Columnists Features

Why do we blame women for rape?

LAW Association of Zambia president Linda Kasonde.

THERE is always an outcry when a child gets raped, except of course in Zambia, we do not call it rape. We euphemistically call it ‘defilement’ because an innocent child’s virtue has seemingly been destroyed. No one can fathom that a child would ever want to be raped and when it happens, no one blames them for it. But when it comes to women, it is a different story. It becomes about sex. In normal circumstances, sex between adults is consensual or something that women submit to.
In Zambian law, rape is defined as: “Any person who has unlawful [sex with] a woman or girl, without her consent, or with her consent, if the consent is obtained by force or by means of threats or intimidation of any kind, or by fear of bodily harm, or by means of false representations as to the nature of the act, or, in the case of a married woman, by personating her husband, is guilty of the felony termed ‘rape’.”
That definition does not even include marital rape. When women are raped, the immediate concern of many people is whether the woman asked for it by what she wore or the circumstances she found herself in. We find it difficult to believe that a child could have asked for it but when it comes to a woman, our default position is that she must have asked for it. Worse still, even when faced with video evidence showing that the sex was not consensual, the burden of shame rests on the woman, she becomes “damaged goods”. With her social standing and personal dignity undermined, people ask, who would want to marry her now?
A few weeks ago, the world was gripped by the sexual assault allegations raised against Judge Brett Kavanaugh in the United States Senate committee hearings over whether he should have been appointed to the United States Supreme Court bench. His accuser, Professor Christine Blasey-Ford, is a university law professor with Ivy League college credentials. As is common nowadays, the Kavanaugh issue soon became the subject of chatter on social media.
A Facebook thread posted by one woman expressed the fear that the post-Kavanaugh world must be scary for “naïve career men”, who are now vulnerable to be manipulated by gold-digging women. Many other women on the same thread raised the question as to why the accusations were being laid now, decades later. No one questioned Judge Kavanaugh’s behaviour.
It struck me that victim-blaming of women who have experienced sexual assault is rife and not just in Zambia. Here are the facts in Zambia. According to an annual survey by the Victim Support Unit (VSU) of the Zambia Police Service, the total number of gender-based violence (GBV) cases reported country wide from the first quarter to the third quarter of 2017 is 16,090 cases. Only a fraction of the reported cases related to sexual crimes. The Zambian law categorises sexual offences into rape, defilement (rape of children), and incest etc.
According to the VSU third quarter report, out of the total number of reported GBV cases countrywide, there were a total of 1,466 defilement (rape of children) cases, 80 cases of rape (of women), 12 cases of attempted rape, 22 indecent assault cases and 20 cases of incest were reported, out of which 14 were women and six were girls below the age of 16 years.
The study suggests that women above the age of 16 rarely report sexual offences in Zambia. This means that the number of women who are raped annually in Zambia might be higher but many possibly opt to keep their traumatic sexual experiences to themselves because of the stigma attached to women who are raped as well as the blame culture.
To illustrate how few sexual crimes are reported, an article by Innocent Makasa and Lucy Jane Heathfield in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine published in February 2018 states that between 2007 and 2014 a total of only 1,154 sexual crimes were even reported – that is the rape of adults and children.
To put things into perspective, over a period of seven years, only around 127 women reported a case of rape; that’s an average of 18 women per year in a population of around 15 million Zambians. We know that GBV is a form of misogyny.
According to a statement by the Ministry of Heath Permanent Secretary Jabbin Mulwanda, in February 2018, 47 percent of all Zambian women say that they have experienced GBV, and yet the reported figures of rape against women appear astonishingly low.
Someone on the Facebook thread I referenced earlier, pulled out two articles of two white women who were tried for falsely accusing two black American men of rape. I pointed out that while I understood their point, such cases are extremely rare and that it was important to put context to them: the justice system in America weights heavily against black American men in terms of arrest, conviction and sentencing.
I firmly hold the belief that any person who falsely accuses another of rape or any other crime must be punished and go to jail. It is, however, very uncommon, especially in Zambia, for women to raise unfounded rape charges against men. Context is important to understanding why this is the case.
As indicated above, only a small number of women actually report rape cases to the police partly because of lack of knowledge about what really constitutes rape, but also because many are simply put off by the stigma associated with publicising their traumatic experiences. As a result, those who step forward to raise charges of rape against men are the exception.
According to a retrospective study reported by Makasa and Heathfield, between 2007 and 2014, only 28.1 percent of reported cases of sexual violence were taken to court and of those, only 12.4 percent resulted in convictions. When one considers the low numbers of reported rape cases that actually make it to court and the high threshold for proving rape in court (beyond all reasonable doubt), the chances of being falsely convicted of rape are actually miniscule.
Given this background, why then are women blamed for being raped and why are they accused of making false allegations against men? There is an impression that some women do so to make money. I am sure some women do. But in the vast majority of cases, why would anyone want to do that if the rapist is more than likely to go scot-free and leave you with a damaged reputation whether you win or lose?
In a piece in Psychology Today entitled ‘Why do we blame the victim?’, David B Feldman states that studies show that the human tendency towards victim-blaming in cases of sexual assault comes from “a deep need to believe that the world is a good and just place” and therefore bad things happen to people who are deserving of it. Why this tendency is fairly common in sexual assault cases is likely because being raped is equated to having a lack of virtue.
Maia Szalavitz, in a more recent article entitled ‘Why we’re psychologically hardwired to blame the victim’ published in The Guardian in February 2018, suggests that one way of getting around the issue of victim blaming is by focusing on the actions of the perpetrators.
Let us focus on the man for a minute. Most men are physically stronger than women. When a woman is raped, she is either overpowered in strength or in number. Rape is about power, it is about overpowering the victim. It is about humiliating the victim. It is about self-gratification. It is about domination. Even that language favours male perpetrators as it shows that they are in charge. Rape is a heinous crime. Rape is a violent crime. Criminals deserve to go to jail. Victims of rape suffer the pain, anguish and shame of it for several years, often for life.
Too often, the victims of sexual violence remain faceless and voiceless. Here is the story of a brave Zambian woman who has found her voice: “My name is Seya. I am not a victim of rape, I am a survivor and a victor. I was raped at four years old and then again at 11 years old. I do not see myself as that little girl anymore thanks to counselling and a mindset shift.
“The perpetrator was someone my mum and family trusted, he was basically part of our family. To me he was a monster. When you’re introduced to sex at such an early stage in life, it messes you up. I never told my mum, she died not knowing about it. I have only told a few people.
“The reason I have not come out publicly until now is because I don’t want to be pitied. I don’t want to be looked at as tainted or damaged because society has done that to those who have fallen prey to sexual abuse. I’m telling my story now because I believe it’s time and I believe that this will help someone.
“To those who want to blame the victim, if you have never been violated that way, you have no right to tell anyone to just get over it or to “woman up”. No! These things are not “normal”, they do not “just happen” and they should not be normalised or dismissed.
“Sexual abuse steals from your soul. It breaks you internally for the rest of your life if one doesn’t get help. Dear survivors, you’re not alone. You’re amazing, you’re beautiful. You are smart. You are valuable. You can do this. Please seek help.”
The theme for this year’s 16 days of activism against GBV is #HearMeToo, end violence against women and girls. It is time we really listened to the voices of those who have been abused. It is time we acknowledge the names, faces and voices of survivors and victors of rape. It is time we blamed the perpetrators of rape.
The author is a lawyer, civil society activist and an Archbishop Desmond Tutu Leadership fellow.

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