Rape Culture is Universal*

*Trigger warning: rape, rape culture, violence against women, glamorization of rape culture

Rape Culture. It’s everywhere. It’s in the way we speak, the way we walk. The ways we expect things of one another and excuse one another. It’s in how we look at the world, how we assign order to chaos, how we explain away inexcusable things.

The prevalence of rape culture is disturbing, it’s also nothing new. Nor are glamorized representations of assault in the media and in movies. None of it is okay, and yet (sadly) I’m rarely surprised when I stumble across victim-blaming, perpetrator-excusing specimens in our “modern” everyday lives. I’m always outraged, but these days “surprised” is not at the top of my platter of emotions.

Two things shook that up for me this week.

nhs rape posterThe first is a poster from the UK’s National Health Service. This victim-blaming poster was initially published in 2006. It reads “One in three reported rapes happens when the victim has been drinking.” Hmm. Not very consistent with the NHS’s (actually helpful and appropriate) guidelines regarding support for survivors of sexual assault: “If you have been sexually assaulted, remember that it wasn’t your fault. It doesn’t matter what you were wearing, where you were or whether you had been drinking. A sexual assault is always the fault of the perpetrator.” This last bit is spot on, but the poster, which ran as a part of the NHS’s 2005-2007 “Know Your Limits” campaign, plops blame squarely on the survivor’s shoulders. Not cool, NHS. A change.org petition has garnered over 100,000 signatures, but the government insists that it will not apologize. Thankfully, a blogger fixed the poster to a much more useful message:

rape poster fixed

Well done blogger friend, well done.

The second appalling slice of rape culture that came to my attention this week was a photo shoot done by Indian fashion photographer Raj Shetye. The shoot glamorizes a woman being leered at and assaulted by several men on a bus. That’s right, on a bus. 

rape_photoshoot_in_2998114bIn 2012 a female student was brutally gang raped after being lured onto a bus by several men. She died 13 days later in the hospital from her injuries. The incident caused a deserving uproar throughout India and the world and more and more attention has been focused on the status of women in India. Apparently Mr. Shetye thought that a bus assault would make for some cool symbolism, saying that “The aim is purely to create art that will garner public opinion about issues that concern women” and that the fashion designers were not credited because the shoot was not for commercial gain.

Personally, I’m with Nirmala Samant, chairwoman of the National Commission for Women, who told Agence France-Presse: “Any person with common sense will understand this is nothing but glorifying of violence.” If Mr. Shetye’s aim truly was to lend a voice to women through the medium he “knows best,” then perhaps a photo essay with consenting survivors would be more meaningful. Or perhaps lending his talents to domestic violence shelters. Or even offering to partner with local and regional governments to create rape prevention posters. I’ve seen the power of photography through my work with #GIRLWITHABOOK, and I wish that Mr. Shetye had chosen to use his talents in a way that moved the conversation forward towards preventing assault and supporting survivors.

That’s rape culture for you. It’s everywhere, regardless of your nationality, religion, or age, rape culture is pervasive. It’s so pervasive, that there are nearly always opportunities to fight it. Pay attention to your speech. Pay attention to what your family and coworkers say about violence. Pay attention to what children hear and teach them consent from an early age. Consent knows no gender, and respect is fundamental. These are powerful ways to change the conversation, which changes attitudes, which changes behavior.

After all, the only way to prevent rape is for people to choose not to rape other people.

 

Stand Up for Vulnerable Girls

Girl Summit.

1 in 7 girls in the global south will marry before the age of 18. That’s 14 million girls a year whose education will be cut short. Whose health will be put at a much higher risk. Who will not realize their full potential because they did not experience a full childhood.

I think about these data points a lot. Girls who are pregnant below the age of 15 are 5 times more likely to die in childbirth or from pregnancy related complications than women in their 20s. Five times. Under 15 years old. Babies having babies and dying because of it. I think about this often. But it’s not enough to linger on globally extrapolated abstractions. The numbers are important, but so are the stories.

Today, while officials meet in the UK to discuss (and theoretically commit to) ending child and forced marriages and female genital mutilation within this generation, let us turn our attention to Syrian refugees scattered throughout Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq. Child marriage is becoming commonplace in refugee camps and it’s reeking havoc on the region’s already vulnerable girls.

