She Did Everything Right

**Content warning – this post contains discussions of sexual assault**

“Why didn’t she report it to the police?”

It has to be one of the most commonly asked questions when incidents of violence against women are reported. And it’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask. When someone has been the victim of crime, we generally expect that they will report it to the police. And, in a perfect world, the police would investigate, make an arrest, the matter would go to court and justice would be served.

But we don’t live in a perfect world.

There were two incidents of sexual assault reported in Australian media last week – in both instances, a male university student had sexually assaulted a female acquaintance. In both instances, the woman had reported the matter to the police, and the matter was taken to court.

In Adelaide, a 21 year old male was sentenced to at least 12 months in prison for the digital rape of a female friend who was asleep. He admitted to the digital penetration of a drunk friend several times over the course of the evening. When she tried to stop him, he apologised, but continued to abuse her. In his sentencing remarks, District Court Judge Steven Millsteed said:

“The crime that you committed was very serious, you took advantage of a grossly intoxicated young woman… The fact that GW was significantly intoxicated at the time does not lessen the gravity of your behaviour. Women, intoxicated or otherwise, are subject to the full protection of the law”.

While it’s heartening to hear a judge note that the consumption of alcohol in no way excuses sexual assault, his further remarks were less encouraging:

“It is evident from all of the material before me that you are a person of previous good character. You strike me, from everything I know, as a decent young man who went off the rails for a short time. It is very sad to see someone with your background before me”.

In other words, “nice boys don’t rape, they just make mistakes”.

A week later, in Brisbane, a District Court jury heard the case of another male university student who had been charged with three counts of sexual assault. He had met a female acquaintance for a coffee and assaulted her in a car park. The woman told police that he had pinned her up against the side of the car, bit her, groped her, and put his hand in her pants. She told police:

“I was struggling violently, I said, ‘stop it’”

The man admitted to pinning the woman against the car, but told police:

“The reason why she wasn’t letting me kiss her on the lips was because she was doing the whole tease thing”.

He said he was just “testing the waters” and thought the two could be “friends with benefits”.

The incident was caught on CCTV.

The jury found him not guilty.

A sexual assault case takes, on average, twelve months to reach court in Australia. Reporting rapes are known to be low, and it’s estimated that just 4% of those who are found guilty of sexual assault will be imprisoned.

The women in these cases did everything “right”. They did what was “expected” of them as sexual assault victims.

They reported their assaults. They stuck out those long months, waiting for the matter to appear in court.

One of these men, at least, will spend some time in prison. He has received some form of punishment. But hey, he’s a “nice guy”, who just made a mistake, right?

The other man is free. He will be free to continue to attend university, get an education, to carry on with his life as if nothing happened.

The woman he assaulted doesn’t get that luxury.

Even though she did everything right.

If you, or someone you know, is experiencing domestic violence or sexual assault, you can get 24/7 help by contacting 1800Respect via their website or on 1800 737 732. 

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Self-doubt and Hypocrisy.

It’s a funny thing, this whole PhD process.

I seem to spend a huge amount of my time filled with feelings of self-doubt, and by all accounts, I’m not alone.

I’m just waiting for a tap on the shoulder, followed by someone telling me that somebody in admissions made a mistake a few years ago, and I should never have been allowed in.

Friday was one of those days.

How on earth has my research gone from sanitation in developing countries, to foreign aid and violence against women? Is that a sign that I really have no clue what I’m doing? Will my topic changes result in that seemingly inevitable tap on the shoulder?

Then I started wondering why I’m focusing on violence against women in developing countries, when it’s such an enormous problem in right here in Australia.

Violence against women isn’t just a problem of “the other”. At least one woman is killed every week by a current or former partner in Australia. One in three Australian women over the age of 15 has experienced physical or sexual violence in their lives.

I headed home with questions and uncertainty swirling around in my head, wondering how I could write about violence against women in a foreign country without being completely hypocritical.

As I waited at the train station, I watched a group of teenage girls say their farewells before the weekend. I smiled as they hugged each other, squealed over how awesome each other one was, and waved goodbye, shouting declarations of love to each other.

I watched as one of the girls boarded the train, her happy, carefree disposition changing in an instant.

