In a world where violence drives nearly every headline, fear and insecurity invades millions of women’s lives daily, quietly, and intimately.
November 25, 2015 is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. While raising awareness is an important first step to change, short-term campaign efforts and law-and-order approaches will not stop the pandemic of violence.
What is needed is a global health response within a social justice approach.
Nearly 22 years after the UN General Assembly passed the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women and with the United States still not signing the International Violence Against Women Act, the United Nation’s World’s Women 2015 Report crystalizes the need for direct action.
While it celebrates women’s ability to live longer, healthier lives and receive an education, facts about violence darken these advances. The World Health Organization declares 30 percent of women in a relationship experience physical or sexual violence, 35 percent experience intimate partner violence, and UN Women reports almost half the women killed worldwide died at the hands of an intimate partner or family member. With little data on psychological violence, researchers know that 43 percent of women in 28 EU member states report experiencing it. And in the United States, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men will be raped in their lifetimes. In 2015 alone (as of November 17), 21 transgender women, many of them women of color, have been murdered.
Laws and international declarations are necessary to provide resources to communities, but this political process will not be the mechanism to address, prevent, and eliminate violence, especially in the lives of women of color, and people in the LGBTQAI+ community. Laws are safety nets that sometimes lead to individual punishment but will not produce cultural change. More often than not, court systems further victimize survivors.
And what happens when sexual violence is embedded within racial violence of police brutality?
In the wake of former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw being charged with raping and sexually assaulting 13 black women he specifically targeted because he knew they were vulnerable within the U.S. judicial system, a recent investigation makes clear that “sexual misconduct is among the most prevalent type of complaint against law enforcement in the United States.”
A concurrent AP report further reveals that approximately 1,000 officers were fired over a five-year period for sexual assault, sex crimes, and sexual coercion. And this is the tip of the iceberg since “only 25 states require a police department to tell the state board anytime an officer is fired for misconduct.”
Reporting is a grueling and potentially dangerous process for any woman who has experienced violence. It is life threatening for women of color LGBTQAI+ communities. As Kimberlé Crenshaw, Distinguished Professor of Law at UCLA and Columbia University, and Andrea Richie, a New York police misconduct attorney and organizer, note in their Say Her Name Brief, it is “rarely foregrounded in popular understanding of police brutality” but happens with too-much intended frequency.
With a backlog of rape kits, police violence, protective silences within communities of color and LGBTQ communities, as well as the knowledge that the victim/survivor will be the one on trial, why would any woman depend on the criminal justice system?
Certainly, there are good law-and-order professionals who care about their communities and work effectively within the law. We need to hear those stories to help build trust, but buttressing laws and reporting structures will not address, prevent, or eliminate violence.
Trinidad offers a poignant example. The country’s comparatively progressive Domestic Violence Acts (1991 and 1999) established clear definitions of violence and its punishment. When the law went into effect the number of women reporting to the police increased. By 2005, the Trinidad & Tobago Coalition against Domestic Violence found that 75.5 percent of the cases were dismissed and only 21.9 percent resulted in protective orders. Eventually, as anthropologist Mindie Lazarus-Black found in her research, complainants all-but-disappeared because new laws “did not interrogate the hegemonic categories of “family,” “gender,” and “work” nor could they provide a new sense of agency for women within structures that value “cultures of reconciliation” over legal punishment (Lazarus-Black, 2008: 27).
Real change will demand (1) a shift in public consciousness so that the unthinkable is no longer acceptable behavior and (2) addressing sexual violence as an urgent global health issue that is framed by complex and simultaneous relations of power (gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, social class, religion, colonialism, and nationality) embedded in social institutions ranging from the family to sports to religion.
We must push beyond a call for universal rights and one-size-fits-all awareness and education campaigns. Women of color and queer communities are further silenced when their experiences are not reflected in such broad approaches.
It will take individuals, communities, and nations to listen to people affected directly by sexual violence so that effective pathways can be established for making change. It requires all of us to stop protecting perpetrators (men, women, straight, and queer) of violence, stop shying away from the discomfort such conversations seem to invite, and speak out against violence, not just on November 25 or when photos emerge. Eliminating violence requires acting on it as a pandemic of our own making that that we have the power to unravel through socialization and education, so long as we have the collective will to see its deep roots.
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