Do we care enough about sexual violence?


JOHANNESBURG, 11 December 2013 (IRIN) - Nomsa*, 20, was on her way to register at a university outside Pretoria, South Africa, with four friends when the men grabbed her. "I was fighting with them," she said. They dragged her into a building, where the five of them took turns to rape her. The friends ran away and did not come back to look for her. The men took Nomsa's mobile phone.

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She returned home, more than 500km away in KwaZulu-Natal province. Days later she called her number, it rang and one of the men answered, the student told IRIN.

Did the police know? "Yes, they can still catch the men," she said, but she did not know who to contact. IRIN wrote to the head of the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences unit of the South African Police Service. An upset official phoned two weeks later to question why IRIN had complained. He noted the number of Nomsa's stolen phone.

Some months later, Nomsa was in Johannesburg visiting her aunt who was trying to help her. She did not want to meet IRIN. Nothing had come of her phone clue and the police had not phoned her back. She had not received any counselling. As far as she knew, the men were still at large.

Nomsa's ordeal took place just weeks after the gruesome gang-rape of a physiotherapy student in India's capital, Delhi, in December 2012, who later died of her injuries. Thousands of Indians expressed their outrage by taking to the streets for weeks, making headlines across the world.

Nomsa's rape received a few paragraphs in the print media. She encountered mostly apathy or indifference from her friends, the police and the media. No one really cared.

What determines which response?

Why some cases call forth strong responses while others get only indifference is a matter for speculation and analysis. The Indian media have reported scores of rapes every week since the Delhi incident, but not all have elicited the same sense of outrage. Perhaps the protestors - mainly urban middle-class people, many of them women - could identify with the physiotherapy student. "Apathy paralyzes the will to action," writes Indian activist, SS Smitha.

Sociological and psychological studies have come up with various explanations for apathy. The "bystander effect", first demonstrated by John Darley and Bibb Latané in 1968, showed that the greater the number of bystanders at an emergency situation, the less likely any of them would be to help. Help only comes when bystanders empathize with the victim.

Members of the police force might be apathetic because of personal prejudice - usually no different from society at large - which often blames victims for being in the "wrong" place at the "wrong" time, and exposing themselves to risk. If the victim is a baby, the parents are blamed.

People often feel they are less qualified, that others would be in a better position to help, or that helping might afterwards involve them in time-consuming legal processes.

The Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General (SRSG) on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Haja Zainab Hawa Bangura, says you do not need to have perfect skills to care. "The reality is that in times of need it is always the community that is the first to respond - neighbours helping neighbours and families helping families." People need to know that.

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Communities matter

Neighbours and even the wife of one of the perpetrators of the Indian gang rape decided to cut ties with the man. Asha, his wife, told a newspaper her husband should be hanged for what he had done. The accused has since died while in custody.

People living in Soweto, which has one of the highest levels of sexual violence in South Africa, who are often themselves victims, have been reaching out to the abused, taking children into their homes after school to keep them safe. These are simple initiatives by ordinary untrained individuals.

One of them is Joan Adams, who has been making a difference in the lives of abused people in the Kliptown area of Soweto for almost 14 years. She hopes to receive training as a counsellor soon.

Liesel Vallo, who started the South African Drug and Alcohol Centre with funding from the impoverished community of Kliptown, asks, "When we see any child do anything wrong [abusing other children or women, or being disrespectful], why don't we stop and correct the child? Grown-ups used to do that when we were small."

The emphasis has to be on making the environment safer for the vulnerable. Community action has to be progressive - it should not clamp down on the freedom of movement and expression of the vulnerable. It also should not be regressive - for example, forcing women to dress in a certain way.

There are many feminist stances on clothing - from not wearing any at all to the empowerment of the niqab - as well as personal preferences and cultural considerations.

Monique Wilson, a veteran actress and women's rights activist from the Philippines, who has been involved with V-Day (V for Victory, Vagina and Valentine), a movement initiated by playwright and activist Eve Ensler, the author of Vagina Monologues in 1998, says it is absurd to ask women - the victims of the attack - to change their appearance to address sexual violence, rather than targeting the perpetrator's behaviour.

We need a new view

"We need to transform public apathy towards violence against women into public empathy for women's rights. Culture, religion and tradition should be used to drive positive behaviours, not to justify violence,” says Lakshmi Puri, Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, the newest UN agency.

