What you need to know:
- She speaks mostly as a woman reliving a horrific episode that took place 17 years ago.
- The massive support Ms Marriott received from the men around her allowed her to process it.
“If my story can help just one woman say, ‘This isn’t normal. I need to change my circumstances,’ – or have just one man say, ‘How can I be a better ally? What can I do to help?’ then that’s why I’m telling this story – to reduce the stigma and show women that gender-based violence is more common than we think; that it is unacceptable; that there are loads of good men out there, as well as a minority who (assault), and that we’re stronger if men and women pull together and show that while it’s common, it’s not normal, it’s not right, and it’s not fair.”
Jane Marriott, OBE, the British High Commissioner to Kenya, shares her experience of sexual assault and how it impacted her life.
She speaks as the British High Commissioner, yes, but mostly as a woman reliving a horrific episode that took place 17 years ago. It might seem like a long time for many, but for any person who has suffered gender-based violence (GBV) of any sort, there is never long enough to forget.
The backdrop is Iraq, the year 2003, in the world’s post-9-11 war-filled haze. US, UK and allied forces had wrapped up the Iraqi invasion earlier that year, seeking to rid the country of former President Saddam Hussein, terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction.
The military onslaught lasted 26 days, followed by a period of occupation when foreign forces handed governance power back to the Iraqis.
Ms Marriott, 27 then, decided to volunteer her time towards the transition to civilian rule.
“I was very young so I’m not quite sure what I was going to contribute,” she laughs, “but it was part of a passionate idealism so I said I want to make a difference. We’ve gone into Iraq a military force; now how can I help build the peace?”
The South-east of the country was under British military influence. Ms Marriott was among first civilians to arrive. Her first posting was to Al Amara, with 1,200 British military workers on base.
“My job was to work closely with the Iraqis to hand transitional authority back to the Iraqis in a way that allowed for security, governance and economic opportunity.”
Soon, Major-General Andrew Stewart, head of the British battalion, asked her to take on a wider role, which necessitated her moving to a camp run by another European country, which she won’t name for diplomatic reasons, in Al Nasiriyah, a neighbouring province.
Here, she was one of only three women at the camp (“There were two Red Cross nurses who were inseparable, and I later realised why,” she says), Ms Marriott was, perhaps, in a particularly vulnerable position.
On the night in question, she remembers coming back to her accommodation after about five days away from camp.
“The camp was sprawling, and there were four or five sort of plyboard huts. I was the only person living in them,” she says.
Missing laundry bag
She unpacked – and in the process, noticed that a laundry bag she’d left behind was missing. Then she heard a key turn in the lock on her door.
“The door opened and somebody who I cannot recall ever seeing before – a European Lieutenant-Colonel, so quite senior – walked into my room.”
Ms Marriott remembers being really confused.
“It was quite late at night and there was nobody around. Had I shouted, nobody would have heard me. He came in and said, ‘I hand-washed your underwear for you. I hope you’re grateful,” referencing the laundry Ms Marriott had noticed was missing… meaning he sneaked into her room while she was away.
“I can’t remember what he looked like but he was in his late 30s, early 40s,” she continues, “physically much bigger and stronger than I was, obviously – there’s not exactly a lot of muscle on me,” – and she flexes a wiry muscle to illustrate.
“I can’t quite remember the exact details, and I sympathise with women who say ‘…and then suddenly I was on the floor and he was (on top of me). I understand how your mind goes to protect itself. The next thing I remember is, I’m up against the wall, he’s got his hands on my chest and he’s trying to get my clothes off.”
Ms Marriott doesn’t quite remember what happened next, except that her instinct led her to apply her best persuasion skills.
“Perhaps that’s why I am a diplomat. Even under stress I’m still negotiating my way out of stuff,” she notes wryly.
“There was no point in being confrontational because I clearly wasn’t going to win a physical fight with him,” she continues, “I managed to persuade him that ‘now’ wasn’t an appropriate time and that he should go and come back later. I somehow managed to get him out of the room before he could violate me further, but constantly at the back of my mind was; is this going to end up in rape?”
Ms Marriott spent a fraught night.
“I moved my furniture in front of the door and tried to get some sleep because I was really tired, but I was concerned he might come back.”
The next day, she found out just how affirming male alliance can be when she emailed a Colonel friend back in Basra about what had happened.
He said: “This is horrific. This is unacceptable. I need to tell General Stewart – will you give me permission to do that?”
She resisted, not wanting to turn it into a big to-do, but her friend insisted it was. Eventually, she conceded.
“So my friend briefed the General, who then said: ‘Right. I’m coming for them…’ at which point I realised I was possibly about to precipitate a massive row between the two countries.”
In a world where shaming victims of sexual assault is the norm rather than the exception, the massive support Ms Marriott received from the men around her allowed her to process it.
“Their support was reason I could make sense of and get over it, and realise that this was a minority of one against all of these amazing men who were coming in to support me.”
In the end, Ms Marriott chose not to pursue formal action against her attacker, even though she now thinks she should have.
“I am ashamed to say, I wasn’t thinking about what he might have done in the past, what he might do in the future,” she notes.
Instead, she rationalised it. “I think the strange thing that goes on with women is that we think, ‘Oh well, it wasn’t that bad, really, it could have been worse…’ I suppose I should have been much angrier,” she reflects.
All she sought was for the man to be identified and for the European military leadership to ensure he didn’t do it again.
A few days later, General Stewart asked her to move back to the British camp, and that was the end of that.
Ms Marriott shelved it away until about eight years later, back in London and working in the Foreign Office there, when her colleagues started to talk about gender relations in war zones.
“I was asked to give a talk, during which, and for some reason, I felt the need to tell my experience.”
Her story was met with stunned silence from the 40 or so diplomats in attendance.
“I wondered if I had freaked everybody out. I wished I could turn back time and not say that.”
But then directly after the meeting, and for the next few days, numerous female colleagues approached her to share their own experiences with assault.
Listening to them caused Ms Marriott to share her own more openly to reduce the stigma around victims of sexual assault.
Creating an enabling environment for victims of GBV to access practical, economic and emotional support – and above all, to be believed when they open up – is something Ms Marriott is passionate about, and more so during these Covid-19 times, when lockdowns and quarantines have seen cases of domestic violence increase worldwide.
“One of the biggest challenges is not being believed,” she says. “The onus is on the victim to get justice. This is not unique to Kenya. The British system is getting better but our conviction rate for rape is still very low. But then you need police, judicial and economic systems that enables victims to recover, and I think this is why female economic independence is so important. If you have the financial ability to say, ‘I’m not staying with this man,’ then you have choices. If women can have as many choices as men, you get a happy, more empowered world.”
She acknowledges that victims will only speak out if the larger society is intentional about creating safe spaces for them to do so, but bemoans the lack of adequate funding for such initiatives.
“It would be great to see more funding for refuges in the UK, and in Kenya, to support victims and give them safe breathing space.”
The UK government is currently funding a five-year programme called Reinvent, in conjunction with the Kenya National Police Service and National and county governments, to address legal and police support for victims of GBV and increase public awareness of the same.