by Jodie Gummow
The UN World Health Organization claims the problem is so widespread that it is now considered a global public health problem.
Violence against women is certainly not a new phenomenon. We are constantly flooded with stories in the media of heinous acts of violence perpetrated against women across the globe. This is subsequently followed by extensive dialogue on women’s rights by activists and political bodies alike attempting to find solutions to address the problem, most commonly resulting in the adoption of legislation as a quick fix to satisfy public outrage.
While such legislative actions are commendable, necessary and timely, to date these measures have not led to a world free from violence—women continue to be subject to it, the media continues to report it, activists continue to fight against it and we end up in a perpetuating cycle of institutional inertia where recapping the problem seems like the only practical solution.
The question that remains unanswered is not what we can do to address it, but how such measures can be effectively implemented in order to change a climate of rape culture and impunity that is so heavily entrenched in our society.
According to a report released by the United Nations World Heath Organization (WHO), 35 percent of women around the world experience some form of physical or sexual violence, whether by an intimate partner or stranger, and the problem is so widespread that it is now considered a global public health problem.
The report is the first systematic study of global data on the prevalence of violence against women. The study found that violence committed by an intimate partner is the most common form of violence, affecting 30 percent of women worldwide. In addition, 38 percent of all women murdered globally are killed by their intimate partner; women who face physical and/or sexual partner violence are 1.5 times more likely to acquire a sexually transmitted infection and twice as likely to develop depression and alcohol-use problems.
The report comes amidst increasing international pressure in recent months for action to prevent violence against women. Last week the Security Council adopted a resolution to end impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence in armed conflict zones. In a compelling speech, Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, stressed that victims were not only suffering at the hands of their rapists but also from a culture of impunity:
“These crimes happen not because they are inherent to war. It is because the global climate allows it. That young Syrian rape victim is here because you represent her. That five-year-old child in the Congo must count because you represent her. And in her eyes, if her attacker gets away with his crimes, it is because you have allowed it.”
Following its adoption, the UN Security Council said the resolution sent a strong signal to perpetrators that they will be held accountable for their actions and that rape by armed groups and in conflict will not be tolerated. However, while such dialogue is welcome, without political will by state governments to implement such measures or a judiciary willing to apply such laws, the current climate of physical and sexual violence against women is unlikely to change. Moreover, the Security Council lacks any sort of police powers to enforce such global action.
There is no one-size-fits-all bandage that can be plastered over the issue in its entirety without addressing the underlying social and cultural factors, which underpin the problem. Certain violent acts committed against women are country specific and/or conflict specific and while solutions in one situation may be appropriate, they may not be applicable in another.
Likewise, here on American soil, we are not immune from such violence either as we continue to battle rhetoric which blames the victim and sympathizes with perpetrators. It was only in March this year that CNN, in its coverage of an Ohio high-school rape case, lamented about the promising future of the Steubenville rapists whose lives were now ruined because of their decision to rape a 16-year-old girl. There was no mention of the ramifications of the rape on the young woman.
The prevalence of such violence can be attributed to the rape culture embedded in our society. Consequently, it is necessary to identify what exactly constitutes a “rape culture.” According to Rebecca Nagle of Force: Upsetting Rape Culture, an artistic collaboration fighting against rape, the term denotes the existence of all myths in society about sexual violence which can be seen everywhere we look:
“Rape culture includes jokes, TV, music, advertising, legal jargon, laws, words and imagery, that make violence against women and sexual coercion seem so normal that people believe that rape is inevitable and cannot end. Rather than viewing the culture of rape as a problem to change, people in a rape culture think that the persistence of rape is a given and inevitable.”
Force believes the way to eliminate rape culture is by emphasizing the notion of consent, and honoring and elevating the stories and experiences of women who are victims of physical and sexual violence.
“People need to hear about rape,” Nagle says. “At present, victims are shamed and silenced and that silence is a block to having a more critical dialogue about the issue. In addition, we need to promote consent—people need to understand what consent actually means. Our culture does not value having to ask for anything. Rather, we live by a take-what-you-can-get motto. We don’t have a lot of positive models on consent and this is part of the problem.”
