Thursday, November 28, 2013

How to Fight Violence against Women

Daryl Morini

How to fight VAW
One day, eight years ago, amid throngs of foreigners in a sweltering and bustling Bangkok street, I witnessed my first act of abuse of women’s rights. It was a very simple act, but one which very literally made me rethink my moral repulsion at the old principle of ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’.

I was walking with a female family member when, seemingly for no reason, her face went pale, as if she had seen a ghost. I asked her what was wrong, and she didn’t talk for a few seconds, until we eventually stopped. “What’s wrong?!” I implored. Finally, I wrenched it out of her. A man, she confided, had pinched her backside. Usually a mild-mannered and cool-tempered individual, I was infuriated. How dare he? I thought. That bastard! I furiously ran through the crowd, trying to catch up to him and exact what spontaneously came into my head as poetic justice. I would catch up to him - I plotted on the run - and I would pinch his ass, and see how he liked it. If he didn’t, and he reacted violently, then I would have to fight. (As a skinny 15-year old, I was admittedly no Mike Tyson, but I was blinded by my anger, the sense that my loved one’s physical sanctity had been violated).

It was probably best for all parties involved that I didn’t find him; my family member didn’t tell me what he looked like until it was too late. The culprit had melted into the crowds as swiftly as he had emerged from it.
This was my first serious (as it was then for me, and has remained ever since) run-in with the abuse of women’s rights, and it felt extremely personal. Since then, at least three women in my life, I have since found out, have dealt with issues of sexual abuse, all three as children. Every time I dwell on it, it makes my blood pressure increase. Just writing these words gets me worked up. As everyone who has directly or indirectly been exposed to child abuse knows, the psychological scars inflict serious and lasting damage on their victims.

To be frank, the sexual abuse of women and children is, for me, the one issue which makes me seriously question my philosophical opposition to the death penalty. I usually think that the death penalty is dangerous (in placing the power over life or death in the hands of the State), of limited deterrent value (immediate gratification of vengeance aside, a life sentence in jail seems to me to be a harsher punishment), and just plain wrong (against my conception of the good life).  But I sometimes wonder: Would sexual predators and those who treat other human beings as flesh to be used and abused be deterred if we lived under the laws of the Old Testament?

Maybe, maybe not. There would probably only be a lot more heads and hands cut off in public displays of vengeance, and that’s not in the interest of anyone who enjoys life in a liberal-democratic country.
Which other measures might feasibly deter violence against women?

On the cultural front, I salute the work of frontline feminists, international institutions and non-governmental organisations, such as The Red Elephant, in striving to shift cultural attitudes, encouraging incremental normative change, and changing archaic (I would even say primal) masculine identities. While extremely important and very long-term work, I do question how much this can change the realities of women on the ground in many places, particularly conflict-ridden and developing countries, without more repressive legal means.

Countries with rape epidemics have a few things in common. Take India (where a woman is reportedly raped every 20 minutes or so) and Egypt (where 99% of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment) as examples. In both countries, marital rape is not criminalised. That’s the first legal hurdle to changing attitudes. So long as women are abused and raped at home, it is improbable that their lot will improve in the public sphere. Simply put, and I am completely aware that such a change is more easily said than done, criminalising marital rape is one potential legal catalyst to changing attitudes.

A second thing which both countries have in common is relative legal impunity for the rapists. In the courtrooms and police stations of both countries, rapists often benefit from the authorities turning a blind eye. This makes it particularly hard to recommend better policing and fairer judges, as this policy would necessitate attitudinal change as a precondition. However, there are some campaign positions which NGOs and, perhaps in the near future, visionary political leaders can defend in order to push for effective legal reform. One might be the option of legalising chemical castration for rapists, whether consensual or mandatory.

Thirdly, another measure that might work to give leaders and law-making bodies a much-needed jolt is to protest not with words but with acts. I think it is an excellent first step that interest in self-defence classes for Indian women is growing rapidly. This is a truly monumental move in signalling to the police and judiciary: “If you don’t protect us, we’ll do it ourselves”, and to the culprits: “Touch me, and I’ll gouge out your eyes.” This is only a first step. The next one, if authorities do not start dealing justly with rape epidemics, is for community leaders and NGO activists to start organising self-defence groups around villages and hotspots in New Delhi, patrolling at night to ensure that women get home safe from work and are not targeted public transport by rape gangs. Let’s remember that this type of self-organised citizen defence force has worked to dramatic effect in the past, and can do so again. If the central government and local police don’t like self-defence militias forming under their noses, then they can start to do the actual policing themselves.

Of course, neither of the three measures I have tentatively suggested are cure-alls. Paradoxically, there is a chicken-and-egg dynamic in the fight against violence against women. Which comes first, bottom-up attitudinal change or top-down legal reforms? I don’t have the answer. But I do think that civil society actors who seek to change attitudes from the bottom-up will only succeed by pressuring those at the top to instigate top-down reform. Therefore, I think that a mixture of measures – ranging from symbolic protests, naming and shaming, proposing legal alternatives, channelling public support on those initiatives and, last but not least, training women to defend themselves from would-be assailants – can and will make a real difference.

Daryl Morini is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland. He recently launched the first (French-language) public policy think tank in New Caledonia: