willing to talk and to listen to one other. I never had this kind of discussion with my girlfriends or boyfriends during my teenage years. Feminism was something to make fun of and, in the groups I was part of, in my family and at school, gender equality and violence were never topics of debate. The over 30 teenagers I listened to have the capacity to speak about what they feel, but also to set their own experience in economic, social and political context. They understand what is wrong, they understand who needs to be held accountable and are frustrated by the lack of action in their schools.
My colleague, Irina Tacu, had the same experience when she participated in the Girl UP! Camp in August, that took place on a hillside in the county of Covasna. (Girl UP! Camp is a project separate from the Girl Up Romania community.) There were 15 participants from around the country who took part in the camp in order to learn about gender equality, sexual violence, domestic violence and self-defense. One of them was coming from Caracal. When she found out about Alexandra’s rape and murder she felt revolt, fear and indignation – then she started thinking about solutions: asking for self-defense classes at high school, because she knew girls who were afraid to walk alone on the street. They shared their stories in a dining hall with large wooden chairs, where the girls sat in a circle. Some of them still had golden glitter from the night before on their skin, when they had made collages from photos and words cut out of magazines, writing out messages like “The patriarchy tears you away from bodily autonomy” or “The future is female”.
One of them talked about the “pedophile physics teacher”, a well-known character in her high school. He is a pot-bellied teacher that pats her head and caresses her back while talking to her. When girls are writing at the blackboard, he walks behind them, through the narrow space between the board and the teacher’s table. She thinks that it’s a bad idea to report his actions because he is also the school’s deputy principal. Ever since she was a little girl, she has been told that she can’t do certain things because she is a girl, and this has made her want to show that in fact she can, that she can be “the head at the fucking table”.
Laura, a 17-year-old participant who has to commute from the village she lives in to her high school in town, told a story from the road. She boarded a minibus and sat next to another girl whose eyes seemed to ask for help, because a man holding a beer bottle kept talking to her. After the girl got off, Laura got stuck with the man who wouldn’t let her get off the minibus, saying that he would accompany her home. Nobody in the minibus intervened, but she was able to text her father. The parent hurried to the bus stop and banged on the minibus until the doors opened.
Another girl remembered how, at the age of eight or nine, she was playing hide-and-seek with a group of older boys and, while they were hiding behind a bench, one of the older boys touched her bottom and caressed her for a couple of seconds. Not only did she not forget the incident, but she kept thinking of it for several nights, it came up in her dreams and upset her. Years later, at camp, a boy asked her to come to his room to give her a sweatshirt. He then threw her on the bed. She said she would scream if he didn’t let her go. She managed to run away and escape from rape.
Another girl told the others that she had just recently started to remember an episode of abuse from childhood that she had buried in her memory. She wasn’t able to describe it, because it gave her panic attacks. Another girl named Andreea raised her hand and started to speak. “I went through two sexual abuses, but I’ll only tell you about one of them.”
With her gaze focused somewhere in the area of her long yellow and blue socks, the 17-year-old told her story. It happened when she was in seventh grade, at a party she attended with friends in someone’s home. Everybody seemed to be “over 18, smoking and drinking” so she went to a room to be alone. Then a guy came and would not let her leave.
The girls were listening, wide-eyed.
Andreea told them how he hit her and shook her from side to side. She showed them the scars left on her arm when he threw her at a mirror. “Everything lasted about half an hour,” she told them, but it felt like three hours. “I wasn’t wearing anything special,” she also highlighted, like most girls and women talking about an abuse they have suffered: “I was wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a sweatshirt.” Her voice broke and tears came to her eyes when she told the group it had taken her a long time to realize what had happened and that she had only understood the gravity of the situation after her mother died.
With her voice fading away, she told them she ended up hurting herself, eating and then making herself throw up and, when she was taken to the psychiatrist, she was tied to the bed because the doctors couldn’t get her to say what had happened. When the aggressor transferred to her high school, she moved to another town. She hasn’t returned for two years. Now, she was looking for support. She thought that was the main reason she applied for that camp. She wanted to be amongst girls that had gone through similar things.
For all of them, it was the first time to open up this way in front of other people. Some girls said they had a good relationship with their mothers, still they did not tell them such things out of shame or because “it’s in the past”. But there’s something about a group of girls ready to share their stories and listen to the others talk that can’t compare to anything else they’ve seen before. “It’s the feeling of solidarity,” Andreea says, “of being heard, really heard, and not being alone.”
It’s early – or hard – for the girls to think of structural solutions, perhaps including an effort to educate boys. At the moment, they are thinking about how to make things better for themselves and for others like them. About how to be there for one another, even if that just means sharing a hug after a story that’s horribly difficult to tell. About how they can recover and encourage themselves – loving themselves more, telling themselves they are beautiful more often, taking better care of themselves. About how to arm themselves with renewed strength, knowledge and role models. Many of them have mothers, grandmothers, neighbors in their village who do everything for their men at home: cook, set the table, clean, stay at home, give up work or accept violence as if it’s something common. At camp, when a tall, well-built girl with a bright smile came and told them that anyone, girl or boy, can practice whatever sport they wanted, which was why she herself had started doing kickboxing, their eyes sparkled. They donned the boxing gloves, hopped from one foot to the other and practiced the basic moves together with her. For now, the solution for them is to become stronger.
Note on the reporting process: Cătălina Albeanu, Irina Tacu, Elena Văduva, Diana Filimon and Oana Barbonie contributed to this piece. During the month of August, I organized several meetings with groups of teenagers. I held individual interviews and online conversations. Some of the sources wanted to mention their whole name and the school they went to, in order to contribute publicly to this conversation. Most participants chose to remain anonymous, so I used pseudonyms. I did not indicate the name of the housing center for emergency cases mentioned in the text because the psychotherapist working with the underage girls didn’t have permission from her superiors to talk to the press – but I believe her work is relevant, as is the context.
The images in this article are overlays of photographs and illustrations made by teenagers and young people in vulnerable moments in their lives and those of their friends
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