A new study on violence against women in Southeast Asian countries, by UN Joint Programme Partners for Prevention, is making headlines around the world.
Although the study also has interesting findings on non-sexual, physical violence against women, the findings that seem to have shocked most people were the high numbers of men admitting to rape.
Just under a quarter of men interviewed in the study countries (Cambodia, Papua New Guinea, China, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Sri Lanka) admitted to raping a woman or girl. It’s important to note the percentage varied widely between countries, from a low but still troubling 11% in Bangladesh to over 60% in Papua New Guinea. More than half the men said they committed their first assault between the ages of 15 and 19 and nearly half had raped repeatedly.
It’s safe to assume one of the reasons men were so open to admitting assault was that the questions never used the word “rape”. Instead, researchers asked if men had ever: “forced a woman who was not your wife or girlfriend at the time to have sex,” or “had sex with a woman who was too drunk or drugged to indicate whether she wanted it.”
About 10 per cent said they have had “non-consensual sex” with a woman who was not their partner, but another 14 per cent admitted it when partners were included in the question.
Less than one quarter served jail time.
So here’s how not to respond to this, white Westerners (with examples from news site comments):
- ” the study was only done in some of the most backward places on Earth. So it says absolutely nothing about the male of the species.”
- “and yet we keep letting them come to America on H1B work visas, where the later prey on children.”
- ”Typical Asians, bout time the media reports on these deviants.”
- ” Dont compare the West to Asia. Ever wondered why all the Asians (Chinese, Indians, Arabs, Pakkis, Koreans etc) are trying to immigrate desperately to the West & not vice-versa ?”
First of all, you can’t make those kind of blanket statements about the region from this (and not just because it’s super racist). The study doesn’t cover all of Southeast Asia, stats varied between countries, and only in Cambodia does the report claim there was balanced geographic representation in the sample.
Second, though there are different issues between and within various countries, there are some common themes that we see happening here. And that means we can’t get on our high, white horse. Some examples:
- Lisak & Miller’s 2002 US study surveyed college students and found that if you asked similar questions that avoided the word “rape”, 6% of male respondents admitted to committing or attempting rape.
- In 2009 McWhorter’s study of men in the US Navy, also avoiding the word “rape” in questions, found 13% admitted committing or attempting rape.
- An Angus Reid survey that came out in July found 1 in 5 Canadian men think women provoke sexual assault when they’re drunk. 11% of Canadians also thought women could provoke sexual assault by wearing a short skirt.
What we see in all these studies (though the American ones are much more limited in their samples) is that often rapists don’t see themselves as “rapists”. The UN study found the number one reason for attempting or committing rape was a sense of “sexual entitlement”. That sense of entitlement to have sex with women regardless of consent is reflected in the Angus Reid survey by those men who said a woman wearing a short skirt could be provoking assault. That’s part of what campaigns like “Don’t Be That Guy” tackle (with success!).
Another common and significant thread we see is the fact that in the UN study on Asian countries and in the North American context, rapes were more likely to be committed by acquaintances or intimate partners. According to 2010 numbers from Statistics Canada, in 82% of sexual assaults the victim knows the perpetrator.
The situation won’t be the same for a straight, middle-class, white woman in Vancouver like me compared to a poorer woman in, say, rural Papua New Guinea. But putting our blinders on to violence against women and rape culture at home (hello, UBC and SMU rape chants!) doesn’t help anyone.
So where do we go from here?
First, we need to acknowledge what the WHO has already said: violence against women is a global epidemic.
In terms of the situation in countries in the surveyed Asian countries, we need to recognize and support the work of grassroots activists and local NGOs working to end violence against women. For example, today’s conviction in the gang rape of a woman student in Delhi was handed down after only seven month: astonishingly fast compared to past practice in Indian courts. While there’s still a backlog, the improvement is the direct result of grassroots protests by Indian activists, who convinced the government to set up fast-track rape courts (the UN survey doesn’t actually cover India but this is an example of local activism having real effects).
Even in Papua New Guinea there are brave women working on the ground to make change in a way that’s immediately helpful in saving lives. Gender Focus contributor Matilda talked about two of them in a previous article, including Monica Paulus. Paulus “assists women victims of witchcraft accusations by providing them with food, hiding them in a safe place, assisting them in presenting their cases to court, or taking them to the closest hospital. She herself was accused of being a sorcerer and, as a consequence, lost all her possessions, including her house.”
Basically, we need to do what we can to support grassroots efforts that empower women, instead of either ignoring the situtation or swooping in and acting like we have all the answers.
Finally, we can actually learn and draw from the recommendations of the report (and I do recommend reading it) ideas for what strategies might be helpful dealing with similar issues in a Western context.
The study reaffirms what feminists around the world have been saying for decades and what other research has established: “that violence against women is fundamentally about pervasive gender inequality between women and men – the most important factors in explaining men’s perpetration of both intimate partner violence and non-partner rape are related to gender norms and sexual or relationship practices” (p. 87).
There are no recommendations in the study that wouldn’t also make sense in a Canadian or U.S. context to some degree. For example, Partners in Prevention say the study tells them they need to intervene with education and programming at younger ages, particularly focusing on boys and young men to “promote non-violent and caring ways to be a man” and teach about consent, sexuality and respect. There are also recommendations for teachers, law enforcement, media, health care systems, and social service providers. It’s certainly worth a look.