[Trigger warning: rape]

Students carry their chairs into a UNICEF run school in Zaatari Camp near Irbid, Jordan. Photo credit: http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2013/02/03/264213.html

Students carry their chairs into a UNICEF run school in Zaatari Camp near Irbid, Jordan. Photo credit: http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2013/02/03/264213.html

In Jordan, 1 out of 3 registered marriages among Syrian refugees between January and March 2014 involved children, and 48 percent of child marriages were between a girl and a man at least 10 years older than her.

Families say that the security situation in refugee camps makes their daughters vulnerable: men and teenage boys openly leer at girls in tents and shacks, there is no privacy, and waves of rape attacks scare families into marrying their daughters off. Single girls are perceived as targets for rape more so than married girls. We, also, cannot ignore the economic situation for refugees that makes child marriage seem like a more reasonable (?) option for desperate families.

Many girls are married to local men, and also men from the Gulf. These men essentially go “shopping” for brides in the refugee camps and offer families a “bride price.” Now, a little religion lesson for those of you less familiar with Islamic law and marriage. Money and gifts exchanged at the time of marriage are traditionally negotiated between the two families and are supposed to serve as financial assurance (and indeed, insurance) for the bride. To give her some financial autonomy and stability in the event of divorce or the husband’s death. However, in these dire situations of child marriage in refugee camps, the money goes to the bride’s family.

Families are financially desperate. They have already been through hell, and their futures are uncertain, unstable, and largely dependent upon social services from the UN and other relief agencies. Add the fear and severe cultural stigma of rape and assault and you have a storm ripe for desperate “solutions.”

In an effort to protect their daughters from rape, refugee families, who love their daughters and are scared, are arranging marriages between their young teenaged daughters and much older men. My thought: Is this not rape in and of itself? Forced marriages between girls who cannot legally or emotionally consent to sexual relationships, and who lack the emotional maturity and skill set to assert themselves within the relationship, to men who are typically much older, are acts of assault. Forced marriage is abuse. Removing girls from school is abuse. Placing them into relationships with an unequal power dynamic is abuse.

As with most things, there are no easy or one-stop-shop solutions. Rape and assault in the camps must be addressed. Security must be a priority for the agencies administering the camps. Girls who are married need to be reached with social services (even more difficult for those who marry local or foreign men and move out of the camps). And finally, the UN should incentivize school attendance for all children, making school attendance just as valuable as a marriage.

For we all know: education (especially for girls) pays dividends and dividends beyond the initial investment. It’s worth it. We need to let our girls learn, and we need to let them be girls.

 

Further Reading:

http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/jul/16/child-marriage-syria-refugees-jordan

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/17/syrian-mothers-child-brides

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/06/syrian-women-vie-few-jobs-lebanon-2014628103045288646.html

 

By Olivia Curl, contributor and #GIRLWITHABOOK cofounder

 

Malala: (One of) Our Favorite Heroine(s)!

This week, #GIRLWITHABOOK is all about preparing for Malala’s 16th birthday and speech at the UN on Friday!

Each day this week we are focusing on a different theme related to supporting girls around the world in their quest for an education. Monday was “All About Education” and today we are featuring “Favorite Heroines, Real and Fictional!”

malala

This week is part of a massive international effort to bring education smack dab in the center of international agenda setters and policy makers. 57 million primary school children out of school is 57 million too many. Goal number two of the millennium development goals (MDGs), universal primary education could very well be the silver bullet that heralds in the other goals. Want to reduce maternal and child mortality? Educate girls about child marriage and their rights (and educate boys about consent and respect). Want to slash HIV infection rates? Educate children about sexual health, contraception, and healthy behavior. Think eradicating extreme poverty and hunger is important? Primary education, simply the ability to read and write, boosts economic returns to unimaginable heights. Promoting gender equality and empowering women? Yeah, you need educated girls and boys for that too. Think folks should have sustainable access to clean water sources? Educate children from an early age on sanitation, hand washing, and identifying safe and unsafe water. Education permeates every corner of the MDGs.

Sadly, many MDGs are falling short of their goals, some troublingly so. But with this international push, maybe we can completely achieve one of the goals. Maybe we can get every primary school child in a classroom, with a teacher, by the end of 2015.

