Walk­ing down a noisy Oak­land, California street on my way to do some writ­ing at a cof­fee shop, I heard a woman weep­ing as she stum­bled on the other side of the side­walk. I thought it was a strange scene, as did every­one within a 30 foot radius who could also hear her per­pet­ual sobs. Yet, no one said any­thing. Mul­ti­ple peo­ple passed and stared; oth­ers sped their gait and avoided eye con­tact. Sud­denly I real­ized she was walk­ing behind me. Her cries were ring­ing in my ears and her dis­tress sent warn­ing sig­nals to the part of my brain that’s always alert and scream­ing, “Some­thing bad is hap­pen­ing to a woman!”

And sadly, that too often is the truth. Since the year 2000, the United Nations has com­mem­o­rated the Inter­na­tional Day for the Elim­i­na­tion of Vio­lence against Women on the 25th of Novem­ber to raise pub­lic aware­ness of this worldwide issue and to kick off 16 Days of Activism against Gen­der Vio­lence. The date was cho­sen in honor of the Mira­bal sis­ters—Patria Mer­cedes Mira­bal, María Argentina Min­erva Mira­bal and Anto­nia María Teresa Mirabal—who were assas­si­nated on Novem­ber 25, 1960, in the Domini­can Repub­lic on the orders of then-dictator Rafael Trujillo.

The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s mes­sage for the day this year stated that we must “end all forms of violence against women and girls in all parts of the world…” Not many I know would argue against the goals of this day, yet most of the pop­u­la­tion do not speak of the topic. It’s easy to think of rape in war-torn coun­tries as far away, or to even view domes­tic vio­lence in the United States as a race or class issue in areas with greater poverty and less aware­ness. The truth, though, is that this topic affects both you and me, and peo­ple we know and love: it’s nicer to think of it as an issue removed from our own sit­u­a­tion though, isn’t it?

While trav­el­ing I’ve become aware that when peo­ple see a woman in dis­tress (whether that’s bruises on her arm, tears stream­ing down her cheeks, puffy lip, etc.) observers rarely stop and ask what’s wrong or if she needs help. What makes us so reluctant to become involved? Do we want to avoid drama and not be nosy? Or are we just ignor­ing the truth that is in front of us every day?

That over­cast after­noon in Oak­land, even though my alarm bells went off, I still debated whether I should turn around and ask what was wrong. Finally, I did.

Ma’am, can I help with some­thing? Do you want me to call some­one? Is there any­thing I can do?

She col­lapsed on a nearby cement house step close to the road, con­tin­u­ing to wail. I asked again, Should I call someone?

No, she gasped through weeps. She was clutch­ing her stom­ach, nearly claw­ing at it. My mind raced through the mul­ti­tude of bad things that might have hap­pened to her.

Can I take you to a hos­pi­tal? Are you hurt? Do you need a taxi?

No, I’m fine, she man­aged to choke out. You can go away. I stood there for a while, until she pleaded with me to let her be.

Feel­ing extremely uncom­fort­able in my lack of abil­ity to do some­thing, I finally turned my back on her. A block down the street, I glanced over my shoul­der and saw her sit­ting on the steps. Mul­ti­ple peo­ple had passed her, includ­ing a secu­rity guard. But no one else stopped.

And that’s the end of what I know of her story. I think about this woman daily. I still won­der what was wrong. Did I do enough? Should I have called the police? Should I have got­ten her to some sort of shel­ter? Was she hurt, vio­lated, hit? What else could I have done?

No one teaches us what to do in these sit­u­a­tions. No one ever gives a sem­i­nar on, “What to do if you walk down the street and run into a woman in vis­i­ble and obvi­ous pain.” And unfor­tu­nately, espe­cially in cities, such women are ignored by the major­ity of the pop­u­la­tion. They make us feel uncom­fort­able, or even pro­voke anger in us—why does she just sit on the street and cry like that?

The goal of the Inter­na­tional Day for the Elim­i­na­tion of Vio­lence against Women, as well as my own web­site Our Sto­ries Untold, is to bring aware­ness, yet I don’t think aware­ness will do much good if we choose to avoid women who expe­ri­ence vio­lence. We don’t just need 16 Days of Activism. We need train­ings and edu­ca­tion, speeches, sem­i­nars, and tools for how to con­front these sit­u­a­tions. We also need com­pas­sion, endurance, and a desire to help those, even when help­ing makes us feel awk­ward and ner­vous, or when we feel we are invad­ing someone’s “pri­vate matter.”

The fact that the Oak­land woman’s tears were shed in pub­lic made this a pub­lic issue. And the pub­lic (includ­ing me) chose not to inter­fere. Let us stand up together on this day and all days for­ward to make a con­scious effort to stop vio­lence against women and girls, both on our over­cast streets and across the globe.


This is an abbreviated version of an article that appeared in Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Social Justice.