What’s more, it seems social media is exacerbating the issue. Facebook has come under fire recently for perpetuating rape culture through gender-based hate speech with pages such as: “What’s 10 inches and gets girls to have sex with me? My knife.” The social network site initially refused to take down the offensive page, saying it “was just a joke.” However, after 15 companies removed its advertisements, Facebook was forced to respond by deleting some of the pro-rape material that violated its terms.
Despite the proliferation of individuals and groups speaking out against rape culture, such efforts continue to be met with tough resistance. In an article last week titled, “If comedy has no lady problem, why am I getting so many rape threats?” Jezebel staff writer Lindy West explained that since a TV appearance in which she discussed the ethics of rape jokes in comedy, she has been the target of thousands of online attacks from individuals threatening to rape and kill her.
“…I do believe that comedy’s current permissiveness around cavalier, cruel, victim-targeting rape jokes contributes to a culture of men who don’t understand what it means to take this stuff seriously […] And how did they try to prove me wrong? How did they try to demonstrate that comedy in general doesn’t have issues with women? By threatening to rape and kill me, telling me I’m just bitter because I’m too fat to get raped….”
Similarly, 17-year-old Jinan Younis encountered a major backlash from her male peers when she attempted to tackle the issue of violence against women. In her article, “What happened when I started a feminist society at school,” she explains how her participation in a national project called “Who Needs Feminism” resulted in a flood of degrading and explicitly sexual comments from men. Younis writes:
“We were told that our ‘militant vaginas’ were ‘as dry as the Sahara desert,’ girls who complained of sexual objectification in their photos were given ratings out of 10, details of the sex lives of some of the girls were posted beside their photos, and others were sent threatening messages warning them that things would soon ‘get personal.'”
Other efforts to protect women from violence by encouraging the use of “anti-rape products” like hairy-leg stockings, electric shock underwear and a female condom with hooks that women insert called Rape-Axe which attaches to a man’s penis upon penetration, have been criticized for focusing prevention on the victim rather than the perpetrator. Moreover, such campaigns place women and men against each other, rather than in collaboration to solve the problem.
So how do we get men on board to help change this distorted perception of rape culture in society on the quest to end violence against women once and for all? According to Jared Watkins of Men Can Stop Rape, an international organization that encourages men to use their strength for creating cultures free of violence, the key to stopping violence against women is to view men positively:
“All men have the capacity and desire to play a positive role in creating a culture free from violence. Therefore, it is essential to approach men as allies rather than only as potential perpetrators. In order for men to have empathy for themselves and women, we must embrace the full range of emotions in men.”
Men Can Stop Rape tackles the issue of violence against women in a primarily preventative way through youth development programs. The Men of Strength Club is one such course aimed at middle-school students across the country designed to help young men understand how traditional masculinity contributes to violence against women and expose them to non-violent models of manhood.” Jared Watkins says:
“We don’t want to address rape and sexual assault after it has happened, we want to prevent it before it happens. We focus on masculinity because we believe that acts of violence, which are overwhelming committed by men, come from a toxic culture based on a dominant story of masculinity. Our main tool is to point out parts of our culture that encourage unhealthy dominant traditional masculinity, discourage all forms of violence and replace those behaviors with healthy masculinity—by assisting men to develop social emotional competences and provide them with advice to be pillars of strength.”
It follows that if such educational programs were backed by our politicians and implemented in state educational systems, at least on our own shores, we could make some headway in changing the current climate of violence against women. If girls have boys on their side early on in this fight, half the battle is won.
Watkins agrees. “Sexual assault is not a natural state for men,” he says. “In fact, it is often insulting when people say that men can’t control themselves or that men are made to rape. Men have a role in preventing rape and are better than their reputations. We can all be better men in the future. While most violence against women is committed by men, most men don’t commit violence against women. Therefore, we hope to engage the vast majority of men who don’t engage in violence, to speak up when they know something is wrong.”