A crime upon a crime: Rape, victim-blaming, and stigma

By — August 16, 2012

“After the man raped me, my family would not eat with me. They treated me like a dog and I had to eat alone.”
—Testimony of a Darfuri woman interviewed by Physicians for Human Rights for their 2009 report “Nowhere to Turn.”

In Sudan, where tens of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes by fighting and destruction, where the lives of refugees have already been devastated by the loss of their homes and families, women bear a second, enduring pain. Because for many Darfuri women, the “crime” of falling victim to rapists and sexual attackers renders them valueless, “dishonored,” and rejected. Many have been divorced, exiled, and cast out by their own husbands and communities. These victims of sexualized violence are victimized again by the shame and stigma forced on them in a culture that places blame on those who have suffered and ignores those who brutally attacked them.

One survivor explained in PHR’s “Nowhere to Turn” what happened when she returned home after her attack: “My brother said to me, ‘If you stay in my house, I’m going to shoot you.’”

These women are often suffering acute medical conditions—from sexually transmitted diseases to fistulas to unwanted pregnancy—when they are blamed for the atrocity they have been forced to endure. At their most vulnerable, at their time of greatest need, they are exiled, imprisoned for “illegal pregnancy,” beaten, fined, or, in Darfur, forced to build their own straw huts outside the family compound. Around the world, the consequences of being raped can be physically painful, in the form of acid attacks or a second rape at the hands of authorities as “punishment.”

Many sexualized violence survivors are “devastated by spousal abandonment,” according to “Now, the World Is Without Me,” a 2010 report into sexualized violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and Oxfam International. “When I confirmed that I had been raped and was pregnant,” one woman said in the Physicians for Human Rights report, “he said, ‘I divorce you.’ I have not seen him since then.” Less than 1 percent of women observed for the study were accompanied to medical care by their spouses, and for many, “continuation of their marriages was contingent on having a negative HIV test.”

Whether it is due to culturally ingrained ideas about “purity” or plain fear of being in the vicinity of terror, why men subject women to blame for being attacked is unclear. But their actions create a culture of impunity that allows rape to continue.

Victims of sexualized violence are victimized again by the shame and stigma forced on them in a culture that places blame on those who have suffered and ignores those who brutally attacked them. (Michael Courier)

Victim-blaming exonerates the perpetrators, sending them a clear signal of permission. A 2008 report by the Washington-based Enough Project explains how this cultural insistence on placing blame on the victims enables military leaders to shrug off responsibility for sexualized violence carried out by armed combatants: “The prevailing attitude of the army is that soldiers cannot be held accountable for their actions and that it is the woman’s fault for being raped. At a recent educational event about the consequences of sexualized violence in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, a top-ranking army official announced that ‘women should know not to go out in places where there are armed men.’”  

And the problem is not confined to conflict zones.  

Around the world, we send this message of accountability and blame to women, a message they absorb from adolescence and grow up with, ingraining guilt and shame and stigma with every warning, every damaging, painful cry of “What was she wearing?” or “Was she asking for it?”, every order to avoid “becoming a victim,” every article that focuses on appearance and behavior and alcohol and sexual history and fails to mention even a single fact about the accused.  

Was it compassion for the perpetrators that made The New York Times report in 2011 on the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl as if she might be to blame for what happened to her? What message did they send to their readers by telling them “she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s” and “would hang out with teenage boys at a playground”? Or by reporting the disbelieving locals’ question “How could their young men have been drawn into such an act?” What did they think would be the impact of the horrendous rape on the life of the 11-year-old girl, when they printed the quote: “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives”?

This wasn’t a mistake. This wasn’t carelessness. This was The New York Times reflecting the stark, brutal reality of a modern world in which the rape victim of Ched Evans, a UK footballer, could be bombarded with abuse via social media after his conviction, as fans accused her of deliberately seeking attention and passed judgment on her for having consumed alcohol. The same world in which award-winning CBS correspondent Lara Logan could be implicitly blamed by media outlets and online pundits after the horrifying ordeal of her sexual assault in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, simply because of her blonde hair and her decision to do her job.

This is the world in which a Canadian policeman recently advised a group of students during a health and safety talk that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” A world where, when a young woman was assaulted by a mob of men in Guwahati, India, in July, Mamtha Sharma, chairwoman of the National Commission for Women responded by warning women to “be careful about how you dress” and the editor-in-chief of Guwahati’s local News Live 5 tweeted: “most incidents of molestation takes [sic] place in front of bars” and “Prostitutes form a major chunk of girls who visit bars and nightclubs… .” It is the world in which widows in India “go from being called “she” to “it’” when they suffer the loss of their spouse; where the very law itself in some countries exonerates a rapist if he chooses to marry his victim or reduces the sentence of a murderer who kills a woman as she is committing adultery.

We are living in a world in which female victims are blamed, stigmatized, cast out, doubted, re-victimized, and showered with abuse in the wake of their ordeals. Yes, the cases are different; yes, they spring from diverse cultural and societal origins. Of course, the problem is complex and manifests itself in different ways around the world. But from Sudan to America, from India to the Democratic Republic of Congo, we are living in a world that finds ways, again and again, to blame women for the crimes they are victim to.

And for many of us reading articles like the one in The New York Times, the practice is so normalized, so culturally ingrained, that we wouldn’t even notice. It’s time to wake up. It’s time to be outraged. It’s time to ask why.