She adopted a demeanour that was all too familiar to me. One I’d seen countless women adopt – one I myself adopt on an almost daily basis.

There was the quick, almost-but-not-quite subtle scan of the carriage. An iPod was quickly retrieved from her bag, the headphones shoved in her ears with expert speed. Head bowed down, shoulders slightly hunched. Arms folded across her chest, holding her school bag a little too tight.

There it was. The defense against Schrödinger’s Rapist.

The girl hastily shuffled past the group of teenage boys sitting to my right.

“Nice tits.”

She kept walking to the other end of the carriage.

The boys laughed, one of them shouting after her to ask why she hadn’t smiled. Couldn’t she take a compliment?

The group of boys could have been no more than fifteen years old.

I turned to them and asked them which part of objectifying someone was a compliment. How was she meant to have reacted, when she may have been scared shitless by a group of guys who were much bigger than her had decided that they had right to comment on her body?

They laughed, told me to lighten up and mind my own business.

I’ve thought about my research all weekend. The incident on the train wasn’t really anything out of the ordinary, but it was also on my mind all weekend.

My PhD research will continue on its current path. I will keep focusing on violence against women, using Timor-Leste as a case study.

But it doesn’t mean I’m a hypocrite.

Violence against women isn’t a problem of “the other”.

It happens in developed countries, and less developed countries. To wealthy women, and not-so-wealthy women.

I’ll keep researching and writing about violence against women. Because it’s something that’s happened to far too many of my friends and my family – both in Australia and overseas. And it’s not just rape or violent beatings. It encompasses so much more, like the harassment of teenage girls on public transport, verbal and emotional abuse, to name just a few examples. And its forms are the same the world over.

I won’t doubt my research anymore.

Because violence against women, in all its insidious forms, is a problem. A global problem.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t keep waiting for that tap on the shoulder.

“A global health problem of epidemic proportions” – where is the coverage and outrage?

In the wake of what I now refer to as “my blog post that took on a life of its own”, I have received a number messages, tweets, and comments suggesting that I am being naïve, idealistic, stupid, and even irresponsible for my views on rape and the public discourse that surrounds it.

I have been told that views such as mine are diminishing the importance of safety messages.

I’ve been accused of trying to “sensationalise” an issue just to get “attention or internet fame”.

It has been suggested that I was “cherry-picking” quotes and articles to make my point.

Those comments have been but a few among a flood of support and thanks. And I think most of them have missed the point.

Do I believe that the way we talk about rape in public and private needs changing? Absolutely.

Does that mean that I think that we should stop giving risk-management advice? Not necessarily.

We don’t live in a perfect world.

I don’t often walk alone, through a dodgy area, or a place that is dimly lit, and neither do a lot of women I know.

But, you know what? Life happens.

Sometimes it’s unavoidable and I have to do it. Am I supposed to somehow ensure that I have an escort at all times, day and night? Should I be forced to stay at home when I don’t have someone to walk with me as a deterrent to a rapist?

My issue isn’t with the risk-management advice – even though the statistics tell us we’re giving the wrong warnings.

My issue is the way we do and do not talk about rape.

My issue is that 1 in 5 Australian women will be forced to experience sexual violence in her lifetime.

My issue is that of those women, just 1 in 7 will report it to the police.

My issue is that the most common reason given for not reporting it is feelings of shame or embarrassment – let that sink in. SHAME OR EMBARRASSMENT.

My issue is that it seems that sexual violence is so common in this country that it’s not as worthy of political commentary or media coverage as alcohol-fuelled violence.

My issue is that in the few instances that the media does report sexual violence, they do so by telling us that the woman was walking alone/intoxicated/in a dark alley/on a deserted beach.

When you’re reporting on what a victim was doing prior to being raped, you are suggesting that she was somehow at fault, for simply being there. You ARE victim blaming.

I’m not saying that people shouldn’t teach their teenagers about personal safety.

I’m not saying that alcohol-fueled violence isn’t a problem.

What I am saying is that I want public outrage. I want the blame put solely on the rapist, where it belongs. I want politicians to speak out about the horrors of sexual violence in the same way that they have about alcohol-fueled violence. I want the media to pledge to not only to report on sexual violence, but to do so in a way that does not erase the perpetrator from the story and does not blame the victim.

