When it comes to violence against women, where do we place the blame?
The horrific story of a young Indian woman who last month was gang-raped and died, two weeks later, of her injuries, has caused worldwide outrage and protest at both the extent of sexual violence against women, and the way that authorities and justice systems are dealing with it. This week, five men have been charged with abduction, gang rape, and murder, in a hearing held behind closed doors thanks to the attention the case has received.
In a country where statistics show a rape is reported every 20 minutes, the events of the past few weeks have prompted the Indian government to promise that fast-track courts specifically for crimes against women, such as rape, will be set up so that investigations can be dealt with as quickly as possible. It’s hoped that this will improve the current situation, but Indian women have also been working hard to emphasise the need for a response that prioritises the prevention of future incidents too.
The threat of sexual violence affects the entire existence of women, meaning that they cannot participate fully in society as it engenders inequality and fear. As commentators have written about their views on the Delhi case, there has been a tendency from some quarters to place the blame on Indian culture and the way Indian men behave towards women. The implication has been more obvious in some articles than others: extreme violence against women is a problem in those countries because that’s how things are there.
Unfortunately there’s a problem with this narrative. Last year four men were jailed in France for the brutal gang-rape of teenage girls in a case that shocked the nation and was described as “a judicial shipwreck”. Next month, two high school football stars from Steubenville, Ohio, will stand trial accused of the rape of a 16-year-old girl in a case that has seen hackers get involved to claim that many other young men were involved, that onlookers did nothing to help the victim, and that those involved used social media to post vile remarks about her. In short, these cases are not unusual. They are not isolated.
The government’s Action Plan on Violence Against Women and Girls stated that in 2010-2011 in this country, around 80,000 women were raped and 400,000 women were sexually assaulted. It was in Britain that an Amnesty International poll found that a third of people would say a woman acting flirtatiously was partly or completely to blame for her rape, while a quarter felt the same about a woman wearing revealing clothes.
When we look at this it is impossible to talk of ‘India’s rape culture’ as if more ‘forward-looking’ countries don’t have such a problem. Rape culture – that is, a system of beliefs that tolerate and excuse violence against women – is global. Rape is not confined to certain places and situations. Worldwide, societies find ways to blame victims and let perpetrators get away with it. Our media has become adept at influencing public opinion through disproportionate reporting of false accusations, to the extent that ‘women who cry rape’ are often the first thing mentioned in discussion about the issue, despite the fact that it’s estimated the rate of false accusation is no higher than for other crimes (around two per cent). We tend to see rapists as evil monsters lurking in dark alleys, not friends, boyfriends, husbands, fathers – even though the majority of rapes are carried out by someone known to the victim.
It’s not just in India, therefore, that sexual violence stops women from fully participating in society. Rape culture has led to women feeling reluctant to speak out about what has happened to them for fear of being dismissed or disbelieved. In churches too, violence against women is an uncomfortable and often taboo subject despite the fact that it clearly affects Christian women as much as anyone else. The culture of ‘purity’ so often promoted can create unhealthy attitudes about sex and power that do a lot of harm.
What does this tell us? It should underline that when we stand with Indian women in speaking out about the injustices happening there, we should be standing with women all over the world and closer to home too, saying that rape culture must end – and that we must try to tackle the myths and inequalities that keep it in place. It should underline that we can’t just talk about harsh sentences and justice being done – we need to have conversations about attitudes and societal norms to tackle sexual violence before it happens. Violence against women is the result of warped attitudes about power and about gender. It’s time to show that another way – a better way – is possible.
Check out Restored for some good church-focused resources and information about ending violence against women and restoring relationships.