Sexual violence extends far beyond our borders. It’s easy to only focus on the sexual violence cases that feel close to home. We relate to victims connected with American universities, athletes, actors and even political figures because we can put ourselves in their shoes. In contrast, we sometimes have greater difficulty understanding the experiences of people from other cultures or nationalities because their norms seem so different from our own.
Last summer, I completed training to become a Peer Educator for NCJW|LA’s The Talk Project in order to lead peer-to-peer sexual violence awareness workshops at high schools around Los Angeles. Since joining The Talk Project, I have realized the importance of de-stigmatizing sexual violence and broadening its discussion. Addressing the epidemic in our educational systems is extremely important, and we must stand up for our local rights. But vulnerable populations throughout the world, including women, civilians in military conflict, and refugees all deserve our attention.
The global issue of sexual violence first came on my radar a few months ago, when I saw a headline on the Women of Atenco and read personal statements describing the life-lasting impacts of their abuse. I was horrified both by their treatment and by the level of corruption surrounding the case. In May of 2006, 45 women were inexplicably arrested by police officers at a protest in San Salvador Atenco, Mexico. The police officers proceeded to physically and sexually abuse many of the women before taking them to prison, where their abuse was improperly documented. None of the responsible officials have been held accountable. This past September, The New York Times re-examined the case, revealing findings by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that “the women — a mix of merchants, students and activists — were raped, beaten, penetrated with metal objects, robbed and humiliated, made to sing aloud to entertain the police. One was forced to perform oral sex on multiple officers. After the women were imprisoned, days passed before they were given proper medical examinations." More than ten years after the event, these women still have yet to find justice.
After reading about the Women of Atenco, I immediately wondered why I had seen so few articles about sexual violence in other countries. I had become so engrossed in cases more relevant to myself that I had forgotten about the less-publicized assaults in war zones, refugee camps, and undemocratic countries, where victims are often silenced even more than they are in the United States.
My only past awareness of global sexual violence came from my ninth grade History class, when I learned about women in India and read an article on the Delhi gang rape. While this case received a considerable amount of attention from the media, most do not. In 2012, a 23-year-old psychotherapy student was raped and physically abused by multiple men while riding a bus. She suffered severe injuries and passed away in a Singapore hospital shortly after. The six men convicted of the young woman’s murder unsurprisingly resorted to victim blaming, stating that she “invited rape." It is not possible to “invite rape” by definition, but unfortunately, these types of victim-blaming comments are not uncommon.
A lack of reporting is a significant problem in many countries, as victim shaming and victim blaming are extremely prominent. In Latin America, 50% of women in cities have faced at least one sexual assault in their lifetime. However, only 14% of women in Colombia reported the crimes. In Latin America, machismo, or the idea that masculinity directly correlates with strength and power, is a patriarchal, deeply ingrained social norm. Despite efforts to raise awareness about sexual violence, victim blaming remains a major issue. Latin American women are held responsible for “provoking the perpetrator, and are often seen as “impure” or “ruined” after the fact. Furthermore, education about sexual assault is lacking, as is a positive and encouraging support system for survivors in the form of crisis centers and shelters. In order to increase victims’ visibility and shed light on the widespread issue of sexual violence, we must support survivors and de-stigmatize their experiences.
Lack of widespread awareness about sexual violence comes not only comes from the silencing of survivors due to victim blaming, but it also results from insufficient reporting in the media. The refugee crisis is currently one of the most pressing global issues, with migrants fleeing violent, war-torn countries, only to face physical abuse and sexual exploitation on their already perilous journeys. However, sexual violence in refugee camps is not commonly discussed. According to Amnesty International, governments have failed to provide sufficient security measures for migrants. In an interview with 40 women and girls traveling from Turkey, all reported feeling unsafe, and many reported being groped or forced to have sex with smugglers and other refugees.
In addition, rape is often used as a tactic by military regimes in war. In Burma, for example, the military uses violence to repress civilians and minorities in particular. After 1960, persecution against minorities greatly increased, and violence has long been used as a tactic to diminish rebellion and uprisings against the military. Forces currently engage in systematic rape as a method of weakening families and communities. There is also a huge stigma attached to gender violence in Burma, and survivors rarely complain or speak out in fear of greater violence. The government continues to do nothing to address these human rights violations, and perpetrators receive no consequences or punishment.
One major factor contributing to the strength of a country’s legal protections is the number of women in government positions. Advocacy for women is integral to reducing sexual violence. According to UN Women, “Globally, there are 38 States in which women account for less than 10 per cent of parliamentarians in single or lower houses, as of June 2016, including 4 chambers with no women at all.” To create systemic change and combat the normalization of sexual violence, we must empower women with leadership roles and positions of influence.
The more I investigated, the more I began to recognize the immense scope of sexual violence throughout the world. This is by no means a complete account, but merely an attempt to bring the issue out of the shadows. Women are also certainly not the only people affected, and it is equally important to recognize all genders.
Sexual violence is truly a global epidemic, no matter how little we hear about it or how low the number of reported cases. It is a human rights violation, a devaluing of an individual, and a harmful cycle stretching far beyond a single culture or territory. My interest in the global issue of sexual violence developed after witnessing events in my own community and country and then realizing how little I had heard about other countries. I now feel a responsibility to broaden the conversation beyond the local level.
One of the most valuable lessons I’ve gained from The Talk Project is that each person has the ability to create systemic change and empower others. Since becoming a Peer Educator last summer, I’ve grown increasingly aware of the portrayal of sexual violence in the media and the social constructs that enable it. At the same time, I’ve begun to witness the importance of changing mindsets and promoting healthy practices. Education is a powerful tool; however, not everyone in the world has a voice. We must speak for the struggling refugees, the targeted war victims, and the unheard survivors in all countries.
Julia Knoerr is currently a senior at Westridge School. Last summer, she completed a volunteer internship with The Talk Project and trained to become a Peer Educator. In addition to The Talk Project, Julia is passionate about global issues, human rights, and sustainability.