Rape - why is it still so hard to believe victims

US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has made national headlines by meeting with students who claim they have been falsely accused of sexual assault.

Explaining her reasoning at a press conference, DeVos told journalists that she wanted to hear “everyone’s story” regarding the widespread problem of rape on American university campuses.

DeVos’s meeting with accused rapists that have links to organizations claiming rape statistics are overblown, and that post photographs and names of women survivors whose cases have not succeeded , once again illustrates the tidal wave of mistrust and hostility that survivors of sexual assault face.

This attitude was also on public display in the recent mistrial of Bill Cosby, accused by scores of women of sexual assault. Sadly, Secretary DeVos’s actions and the Cosby mistrial go beyond the unfairness of legal systems and processes, and are the blatant manifestations of the ugly attitudes that we know condemn victims to silence. It also helps to explain why so many don’t come forward.

Sexual violence is largely a hidden epidemic and a daily occurrence in every country across the world, so commonplace that it barely gets remarked upon unless an extreme incident captures the public’s attention.

The World Health Organization estimates that globally around 120 million girls under 20 have been raped. For every reported crime, the Sexual Violence Research Initiative suggests there are approximately 19 more which go unreported .

Here in the United States, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has found that in comparison to other serious crimes, a higher percentage of rape and sexual assault victimizations are not reported. In fact, it is estimated that the police were not informed about around 211,200 rapes and sexual assaults every year between 2006 and 2010.

Research also tells us that one in five women are sexually assaulted while in college in the US, with some reports putting the figure even higher at over one in four . These numbers demonstrate what we already know: that impunity for crimes of sexual violence is pervasive.

Starting with the “shame” that deters victims from reporting, our legal systems continue to re-victimize victims through often dismissive, disbelieving and insensitive behavior of police, prosecutors and judges. Legal procedures are cumbersome and demeaning, while legal proceedings are lengthy. Equality Now , which is an international women’s rights organization that focuses on legal advocacy, has documented these and many others barriers to justice in a recent report The Global Rape Epidemic: The World’s Shame .

Governments around the world have made repeated commitments to ending violence against girls and women, but there has been little political will to make change in processes that impede victims from coming forward. This is especially true when it involves systems of power.

In the United States, the campus and military justice systems have both come under fire for not addressing sexual violence. These systems are ill-equipped and have an inherent conflict of interest leading to impunity for perpetrators. If Secretary DeVos’ intent is truly to help survivors and examine this system, we commend her.

Experiencing a sexual attack can be particularly harrowing for young victims. Equality Now has taken on cases of sexual violence against girls in order to shine a spotlight on gaps in legal systems that prevent victims from getting justice and create impunity for crimes. These types of legal cases can also set important legal precedents. Through these cases we have seen how difficult it can be to get a conviction and appropriate sentencing, and therefore how easy it is that rapes continue with impunity.

To make lasting change, governments must have political will to enact and enforce strong laws to protect women from sexual violence. They must hold accountable those government officials who fail to implement the law or traumatize victims. They should review legal procedures to ensure that victims of sexual violence are not re-victimized through legal proceedings and ensure adequate punishment for perpetrators, so that others are deterred.

There is no easy fix to changing attitudes around the world, but effective legal systems are a necessary place to start. We call upon Secretary DeVos to look at the true root of the problem of sexual assault on campus by providing an enabling environment for sexual violence survivors and committing to a full and fair process for them. Doing so can help change the dynamics for survivors and ensure that justice truly takes place.

About Equality Now:

Equality Now is an international human rights organization that works to protect and promote the rights of women and girls around the world by combining grassroots activism with international, regional and national legal advocacy. Our international network of lawyers, activists, and supporters achieve legal and systemic change by holding governments responsible for enacting and enforcing laws and policies that end legal inequality, sexual trafficking, sexual violence, and harmful practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM). For details of our current campaigns, please visit www.equalitynow.org and find us on Twitter @equalitynow.

About the author:

Christa Stewart is the manager for Equality Now’s End Sexual Violence and Justice for Girls programs. She is also a lawyer with considerable experienced in working with adolescent girls, and on issues of human trafficking, sexual assault and immigration.

Comments (2)
No. 1-2

Whilst I agree with the sentiments of the author on this well thought out piece, agree with the importance of strengthening sanctions both legal and societal and that the pathway to redress be made far more accommodating for the victim I see that we are not prepared yet to have the conversation about the commoditization of sex.

The use of sex as a tool of power, control and manipulation is everywhere and we rarely see the underlying metaphors in these messages taken to task. If we remain adamant that the context for sexual interaction is the one we've been inclined to use over the millennia; that sex is an accomplishment rewarded to the winners of a mysterious competition we will not address the underlying fallacy that is self evident in the poor values reflected in this behaviour.

The 'space' in which mating takes place had best be addressed as a matter of urgency by men as well as women. I can see that currently youth may have generally developed (from my limited exposure to their behaviours adopted a more wholesome attitude to women's entitlements and rights than when I was a youth), this is does not get reflected in the stats that the author quotes.

If we addressed the context of the melee that people find themselves in in regard to working in the social context that includes consensual sex we may find that the pyramid in the hierarchy of choice and selection will be eased so that sex and control behaviour gets seperated very early in any discourse. If we saw to it that sex is not be accepted as a primitive tool that is exploited in such a way that it is used as a great and important reward for what can so often be externally propagated ideas about what constitutes the idealized man or woman we would see a powerful change in attitudes.

Moving forward then, the psychological 'violence' and physical violence should be moved out of its covert domain where the hierarchies we use to determine success and failure would not be so closely associated with 'scoring' as a theme it has so often been regarded. As such the 'value' implicit in conquests would be diminished and rather we'd invite the dialogue that promotes intimacy generally both as a form of friendship and sexual encounter and separates them both from the area of a sex 'marketplace'. Violence in all forms will not only diminish silence in the code of men's honour and but will be removed from the sphere of other conflicting 'values' that underlie and underpin men's and to some degree women's values to the great expense of our children's health, would protect all women, men and society.


Why such monsters exist even ??