As part of the 16 day campaign (25 Nov – 10 Dec) for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, Biplabi Shrestha (Programme Manager, Building New Constituencies for SRHR) shares her thoughts and opinions on the culture of victim-blaming and how it affects women’s agency and confidence in reporting incidents of gender-based violence.
We recently witnessed our newsfeed flooded with women disclosing their experience of sexual violence as part of #metoo, a campaign that ruled over social media for several days. It was empowering on one hand to see women speaking up and showing solidarity but also disturbing on the other to wake up to enormous volumes of stories of sexual violence and abuse at the same time. However, the number did not come as a surprise to many of us. It reflected an outrageous fact that at least 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced sexual and gender based violence in their lifetime.
It takes a lot of courage to speak about one’s own experience of sexual violence, especially knowing what she is subjecting herself to in discussing such matters in the public sphere. Some of my friends who chose not to participate in #metoo expressed their fear of backlashes, especially those that comes not from strangers, but from the people who have known them forever. This fear originates from the entrenched victim blaming culture we are mired in, thanks to a deep-rooted patriarchy that is omnipresent in the societies we live in, cultures we practice, systems and values that our leaders and decision makers are guided by. Patriarchy reinforces gender binary that privileges men (though men are not a homogenous group and that patriarchy gives more power to certain men over others) over women. Within the institution of patriarchy women’s choices and decisions about their bodies and lives are restricted. Women are conditioned to feel humiliated and ashamed for expressing themselves in any form, giving way to a culture of victim blaming that puts the onus of the abuse on the women instead of the perpetrators.
The amount of scrutiny and speculations that a woman or girl goes through for sexual violence perpetrated against them are attempts to strip them off their agency and dignity to push them back to the same space from which they braved to break through. They are questioned for the attire they were (or weren’t) wearing, places they were at, people they were with. The blame lands even harder on women if they wear an attire at a specific time and place that society disapproves of; this force many of them to adopt silence, rather than pursuing justice. Women have shared experiences of reliving the trauma during prosecution processes as they face insensitive questions delivered in accusatory tones. And if by any chance their allegations are proven – unsurprisingly – the perpetrators are likely to get away with minimum charges as our policies and societal values are guided by patriarchal narratives such as “boys will be boys”. Such commonly and nonchalantly used rhetoric – including sexist jokes on rape that people are all too ready to laugh at – normalises sexual violence, provides impunity to the perpetrators and allows the vicious cycle to continue.
Sexual violence or exploitation is less about sex or sexual desires, and more about position of power that patriarchy allows boys to assume in many of our societies. Just by virtue of being born as a male, boys are considered the power holders and that they make decisions not just for themselves but also for the women in their families and societies. The misogyny that the institution of patriarchy espouses reduce women to nothing more than a sex object, a reproductive organ, enabling men to feel entitled to abuse them if they express any sign of agency and dissent. The most egregious example happened in India, where one of the perpetrators of the infamous Delhi gang rape case in 2012 unapologetically said that the girl would not have suffered the consequence had she not fought back while she was being raped. Some so called leaders didn’t hesitate to question the girl for being out of the house late night and therefore blaming her for the “consequence”.
Victim blaming has long been recognised as a major push back for women’s agency to speak out about their experience of violence, especially if it is sexual violence. Victim blaming sends a message that has rippling consequences, warning women who dare to dream, dare to break the silence; victim blaming is a statement that says, “this is what awaits you for having the courage to believe you can be equal to men.” It enforces self-policing of their own behaviour, for fear of being the target of such violence.
However, the discourse on this culture of silence is yet to be at the centre stage despite many feminist leaders and academics having spoken, written about and discussed it. These voices have consistently been silenced systemically. While social media – which is also a potential site that perpetuates misogyny and culture of violence – has provided a platform for people to voice their opinions through ad-hoc writings, occasional discussions and campaigns, it is far from sufficient to address this issue. Discourse against victim blaming should be brought to the mainstream and with it the core problems of inequality and oppression.
Despite increasing demands for a shift of focus from blaming the victims to prosecuting the perpetrators proper, this awareness has not been reflected yet in the attitudes of law enforcers and the general public at large. This will require an overhaul in society’s attitude towards women’s place both in political and public spheres, and their bodily integrity and autonomy including sexual and reproductive rights (SRR). Until then, even with existing legal tools, the attitudes of the law enforcers and judiciaries will continue to discourage women from accessing justice.
We need to persevere in the face of adversities that seeks to silence women to preserve the status quo; how many more incidents will we have to endure until we make the general population realize – perhaps all too late – that violence against women is not to be looked at on a per-case basis, but rather as part of a systemic patriarchal discourse?
As we observe the International day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and 16 days of activism against gender based violence, let us commit to continue questioning and calling out patriarchy. It’s certainly not easy to break this mould that have existed since time immemorial. However, it is not impossible if we gain support from every segment of our societies and institutions. For some, especially men, it may mean stepping out of their comfort zone and letting go of their privileges to address issues that are threatening to drag everything that women’s rights movement has gained back into archaic, oppressive times. We should be rest assured that the effort to leave no one behind is ultimately worth it for a sustainable peace for all.
 Delhi gangrape: What happened on December 6, 2012 and status of the case, http://www.news18.com/news/india/delhi-gangrape-what-happened-on-december-16-2012-and-status-of-the-case-730141.html