Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

Rape is everywhere and taken seriously nowhere

We don't know the name of the 23-year-old student who was raped and killed on a city bus in Delhi. We do know that, after getting on a bus home after watching a film with a friend, she was tortured so badly that she lost her intestines.

The death of a woman popularly named Damini - 'lightning' in Hindi - has provoked thousands to take to India's streets, furious at endemic and unchecked violence against women.

But, in the West, Damini's death has triggered a different response: a sense that this is an Indian-specific problem. It is an assumption as wrong as it is dangerous.

Rape and sexual violence against women are endemic everywhere. Shocked by what happened in India? Take a look at France, that prosperous bastion of European civilisation.

In 1999, two then-teenagers - named only as Nina and Stephanie - were raped almost every day for six months. After a three-week trial, 10 of the 14 accused left the courtroom as free men; the other four were granted lenient sentences. Shocked? Again, let us not get all high and mighty, either. Amnesty International conducted a poll in the UK a few years ago. Only 4% of respondents thought the number of women raped each year exceeded 10,000. But, according to the Government, 80,000 women are raped a year and 400,000 are sexually assaulted.

It's important to clarify that most rapes - in India, or elsewhere - are not carried out by strangers waiting in alleys to pounce on women. It is mostly by people known to the rape survivor or victim; often someone they trust.

Other myths are even more disturbing. The Amnesty poll found that a third of Britons believed a woman acting flirtatiously was partly, or completely, to blame for being raped, while more than a quarter found women who were wearing revealing clothes, or were drunk, shared responsibility.

If we are to defeat rape, we have to understand where it comes from. Those punches, slaps, kicks and bile-filled screams are happening all around us - yes, undoubtedly on our own streets. And it's not just the overt aggression. It's the sexual harassment and objectification of women by men that provide fertile ground for this violence.

In a poll by End Violence Against Women this year, 41% of women aged between 18 and 34 had experienced unwanted sexual attention. As a country, we still don't take rape survivors seriously. A 2009 study revealed that Britain has the lowest conviction rate of 33 European countries.

Survivors often struggle with a misplaced sense of shame, of somehow bringing it on themselves, of fear; an all-too pervasive sense of victim-blaming discourages them from coming forward and having to face down their attacker. If any good is to come from the horrors of the Jimmy Savile scandal, it must be that these voices are taken far more seriously. But although the voices of women must be heard above all else, men must speak out too.

In the US and Australia, there are flourishing movements of men against sexual violence. There are similar campaigning groups in Britain, such as the White Ribbon Campaign and Respect: they have a crucial role to play, too.

There is nothing inevitable about violence against women, here or anywhere. Struggle by courageous women and their allies has already had an impact.

But the worst thing we can do is allow our horror at what happened on that Delhi bus to make us complacent.

Let the death of Damini inspire everyone - everywhere - to defeat this horror once and for all.

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