When will I ‘earn’ my right to safety?

By — January 18, 2013

Delhi. Ohio. Nepal. Around the world, women are suffering sexual assaults so heinous that they are making the headlines on an almost daily basis. The details are unbearable; the statistics, shocking. Every two minutes, somebody in America is sexually assaulted. Every hour, 48 women are raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo. One in five women in England and Wales are victims of sexual assault. One in three women on the planet will be raped, beaten, sexually coerced, trafficked, or otherwise abused in her lifetime.

And yet, almost inconceivably, governments, members of the judiciary, and authority figures around the world continue to advocate that the solution lies with women—that their behavior is to blame and that their behavior has the power somehow, magically, to prevent rape.

In Swaziland, where a UNICEF-funded study found that 33 percent of girls experienced sexualized violence before they reached their 18th birthday, it was reported last month that police planned to combat rape by enforcing a ban on wearing miniskirts and revealing tops. A police spokeswoman was reported to have told local media: “The act of the rapist is made easy because it would be easy to remove the half-cloth worn by the women.” But the ban would not affect those who expose skin while wearing traditional dress, such as the bare-breasted women who dance before the king every year when he chooses his latest wife.

In Italy, where a 2010 European Commission study revealed that 91 percent of people “think that domestic violence against women is either common or fairly common” and 3 percent of those surveyed deemed it “acceptable in all circumstances,” a priest recently posted a notice blaming women. It read: “The core of the problem is in the fact that women are more and more provocative, they yield to arrogance, they believe they can do everything themselves and they end up exacerbating tensions. How often do we see girls and even mature women walking on the streets in provocative and tight clothing?”

In Aceh province in Indonesia, authorities have proposed a law that would prevent women from riding astride a motorbike. Suaidi Yahya, mayor of the Aceh city of Lhokseumawe, said the ban would protect the “curves of a woman’s body” from sight.

In the United States, where the Washington-based RAINN, or Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, reports that nearly 208,000 victims are sexually assaulted every year, a California judge was publicly outed in December 2012 for suggesting that women are only truly victims of sexual assault if they fight and struggle. His comments came after a case in 2008 in which he denied the prosecutor’s calls for a 16-year sentence and instead jailed the rapist for just six years, saying:

“I’m not a gynecologist but I can tell you something: If someone doesn’t want to have sexual intercourse the body shuts down. The body will not permit that to happen unless a lot of damage is inflicted, and we heard nothing about that in this case.”

In India, where a woman was recently gang-raped and murdered and where a woman is raped every 20 minutes according to the National Crime Records Bureau, some local leaders suggested just last year that rising rape figures could be curbed by reducing the legal marriage age for girls to 16. And even in the wake of the recent gang-rape case, a commissioner of police in Thane, near Mumbai, advised women to avoid rape by carrying chili powder and staying inside after dark.

And in the UK, where the Home Office says around 80,000 women are raped and 400,000 sexually assaulted every year, Durham County Council ran a campaign this Christmas featuring large pictures of a girl in a Little Red Riding Hood costume walking down a dark street with a “dangerous” man in the background and a bottle of alcohol in her hand. The caption read: “With alcohol there isn’t always a fairytale ending… Don’t make yourself vulnerable by getting too drunk.”

But when statistics show that more than 80 percent of rapes are committed by men known to the victim, when on average three women per day in the United States and two women per week in England and Wales are killed by a current or former partner, when will it be time to stop telling women to change their behavior and start focusing on perpetrators instead?

Just how long does my skirt have to be before you say I can walk down the street in safety? How exactly should I disguise and hold the curves of my body to win the right to sanctuary from assault? How loose must my clothing be before I deserve to not be raped? How hard precisely do I have to struggle and shout for you to believe me? And how many nights will I have to stay indoors or make sure only water passes my lips before I have earned the right, my human right, to be a woman, unassaulted?