Are Victims Ever to Blame?

The answer is absolutely not.

The other day, a group of friends and I were discussing a rape situation and one of them used the phrase: “well, she is so stupid, why did she go out to dinner with him?” I sat there, completely stunned by her words.

After her statement, I started wondering why a privileged, educated, well-traveled 27-year-old female would instantly blame the victim and justify an act of rape?

I realized that maybe it is not entirely her fault. We have been raised in a culture where sexual violence is frequent and rape excused and normalized by society and media. Our society perpetrates a ‘rape culture’ within which women are taught to avoid getting raped instead of men being taught not to rape. This is outrageous and we all should be scandalized by it.

Victims are often seen as just as guilty as – or even more guilty than – abusers. I acknowledge here that men are also vulnerable to sexual abuse, but in this particular moment I am focusing on sexual violence against women.

FACT: Sexual assault is NEVER the victim’s fault.

Sexual assault is a violent attack on an individual, not a spontaneous crime of sexual passion. No one ‘asks for’ or deserves this type of attack.

Apart from the social and mental implications of victim blaming on an individual, it also makes it harder for other victims to come forward and report their assaults.

This is a huge issue, and a great deal of victim blaming comes from friends and family. I urge you to think again before you contribute to one of the biggest challenges we face as women: justice for perpetrators.

Many of the things we hear or read about rape involves a stranger or a family member assaulting their victim. But what about when your partner is the one assaulting you? Rape within relationships and marriages is extremely common and victim blaming is even more prevalent – there’s a thought that ‘she must have done something wrong for him to act like that’. Between 10 and 14% of married women will be raped at some point during their marriages. 

We are used to living in a society where a husband or boyfriend has the right to do anything. So why does society still blame victims? Maia Szalavitz explains a psychological reason: “The “just-world bias” happens because our brains crave predictability, and as such, we tend to blame victims of unfairness rather than reject the comforting worldview suggesting that good will be rewarded and evil punished.” 

Personally, I am curious as to how most research seems to prefer the word “assault” or “violence” to “rape”. This is such an important issue, and it should be called by its name. A non-consensual sexual relation is rape, and I think that switching the words only makes the problem seem less prevalent, or less valid, than it is.

How can we all help to end ‘rape culture’? 

  • Always take a rape or sexual assault accusation seriously
  • Never make assumptions
  • If someone talks to you, support them to come forward
  • Speak up when women’s bodies are objectified
  • Speak your mind when someone jokes about touching or sex without consent
  • Stop asking what the victim was wearing or whether she’d been drinking alcohol
  • Bring this conversation to the table with the women and men in your lives

We need to help eliminate the belief that these conversations are too uncomfortable. Start speaking up.

To End Violence, We Must Build #CitiesforWomen

In the fight to end violence against women and girls, no real progress can be made without considering the role of the urban environment. Dark streets, unprotected public toilets, parking lots and mass transit are breeding grounds for violence. A placard we saw at a protest against femicide in Latin America a few years ago sums it up: “Walking home, I want to feel free, not brave.”

Since last fall, women in the United States have been speaking up as never before on the subject of violence, harassment, and abuse – at home, at work, in daily life. If #TimesUp for gender-based, on-the-job abuse, #TimesUp too for cities that fail to consider the daily dangers faced by half of their community.

A Global Problem
  • 2014 Reuters survey of 16 major cities worldwide found that women in Latin American cities suffered the highest rates of harassment, with about 6 in 10 women experiencing physical harassment on public transport. Additionally, 64% of women in Mexico City said they’d been groped or physically harassed on public transport.
  • In a 2009 UN Women survey in Delhi, 95% of women said their mobility was limited by fear of harassment in public places.
  • In a Kenyan survey from Women’s Empowerment Link, more than half of the 381 women interviewed in 2017 said they’d experienced gender-based violence while using public transport.
  • According to the World Bank-led partnership, Sustainable Mobility For All, 53% of women in developed countries feel “unsafe” or “very unsafe” waiting on a railway platform after dark.

By 2030, more than 60% of the world’s population will live in urban areas. With women representing more than half the world’s population, cities need to improve their urban infrastructure to discourage harassment and abuse.

A great deal of danger could be eliminated with more inclusive city planning and the creation of infrastructure sensitive to the needs of women and girls – better street lighting and broader streets, fewer dead-end alleys, safer public toilets. Safer cities enable every individual to move through their day without fear and with unfettered access to social, economic, political, cultural, and educational opportunities.