Thanks to Malala’s perseverance, determination, and leadership, international attention is re-focusing on getting 57 million out-of-school children into primary classrooms by 2015. It’s a lofty goal, maybe even improbable or naive, but Malala has shown us that the improbable is possible, and that to keep fighting is the only way forward.

 

Stay with #GIRLWITHABOOK the rest of this week for our Birthday Bash, tweet at us using the hashtag #birthdaybash4malala, and don’t forget to send in photos of YOU wishing Malala a happy birthday, and pledging to stand with her as she speaks at the UN on her very special 16th birthday.

Photos may be emailed to girlwithabookmovement@gmail.com or messaged to us through facebook.

There’s Nothing Moral About It

The past couple of weeks we’ve been hearing a lot about the enormous up-tick in the number of women and girls imprisoned for so-called “moral crimes” in Afghanistan. Well, at least I’ve been hearing a lot about it, but then again I’m a gender-security-development nerd. If your level of nerdom doesn’t quite cover the same issue areas as me, or if you don’t have a job where you’re required to look up news about women and conflict everyday, let me bring you briefly up to speed:

An Afghan female prisoner outside her cell at Badam Bagh, Afghanistan's central women's prison, in Kabul. Via Human Right's Watch

An Afghan female prisoner outside her cell at Badam Bagh, Afghanistan’s central women’s prison, in Kabul. Via Human Right’s Watch

Via presidential decree in 2009, President Karzai put a violence against women bill on Afghanistan’s books, the first such law of its kind in Afghanistan since ever. This law defines rape for the first time in Afghanistan’s history, and also for the first time (there are a lot of firsts in this bill) criminalizes marital rape. It has been the main tool that has allowed activists and lawyers to prosecute crimes against women and girls, including forced marriage and forced prostitution, domestic violence, etc. All good things.

Buuut. Nothing is ever that simple, especially when you’re talking about a country that has seen consistent wars and invasions by multiple foreign forces for the past 3 (approaching 4) decades.

Women’s rights activists and lawmakers wanted to bring the bill–actually it’s The Law for the Elimination of Violence Against Women but that’s quite long– to a full debate and vote in Afghan’s parliament, concerned that if it remained a presidential decree a future president may overturn the bill and then Afghan women would be left with literally no safe-guards against abuse. However others (including some activists and lawyers) worried that a full debate could be detrimental to the integrity of the bill and, whelp, that’s pretty much what happened.

Less than twenty minutes into the “debate” (if we want to generously call it that) the speaker of Afghanistan’s lower parliament stopped the debate while particularly conservative (…don’t you hate that “conservative” is now so-often synonymous with sexist/racist/anti-woman/discriminatory/etc opinions under the guise of some broader and co-opted identity like religion? So frustrating…) PMs ranted and raved that the law was un-Islamic and had no place in Afghanistan. Sometime Lena and I will get into how the anti-Islam argument is ridiculous using actual cited passages from the Qur’an and historical examples from the Islamic tradition, but in the meantime just trust me: protecting women is not anti-Islam.

This disturbing display of anti-woman uproar coincides with a Human Rights Watch alert on the alarming increase in women and girls jailed for “moral” crimes. Clarification: “moral” crimes in this conversation usually refers to women and girls who are imprisoned for fleeing abuse, forced prostitution, forced marriage, and a bunch of other things one would typically expect the perpetrators to be punished for, not the victims. The number of women and girls imprisoned for such crimes has increased 50 percent in just 18 months from 400 to 600. Several analysts and researchers fear that the imprisonment rates are reflective of growing “conservative” (there’s that word again!) confidence as the ISAF withdrawal in 2014 approaches. Putting the debate on foreign presence in Afghanistan aside, looking at where women’s rights are headed after international withdrawal is crucial to the human rights landscape of Afghanistan and garnering international support for our Afghan sisters as they lead the charge for their rights. We need to listen to these women. We also need to remember that just because “the war” is officially “ending” in 2014, that doesn’t mean that things are super hunky-dory for all of Afghanistan. Troop withdrawal may mean a serious backslide down the human rights slope for Afghan women.

While most of us can’t do anything particularly active or meaningful, from our computers we can tweet, talk, and write about Afghanistan and keep our eye on the situation there, whether or not there is troop presence. A lot of people have said that 90 percent of success is showing up. Well, in this case, “showing up” can just mean paying attention, and paying attention really means listening to the Afghan women leading the way.

Read HRW’s Alert here