Mid last year the World Health Organisation noted that violence against women is a “global health problem of epidemic proportions”.

Australia, we are part of that epidemic. And we need to talk about.

I’ve written previously about my PhD research, behaviour change communication, and the power of language and whether we like it or not, mass media has power. They have power over the news we receive, the language we use, and the way we view things.

What you see on the television, hear on the radio, or read online has power. It has a way of normalising the way we think about things.

When the media reports on sexual violence in a way that places the victim and their actions at the forefront of the story, they are minimising the role of the perpetrator.

When the media report solely on “stranger” rape, they are ignoring the fact that most incidents of sexual violence are perpetrated by someone who is known to the victim.

When the media report on a victims actions prior to the violence, they are perpetuating the myth that behaviours that a person does or does not engage in can prevent or cause rape.

And it affects the way we as a society views these crimes.

I’m just a person that wrote a blog post and tweeted about it. A post that has been republished on several other sites, has been shared tens of thousands of times on social media and has gotten more positive responses than negative.

So, please, before you send me a message or a comment that accuses me of being stupid, irresponsible, or idealistic (or one of the much, much nastier violent comments I’ve also gotten) and questions why I’m so angry about the downplaying of sexual violence in our society, ask yourself why one simple blog has had such an impact, and why you’re not as outraged as other people are.

 

 

Disappointment

When I was younger, the worst thing that my Mum could say to me was that I had disappointed her. Sure, angry was bad, but disappointed was so much worse. Anger was usually the result of something unexpected; disappointment usually meant that I had done something that she thought I was smart enough not to do. Or, that I hadn’t done something that I should have done. Whatever the case the phrase “I’m not angry, just disappointed” (which was usually said in a quiet and measured tone) could strike a blow that was greater than any teenager-vs.-mother screaming match.

Now, while I don’t have children myself, I was recently disappointed in a way that I imagine my Mum was when I got caught doing something wrong.

I was disappointed in Timor.

I’ve debated with myself for weeks over whether or not to write this blog. And I don’t really know why. Perhaps it was because I didn’t want to admit that Timor – a country that I have called home for much of this year – had left me frustrated and disillusioned. I didn’t want to share the dark and nasty side of a nation that, for the most part, I adore.

Or, perhaps, it was because I was disappointed in myself.

As a result of my crazy internal dialogue, this is probably going to be a somewhat convoluted entry. And it will likely raise more questions than answers. But, I decided that life isn’t all rainbows, puppies and unicorns and that I should share the bad along with the good.

A few weeks ago, it seemed to me that Timor was filled with violence. Yes, I admit that two days at a conference about family violence and weeks of reading about sexual and gender-based violence may have given me a skewed sample. But the violence wasn’t confined to documents or a conference room. It was everywhere – in the news, on the streets, even in the yard of neighbours.

I’m all too aware that sexual/gender-based/domestic/intimate partner/gang violence isn’t unique to Timor. It’s everywhere. A recent World Health Organization report found that violence against women is a “global health problem of epidemic proportions”.

I wasn’t under some crazy misapprehension that Timor was somehow exempt from violence against women, children, or anyone. With its brutally violent not-so-distant past, how could it be? Timor is a nation that has suffered decades of violence at the hands of foreign occupiers and its own people.

What I didn’t expect was how open and how seemingly accepted it was.

One of the things I’ve discovered is a necessity while you’re in a developing country context is to lose the Western mentality. Comparisons with home aren’t helpful and you shouldn’t always think of things as strange or wrong, just different. But that’s often easier said than done. For me, it’s been especially hard when it comes to violence in Timor.

A 2013 study found that 37.6% of Timorese women said that they have experienced physical violence. 3.4% said they had experienced sexual violence[1]. Women who had never been married were half as likely to have had experienced physical violence and 60% less likely to have had experienced sexual violence. It was also found that as a women’s level of education increased so too did the likelihood of her being abused, with it being suggested that the abuse may be a punishment for breaking gender norms[2].

Estimates for the number of children who are victims of sexual violence are hazy at best. The Judicial System Monitoring Program found that 49 cases of incest had been reported during the period from January 2010, to June 2012. A representative from the National Commission for the Rights of the Child suggested that rates of incest were higher as most families would not prosecute due to the shame and stigma attached to such crimes.