Photo Credit: Sydney Rubin

We must all do whatever it takes to create cities where women and girls can lead healthy, prosperous, and fulfilling lives, in dignity and peace. It will take cooperation and commitment from government at every level, multi-lateral institutions of all kinds, and non-governmental groups such as WomenStrong International.

How WomenStrong Helps

Members of the WomenStrong Consortium are supporting women and girls in a number of effective ways as they seek to build lives free from violence.

  • With our partner DHAN Foundation in Madurai, India – a city with a population of 1.5 million – we have established a Micro-Justice Clinic to teach women their rights, arm them with the resources they need to fight injustice and stand up for themselves. These women, who also are members of micro-finance self-help groups, discover that economic empowerment gives them confidence and the ability to press local officials to address some of the root causes of gender-based violence, including unsafe infrastructure.
  • Women’s Health to Wealth (WHW) in Kumasi, Ghana – population well over 2 million – works with women who rent stalls in the Bantama Market and who had been pressing local officials for years to install lighting and pave market alleyways so they could safely transport their wares at dawn and dusk. With WomenStrong’s support, women working with WHW struck a bargain with a local official, agreeing to clean the market in exchange for the government paving and lighting the market. The paving was completed, but the lighting was not, so WHW continue to press the market manager. Their concerns have spurred construction of a new, safe, enclosed market structure where plenty of lighting is promised.
  • In the Manyatta slums of Kisumu, Kenya, Alice Visionary Foundation Project (AVFP) has run a multi-year program on Positive Discipline in schools to help create environments where girls can learn, prosper and grow. Schools should be places of safety for young girls but are often places of harassment, verbal and physical abuse, and rape, by male students and even teachers. AVFP works with school administrators, teachers, parents, public officials and communities to help keep girls in school and flourishing in the face of the massive challenges of poverty.
  • WomenStrong Member H.O.P.E. in Borgne, Haiti – located in a commune with a population of under 100,000 – supports the work of local women who have formed a group to confront domestic violence, helping victims and filling the gap left by a lack of law enforcement. H.O.P.E. also runs clubs for adolescent girls, similar to those at the other WomenStrong sites, teaching girls their rights, building confidence, and providing safe spaces where girls can build friendships, gain mentors, and create a network of support.

Women and girls at all our sites demonstrate every day that they have the determination, smarts and willingness to stand up for their right to be free from violence. It is now up to the rest of us to provide the support they deserve and need by building #CitiesforWomen.

Women are Claiming Back the Streets of Mexico

Three months ago, I was sexually harassed on the street near my university campus. For several blocks, a man followed me as he tried to start a conversation at a very uncomfortable distance with invasive questions. After he unabashedly commented on my looks, I turned around to ask him whether he knew that what he was doing was street harassment. He told me I was overreacting as he was “only complimenting” me.

After that, things got worse. He continued following me, but he wasn’t calling me pretty anymore. Instead, he was thoroughly describing what he would do to me if we were alone. Some people stared at us. I’m sure some of them heard his words or saw my tears. But they did nothing.

When I told my story very few were surprised. In fact, many put the blame on me for walking on my own. When I asked about the possibility of checking CCTV footage from nearby stores, they called me dramatic. According to them, it wasn’t that big a deal. But it was.

Our authorities have made previous unsuccessful attempts to take a stand against the growing rate of gender-based violence in Mexico. However, in February this year the House of Representatives unanimously categorized street harassment as a felony in accordance with the General Law for Women’s Access to a Life Without Violence. It’s currently waiting for the Senate’s approval to come into force.

In 2017, Mexico City – ranked sixth worst megacity for women in the world – hosted UN Women’s global forum on safe cities for women and girls. Mexico City’s government has also gradually invested more in the subway’s ‘pink cars‘ program and launched the app ‘ViveSegura’ so that women can report where they’ve been victims of sexual violence in order to map risk-areas.

And so although the authorities are taking some action, it is still not enough. It’s important to keep in mind that Mexico City has a privilege that no other Mexican city has: it’s the capital, and therefore, it’s the center of attention. It’s one of the few cities in the country, if not the only one, that has studies on both sexual harassment and street harassment.

I believe part of the problem is that sexual violence is normalized to the point that it seems like an intrinsic way of thinking among many Mexicans. The ease with which perpetrators can commit these crimes is the result of a culture of normalization that includes victim blaming and telling women to fear public space because we are not safe there.

So, what’s missing when it comes to street harassment?

