What did she do to deserve it? Victims’ blaming

“She must be the one to blame!”

That is a common judgment that is used on women and girls, over and over again. the narrative seeks to establish how the victim contributed
to what happened to her.

In the recent past there has been several incidents of reported rape cases in Kenya involving high profile individuals or highly publicized incidents. Some are in the process of legal proceedings so I will not get into details. With social media such incidents are highly publicized and the ‘online experts’ immediately start giving ‘analytical input’ into the incidents. In one case, there was an immediate reaction on doubting if this was true and even how this was a “date gone wrong”. That caught my interest, a date is equal to saying yes to sex? In Kenya it is very hard to hear about date rapes. This is not because that does not happen but because there is an assumption that when you say yes to one thing, then it is a yes to everything else. If you did not intent to have sex, do not go out for a date?!  In another incident where there is a controversial story involving conning of some members of parliament, the immediate reaction by a security officer was that the said culprit and victim had “special relationship”. These incidents demonstrate what is wrong with the general attitude around violence. A relationship with someone does not exonerate them from responsibility in the event of crime.

Victim blaming is so common, it is a wonder any woman or girl comes out to report violence, especially sexual violence.  Often the blame is on the victim, on what she should have done or not done to avoid violence. The onus is on the abused person to avoid, and protect self while perpetrator goes scot-free. The burden on protecting self is not only unfair but also based on the patriarchal beliefs and stereotypes where self-control is meant to be the prerogative of women. The society promotes this in different ways and the automatic response to violence is usually aimed at placing blame, mostly on the victim.

Many years back, I worked in a project where a young woman was raped by her employer who was also the father of her boyfriend. I recall the discussions around the issue and we had to arrange for the young woman to be away from her home for some time to be in a safe shelter. One of her ‘crimes’ was deciding to stay away from her parent’s home and using some of her income to rent a house nearer her work place.

“If she had stayed with her parents, this would not have happened.”

That was part of the narrative for the blame, including from her family.  However, there was also the ‘empathy’ that she was not an ‘immoral girl’ and she was a virgin. I could not figure out where this knowledge came from that her medical records became public. I will not even start on virginity testing in cases of rape which is a menace in some regions. Medicalizing an violation does not make it right. I wondered how the debate would have been if her boyfriend had raped her, would she even have reported? I watched a movie that was based on real life story of a rapist who targeted ‘girls of questionable reputation’. It took a long while for him to be apprehended because he used the moral card to threaten the victims.

In the many years I have worked on issues around gender and gender based violence, it is common knowledge that rape is usually from persons known to the victim. Often the familiarity and trust is the main bait to the woman or child. It is therefore unfortunate that this prior knowledge is assumed to be consent. I like the video that explains consent like a cup of tea. If someone says they want tea then later changes their mind, or wanted the tea last week but not today, you cannot force them to have tea. It seems ridiculous that if someone even says “hmmm I am not sure if I want tea or not”, we cannot for them to make a decision or force the tea down their throat. Why then is consent difficult to understand when it is about sex and boundaries.

We have a long way to go in fighting sexual violence and sexual harassment. The narrative needs to change, consciously or unconsciously we must stop the narrative that it is the woman or girl to take blame. Next time you are tempted to question someone who has been violated in whatever way, even if they were conned or lied to, ask yourself, are you victim blaming? Should you be questioning how the victim should have acted to avoid the incident or blaming the perpetrator who took advantage of whatever power they possessed.

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