I attended a two-day conference on family violence in Timor-Leste several weeks ago that saw me filled with hope at some moments and despair at others. There were moments where I witnessed impassioned speeches about the need to end violence against women and children, the need for greater penalties for perpetrators, and the efforts that are being made to combat the horrendous rapes and violent beatings that occur. There were mentions of international treaties, anti-violence laws and successful projects. The participants were overwhelmingly women, representing NGOs, legal organisations, law enforcement officers and members of the judicial system. Timor, it was concluded, needs to address the issues faced by its women and children, in particular.

There was hope. There was willingness and drive for change.

On the flip side, there were moments where I wondered how a country that has endured so much violence over the years that is seems to have become normalised, could ever break the cycle. How do you change an entire population? Where do you even begin to start? And the biggest question of all: is it even possible?

The most disappointing, infuriating moments for me came not from members of the general public, but from senior members of the Timorese legal system – both men and women. The exact same people who are meant to play a key role in ending sexual and gender-based violence were the ones who were perpetuating the problem. To hear the suggestion, from a very senior (male) member of the Timorese judicial system, that it needs to be remembered that Timorese men will always be “a bit above” women in society was frustrating.  To hear, from a female judge, that they would like to impose harsher sentences in cases of sexual and gender-based violence, but cannot do so because they must account for “public opinion” was maddening.

There were questions raised about whether jail is a punishment or a kind of reward for perpetrators, how best to deal with a lack of resources on the part of the police and of support service providers, and what role the Catholic Church plays when it comes to ending abusive marriages. I was frustrated by each of these questions. Is the poverty in Timor so great that jail, where you get meals and a bed, can be viewed as a reward? Why has the Government failed to adequately support the police? How on earth can religion be so deeply ingrained that a woman would stay with an abusive husband, simply because the Church says that only death can part them? And how can the Church ignore women in danger, allowing them to believe that remaining in a violent situation is their only option?

Through it all, I sat silently.

By far, the most mind-blowing moment of the conference came when a male audience member raised a question during discussion time. He wondered why women are protected under Timor’s domestic violence laws, yet there is no law that protects men from provocation. He wondered why women would be allow to anger their husbands by not cooking, cleaning or looking after the children, causing their husbands to beat them. How, he wondered, were women allowed to get away with it, to be protected under the law, but men could not be protected from provocation? Where were the laws that demanded that a wife not cause her husband to hit her?

The Timorese attendees giggled, likely out of nervousness or embarrassment.

I sat silently.

I wanted to respond. Not only to the questions of provocation, but to all of the questions. I wanted to tell the female judge that she has the power to change public opinion and impose harsher sentences. I wanted to tell the Catholic priest that was present that his religion, the institution he belongs to needs to move into the 21st century, step up, and stop with the bullshit of “til-death-do-we-part-even-if-you-rape-or-beat-me”. I wanted to tell the prosecutor that women and men should be equal, regardless of his opinion, and tell him that he was part of the problem. And most of all, I wanted to ask the young male audience member where he had learnt that men are allowed to hit women, simply because they believe they are provoked.

But I didn’t say a word. It didn’t seem like my place to speak, no matter how much I wanted to.

Timor had disappointed me.

Less than a week later, I was looking out of the window of a first floor apartment. A young boy, no more than 4 years old, stood naked next to a tub of water in the yard next door. A woman, that I can only assume was his mother, approached him. I thought she was giving him a bath. I watched as she picked up a stick. I kept watching as she hit his bare skin with it. Over and over and over again. I listened to the sound of the stick slicing through the air, the “crack” it made as it hit his back, his legs, his arms, even the back of his head.

I watched in silence.

And then I did the thing I never thought I’d do.

I walked away.

I didn’t say a word. I watched as a small child was physically beaten, I turned and walked away and I tried to pretend it didn’t happen.

I had disappointed myself.

If such a vicious act had occurred in front of me in Australia, I would have stepped in. I would have called the police, spoken out, done something. Here in Timor, I didn’t do a thing. I didn’t think I should. It wasn’t my place. It’s not my country, not my culture. Do I, as a foreigner, have any right at all to act, or even to comment? I don’t know. I really don’t know. I know that such behaviour is not okay. I know that at some point, cultural relativism should be thrown out as an excuse.

