The declaration that “selfie,” a photo taken of oneself usually with a mobile device and often posted on a social media site, was the word of the year by the Oxford English Dictionary garnered a lot of press attention last week. But a far more important phrase became part of our conversations in the last year, a truly despicable turn of phrase to describe a truly despicable state of being: “rape culture.”
The phrase rape culture is most often applied to India, where a series of brutal gang rapes and murders has caught worldwide attention and galvanized at least some response in Mumbai. Rape culture is more than just a high incidence of sexual assaults. It describes a whole culture where rape is trivialized, victims are blamed and justice is often deferred. It exists in India, but not solely in India.
Writing from Mumbai, Lackshmi Chaudhry describes the situation this way: “The (ugly) reality is that while rape may be considered a crime, we live in a culture where sexual harassment is so routine as to be unremarkable. … We all live with a debilitating sense of being under constant siege, an ever-present anxiety that a lewd comment or casual grope may lead to a full-on assault; the nagging worry that this auto or cab or bus driver may turn out to be the wrong one; the paranoia triggered by a slowly circling car filled with men. This, this is the price of being a woman in India. And it is paid by all of us, irrespective of colour, caste or class.”
India also is among the many countries where acid attacks against women are notable. Acid attacks, which include both splashing or dousing women in acid and forcing women to drink acid, take advantage of a cheap, available instrument of crime. They often leave women permanently disabled and disfigured, isolated and ashamed. StopAcidAttacks.org, an organization based in Mumbai, seeks full redress for victims. The site defines the problem this way: “A survivor of an acid attack requires immediate medical, financial and psychological support on human grounds. But the judicial procedures in this country do not assure any such intervention or help to the survivor until a court announces so.”
Forced marriages, child marriages, dowry violence, other forms of domestic violence, human trafficking: These also are part of life in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh — and plenty of other places closer to home.
Violence against women in foreign countries, especially when we can give it a name like “rape culture” or “dowry violence,” can be easier to spot and point to than violence in our own country. But it’s here. Globally it’s estimated one woman in three will experience gender-based violence; one woman in four in the United States will experience domestic abuse. Both statistics probably are low and represent under-reporting. We don’t see many acid attacks here, but we know that for women experiencing domestic violence, a gun in the house increases the risk of murder by an intimate partnered by 272 percent. Whatever weapon is cheap and easy will lead to the same crime.
Nov. 25 is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the kick-off of the 2013 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. Women nationally and internationally will be holding events to draw attention to the issues of gender violence.
Why a day singling out women?
The reasons are many because the ways of violating women are many. Economic dependence and exploitation mark women for violence as do cultural norms and physical strength.
The 16 Days end on Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day. They act as a yoke between the two days to remind us all that women’s rights truly are human rights.
We look forward to the time when these 16 days are cause for celebration, not activism.
This editorial was originally publised in the Southwest Times Record in Fort Smith.