"To accomplish this it is critical to create a movement that is aware and committed to change in mind-sets, attitudes and beliefs… We also need laws, institutions and security forces to… provide preventive, protective, and responsive services."

A multi-sectoral approach would not only address apathy but also its causes. Lisa Vetten, a sexual violence expert says, "Behaviour is influenced by a range of factors... you would need to consider gender norms, as well as how gender inequality manifests. You would also have to take into account social factors productive of violence (like high levels of income inequality), along with norms around the use and acceptability of violence generally, the availability of what might be considered aggravators like firearms, alcohol and drugs. Then you need to take into account individuals’ personal histories, their experiences of neglect, adversity and violence as well as whether or not they have witnessed violence (which will again be gendered).

"Finally, violence might be a universal phenomenon but it is always influenced by the socio-cultural context, which is why you see a variation in statistics across countries."

The World Health Organization (WHO) has compiled a list of risk factors associated with intimate partner and sexual violence by individuals, in families and communities and wider society. It includes belief in family honour and sexual purity, ideologies of male sexual entitlement, weak legal sanctions for sexual violence, lower levels of education, and exposure to child maltreatment.

According to WHO, efforts to prevent such attacks have not been fruitful. "More resources are needed to strengthen the prevention of intimate partner and sexual violence, including primary prevention, i.e., stopping it from happening in the first place."

WHO says, “[There is] some evidence from high-income countries that school-based programmes to prevent violence within dating relationships have shown effectiveness. However, these have yet to be assessed for use in resource-poor settings. Several other primary prevention strategies: those that combine microfinance with gender equality training; that promote communication and relationship skills within couples and communities; that reduce access to, and harmful use of alcohol; and that change cultural gender norms, have shown some promise but need to be evaluated further."

Changing men's attitudes 

It could start with making men aware of their attitude towards women. Activist Michael Urbina runs a blog with "101 everyday ways for men to be allies to women". It offers simple tips: "Be conscious of where your eyes wander as a woman walks by - change that behaviour", and "Remove photos of semi-nude women from your phone wallpaper".

The Bell Bajao (Ring the Bell) campaign in India has enrolled the help of popular film actors to encourage people to intervene in instances of domestic violence in their neighbourhood simply by ringing the doorbell.

In 1989, a man walked into the École Polytechnique University in Montreal and killed 14 of his female classmates. The massacre gave rise to several movements that focused on addressing men's violent behaviour towards women, such as the White Ribbon Campaign, which was set up in 1991 and led to initiatives in over 65 countries.

"One of the advantages of the White Ribbon model is that it… can be started anywhere, with minimal resources. All it needs are a group of men dedicated to eradicating gender-based violence, understanding the role and responsibility we have as men… and a willingness to redefine the harmful violent aspects of masculinity that are at the heart of so much violence," Todd Minerson, the Executive Director, wrote in an email to IRIN.

The campaign also has over 400 partners in a global alliance called MenEngage. "Violence is a universal problem, not a cultural one," he says. "Rapid economic change and transition can bring about challenging conditions where we sometimes see the greatest amount of gender-based violence. A recent WHO study indicates 1 in 3 women globally will experience an act of physical or sexual violence in their lifetime.

"Even in… Canada, we have a tragedy of over 600 murdered or missing aboriginal women, whose cases remain largely unsolved… we often start with asking men about their own experience with violence, as a victim and also as a perpetrator. When men can open up about that, it is the first step toward developing empathy, and empathy is the first step towards compassion," says Minerson.

Susan Celia Swan, the executive director V-Day, believes awareness is increasing. Their campaign, One Billion Rising, launched on the 15th anniversary of V-Day in September 2012, was observed in over 200 countries in 2013. "[W]e are… putting out a call to end the rampant impunity that prevails globally… Activists in over 100 countries have signed up for the 2014 campaign to rise outside court houses, police stations, government offices, school administration buildings, work places, sites of environmental injustice, military courts, embassies, places of worship or other public spaces, for justice."

Actress Wilson says the movement has grown from creating awareness to considering multi-sectoral approaches to deal with root causes, such as poverty eradication, to empower women.

"Community-based initiatives are key in combating conflict-related sexual violence," says Special Representative Bangura. "They do everything from providing medical services to teaching livelihood skills... It is important that they have not only financial assistance, but also the proper legal support to guarantee a safe space within which to operate and provide crucial services."