Maybe it wouldn’t have been appropriate to say anything either at the conference, or to the woman I witnessed who was dishing out such a harsh “punishment”. But why did I allow my status as a foreigner to stop me? How did that make the situation different? And even if I had spoken up, would it have made any difference at all?

I don’t know if there’s anything I could have done, or if I should have done anything at all. I wished I had, though. But maybe the best thing I can do for now is my PhD research, in the hope that it can make a small difference, somehow, somewhere.

I do know that I’m not angry at Timor, or at myself. I’m just disappointed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] As mentioned in the report, this figure is likely to be underreported due to the stigma attached to sexual violence.

[2] Taft, A. & L. Watson (2013) “Violence Against Women in Timor-Leste. Secondary Analysis of the 2009-10 Demographic Health Survey”, Mother and Child Health Research, La Trobe University, pp.19-20.

The Power of Words

It’s easy to take words for granted. After all, words are just words, right?

Living in a country where you don’t speak the language puts a whole other spin on it. You can’t understand what people are saying, and they can’t always understand you. Sure, I’ve been picking up bits of Tetun, the most widely spoken language in Timor-Leste, as I go. I took lessons. I’ve been trying.

But Tetun is not a standardised language. There are many, many dialects. Due to the colonisation and invasion, many Timorese people also speak Bahasa and/or Portuguese. Words that are understood consistently can sometimes be hard to come by here. The power of communication becomes more distinct.

A portion of my PhD research is the use of Behaviour Change Communication in sanitation development programs; with one program in particular that places an emphasis on the use of language. More specifically, this approach – known as Community-Led Total Sanitation – requires the use of the crude, local terminology for faeces. Shit. Poo. Whatever it is that invokes a reaction.

Words are powerful. More powerful than we realise.

Today, I logged on to Facebook to see a status relating to lunch (because, as we all know, the rules of social media dictate that you must discuss or post a photo of at least one meal per day…). This status, however, used rape as an analogy for eating.

Accompanying the apparently requisite photo of the meal was this: “I’m so hungry I’m going to rape this bowl of pasta”.

This person is certainly not alone in their use of the word “rape” to describe something. It’s used to get psyched up about something, like eating lunch, or to describe a rough day at work. And every time I hear or read it used in these ways, I’m stunned.

I’m stunned because of the casual manner in which the word is tossed about these days.

I’m stunned because using the word “rape” seems to have crept in to our casual lexicon to describe trivial matters.

I’m stunned because, regardless of intention, the use of the word “rape” in such a casual way lessens its impact. It takes away the seriousness and diminishes the true meaning.

I’m stunned because, intentionally or not, it reinforces the notion that sexual assault is not a serious crime. A crime that inflicts untold trauma on victims.

I’m stunned because sexual assault remains one of the world’s most underreported crimes. It impacts an incredibly large portion of the world’s population, mostly women.

The Australian component of the International Violence Against Women Survey, conducted in 2002/3, found that 57% of women had experienced at least one incident of sexual violence over their lifetime. Just 1 in 7 women who experienced violence from an intimate partner and 1 in 6 who experienced it from someone else reported it to the police (source: http://www.aifs.gov.au/acssa/statistics.html).

The most common reason for not reporting the incident was because the women felt the incident was too minor. Other reasons were shame and embarrassment.

Too minor. Shame. Embarrassment.

How do we, as a global society, begin to change attitudes when we can casually throw around the word rape to describe things that aren’t even remotely synonymous with interpersonal violence?

How do we even begin to address the seriousness and severity of sexual assault, when attitudes such as those encountered by my friends Annie and Andrea are so pervasive?

How do we begin to change the taboos and discourse around rape when we can casually use the word “rape” in such a blithe manner? Using it in such a way sends a message – a message that rape is somehow inconsequential, even acceptable.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no desire to monitor language usage, or censor personal expression. I will, however, maintain the right judge how others use language, and to call them out on it.

And to use a word, that used correctly describes something so traumatic, so brutal and so potentially destroying, in any other context is worthy of judgement and reproach.

Words aren’t just words.

They have meaning. They have impacts. They have power.