“I think authorities are trying to stop street harassment. But a real change would require a major structural change, and no one is doing it,” said Ana Pandal, co-creator of Organización Genera, a Puebla-based association that seeks to raise awareness of gender-based violence in Mexico. “We must focus on letting people know what street harassment is as well to ensure that both our society and authorities fully reject it.”

With this in mind, they launched the initiative #YoNoAcosoYoDenuncioYDefiendo (#IDontHarassIReportAndSupport). “We’re trying to support victims and to claim back public spaces. They’re not alone and their voices matter. We also want to encourage privileged groups to stop normalizing street harassment and to create a society of active bystanders who won’t remain silent,” added Sara Achik, co-creator of Organización Genera.

“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” Credit: Sara Achik

The way the campaign works is very simple. After creating a network in a city, the group can access files on Genera’s website where they will find stickers of the campaign’s logo and a girl walking confidently (designed by Mexican artist Valeria Chairez), as well as pamphlets that define and explain street harassment. The members of the group then put these stickers in places where women feel unsafe and post pictures on social media using the hashtags. The goal is to show that they’re not afraid and that public spaces are for everyone who wants to make use of them.

I walked by myself on the street where I was sexually harassed so that I could put up these stickers. I felt no fear. I stopped hearing the words of my harasser. All I could hear was a sentence in my head that repeated itself like a mantra: “the streets are ours”.

Why I Need Tori Amos

Why do I need Tori Amos right now?

Because I just can’t handle it all on my own. Roy Moore. Al Franken. The President of the United States. Hollywood. Brock Turner appealing his sexual assault conviction.

Living in a perpetually heightened state of anxiety – and having my friends share that anxiety because #MeToo inevitably brings up something for everyone. Having good men tell me they’re “shocked” that their friends, colleagues and family sexually harass and assault women – and finding out that some of the good men I know never were good men after all.

When I began working for girls’ rights I knew it would be tough. But I felt that I could do the work with my spirit intact because the emotional distress was softened in a landscape of continual progress. I was part of the good fight, and we were winning.

But what happens when it feels like progress is not only halting, but reversing? What happens when I wake up every morning to a fresh new misogynist hell? When I’m bombarded by news and blogs and conversations that reveal and excuse another case of sexual violence? When I feel like my life’s work is being trampled by cultural regression to a time when we simply accept that men assault women?

I plough forward relentlessly. I work harder, returning to my work after my kids are in bed. I put feelings on hold, muting emotion in the moment because that’s the most effective way to operate in a crisis.

And I listen to a lot of Tori Amos.

Since I was 18, Tori’s music has been just short of everything to me (hint: I’m not a natural redhead). It’s self-care. It’s a respite. Depending on the song it can be exciting or sobering, and it’s always reaffirming and recharging.

I was drawn to how she rocks out the piano and I fell in love with the feminine stream of consciousness she professes in heartbreakingly beautiful metaphors. In some songs she explores feminine archetypes and has conversations with characters like Persephone, a goddess in Greek mythology who was abducted and taken to the underworld. For someone who works with child brides, this has been a call to action, but now this metaphor is becoming more and more personal. On her new album, Native Invader, Tori imagines Persephone returning from this underworld:

“which taught you can’t escape anguish

But how to live with it

Then reports from the robins

Form in you an inner radiance

It’s as if they fused with a spirit you knew

Who’s come back again”

And boom, she just spat out a woman’s life in one song. And it’s not just about Persephone, but about me, too. And about #MeToo.

Right now Tori’s music is helping me process our culture as I struggle to continue my work with girls. She reminds me that it’s OK to feel angry and heartbroken and that we can’t always understand conflict. She also reminds me that pain does find a resolution because “one story’s end seeds another to begin.” And through her activism – her 23 years campaigning for US sexual assault helpline RAINN – I see her actively seeking out resolutions.

On her recent tour, Tori opened many of her concerts with her song, ‘Iieee’. To me, it’s always been a sultry song that evokes sex and male aggression and, like much of her music, mixes flirtation with vexation. When I saw her in concert this fall, I wasn’t sure how I would interpret the song that night and in this context, as her songs always prompt individual and quite visceral reactions.

Then there she was, opening the show with her red hair, funky glasses and dizzyingly high heels. When she wailed that “we scream in cathedrals,” I thought of #MeToo. When she then threw herself back as she cried out “why does there gotta be a sacrifice,” I thought of the tremendous loss of joy and dignity that so many of us are experiencing.

And then she tossed her red hair behind her shoulder and turned toward the audience in defiance as if to say, “we’re stronger than this.”

And we are.

For more information on navigating these potentially triggering times, read RAINN’s tips for survivors on consuming media.