Sexual violence is a pandemic worldwide, but when it comes to listening to survivors or working to end the problem, the silence is often deafening.
Even when survivors’ voices reach a crescendo — as they recently did in the United States after Dr Christine Blasey Ford shared her story of alleged assault by Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh or in India after Bollywood star Tanushree Dutta filed sexual harassment charges against a famous male actor — there is still a reluctance by many to believe them.
For Indian and Kenyan women like us, who have experienced sexual violence and could not speak of it at the time, Dr Blasey Ford’s testimony resonated, even as many people tried to discredit her.
We felt her pain for we have walked in her shoes. We understand how some of her memories were very while many others were forgotten for we have suppressed memories too, to stay sane and move on to a “normal” life.
“We” is a lot of people. In India, a Thomson Reuters survey indicated it was the most dangerous country for women due to sexual violence.
In Kenya, 14 per cent of women and girls aged 15-49 have experienced sexual violations. Sexual violence is also a common occurrence in other African countries.
Just a month ago, people reacted with anger and outrage after a seven-year-old girl was raped in South Africa.
In Uganda, a national survey by the United Nations Children’s Fund found that 25 percent of Ugandan females experience sexual violence by age 13.
Why does sexual violence thrive? Why do many people voice an indignant fear that survivors’ stories will “destroy” the careers of “good men” rather than worrying about the survivors themselves?
In many countries, including Kenya and India, it is the cultural norm to suppress talk about sexual violence.
Women’s experiences (and most survivors are female) are often disregarded because they are perceived to be weak and second-class citizens even though they are supposed to have equal rights on paper.
Patriarchy that is ingrained in our culture and religion manifests itself in many ways. One example is land ownership.
Women hold only one per cent of land titles in Kenya though 89 per cent of subsistence farming labour force is provided by women. In India, more than 80 per cent of women work in agriculture, yet they struggle to inherit land.
But, even as people try to discredit those who share their stories of sexual violence, many of us hear those stories, believe those stories, and act because of those stories.
In the United States, many women have vowed to take their rage and anger to the ballot box — where they will have the power to choose their leaders and demand accountability.
In the past year, an unprecedented number of American women have stepped up to run for office at various levels of government, echoing an earlier wave of women candidates that followed the verdict in the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas sex harassment case of the early 1990s.
Left out of decision-making
We encourage more women in our countries to run for political office, too. The Indian Supreme Court has exactly three women justices, parliament has 12 per cent women and the proportion of women directors in National Stock Exchange listed Indian corporations is a measly 14 per cent.
In Kenya, only two women justices serve in the Supreme Court out of seven slots. Further, Kenya continues to rank low in women’s representation in parliament.
Predictably, because of this underrepresentation, women are left out of major decision-making bodies and therefore policies and laws do not necessarily meet our needs.
Here are other actions concerned persons can take.
Women must demand there be organised platforms to report sexual violence. And when women, indeed, do come out to report sexual violence, formal action must be taken.
This could include court proceedings – where the perpetrators of sexual violence are prosecuted and tried and if found guilty, sentenced by the court of law.
Women must demand that all sexual violence survivors be allowed to break the silence even if several years have passed.
This violence is extremely debilitating to many and affects one’s mental health. Closure must be provided. Period.
Women must demand that organisations have gender-inclusive policies that allow for reporting sexual misconduct at the workplace.
Call out toxic masculinity
The investigation committee must be well trained to handle these complaints empathetically and in a timely manner.
Further, women must demand that organisations, companies, and other workplaces, conduct background checks on all employees and heavily scrutinise employees for previous sexual violation offences.
Women must demand that companies ensure that all habits that perpetuate sexual violence at the workplace, including toxic masculinity, bro culture, and locker room talk, have no place at the workplace. People must be educated, and compliance must be enforced by peers.
Men must call out the toxic masculinity that perpetrates this violence. They must find the courage to intervene when their peers harass women, not encourage locker room talk and the “bro-culture” at the workplace. They have to be involved in bringing about the change.
We all must stand up and demand more. It is only when these changes happen that we can fight sexual violence and eliminate it in our workplaces and societies.
ElsaMarie D’Silva is the CEO of Safecity, which crowdmaps sexual harassment in public spaces. Twitter: @elsamariedsilva. Esther Ngumbi is a distinguished post-doctoral fellow at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Twitter: @estherngumbi