You might be wondering why I wrote the word “victims” in all caps in the title.  It is because I want to start this blog by highlighting my disagreement with calling victims of Gender-based violence (GBV) “survivors.” Survivor is a word used to describe someone who perseveres in times of difficulty.  You survive a hurricane.  You survive famine.  When we use “survivor,” we do not think about who the cause of the difficulty is.  We only think about who overcame it.  My logic is as follows: when we call victims of sexual assault “survivors,” we detach the perpetrators from the story.  When we say “victim,” we can tell that implicitly there is someone responsible for the act.  But when we use “survivor,” we shield the perpetrator from our critique; we protect them…our first stride in our art of not believing victims of GBV.

The facts:

  • Sexual assault—rape in particular—is one of the most unreported crimes.
  • Of the rape cases that are reported, only 2-10% are false accusations.
  • One of the primary reasons why victims of sexual violence do not report to authorities is because they fear not being believed.

The interpretation:

  • Although only a minor portion of the total reports account for false accusations, giving us a shaky ground at best for not believing such reports, rape is still an under-reported crime because victims fear not being believed should they come forward.

Whenever a victim comes forward with a report, we (as society) collectively start asking cross questions to the victim.  We assign ourselves the role of Sherlock Holmes and start investigating the victim.  What was she wearing?  Where was she?  What was she doing?  What time was she doing that?  Our questions feel as if they are there to help us justify the act rather than get to the bottom of the issue.  And if the accused is a famous and/or powerful person?  The victim’s best hope is to have an army of other victims willing to come forward.  Even then, they will get the occasional, “They are all lying!!” comments from holier-than-thou people who have no idea what the victims are going through.

When politics gets involved

It is no hidden fact that women and girls find themselves in danger during times of conflict.  Not just because of the conflict itself—but because of their gender.  War and conflict are fertile grounds for GBV; so much so that the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) under the United Nations has adopted a general recommendation that can guide policy when it comes to protecting women and girls in times of conflict.  Not that they ever need excuses to sidetrack women’s issues, but blaming lack of strong guidelines for how to operate in such times is not an option for officials.

When reports came from the Tigray region of women and girls being raped and victimized of GBV, there were people who chose not to believe the stories under the pretense that it was a political agenda and there were others who exploited the pain of those women in hopes of steering commotion and earning a score on the political front.  Few were willing to detach the politics from the issue and look at this from a human rights point of view.  Everyone was so busy blaming someone else that many did not take time to actually listen to the women and empathize with their pain.  It is sickening and it is disgusting how we ALWAYS find new ways to bury women’s issues.  How we keep unlocking new levels in this art we have grown so fond of…how we would rather justify the story in some way than accept our failure to protect women and girls who have absolutely NOTHING to do with the conflict!

I also want to call out the people who are prying on the politics of this—specifically on campaigns that call out women officials and try to hold them and only them accountable for all this.  Why should a woman minister of transportation be held accountable but not a man minister of education?  Solely because she is a woman?  Is it the job of women and only women to advocate and fight for women’s rights?  If you want to call out people, call everyone out—including yourself.  Why did you have to wait for an attack in order to speak out against GBV?  Stop stealing the story from victims and instead ask yourself what you can contribute to eradicate GBV all together.

This is perhaps one of the most subjective and emotional blogs I have ever written.  But I could not let this issue slip without saying something.  GBV is an active threat to the lives of women.  Politics, ethnicity, status, privilege…they do not protect us from being victims.  So they should not even be part of the conversation when dealing with such things.  They should not be used in any means or form to justify the horrific acts of rape and sexual exploitation.  And if we are to bring women on a level field as men, how about we start with believing them?

Writing and image by: Hellina Hailu