“How would you get back to your Normal Life?”: Rape Culture and Sexual Harassment

“On that morning, all that I was told was that I had been found behind a dumpster, potentially penetrated by a stranger, and that I should get retested for HIV because results don’t always show up immediately. But for now, I should go home and get back to my normal life. Imagine stepping back into the world with only that information” (Chanel Miller, 2016).

The above quote is an account by Chanel Miller, a 22-year old woman who had been sexually assaulted while she was unconscious the night before. This victim woke up terrified, confused, with nothing but the certainty that she had been raped and a directive to “get back to living her normal life”. How would you get back to living your normal life?

Loathsome, yet this is typical of several instances of sexual harassment and rape in our society. Victims are left to deal with the inconsolable life-long consequences, while their perpetrators often go unpunished. More despicable is the widespread phenomenon of rape culture, the apparent normalization of sexual violence and victim-blaming. The crime is often attributed to one ridiculous reason or another like the way the victim is dressed, bad timing or location of the victim, intoxication, among other reasons. The rate at which societies tend to excuse the behaviour of the perpetrator while blaming the victim is revolting. Rape is rape. Irrespective of the dressing, state or attitude of a person, no one has the right to initiate sexual acts with another person without their consent. No means no, not maybe, not a little, not to an extent, it just means no.

South Africa, which is considered to have one of the highest rates of rape and violence
against women in the world, recorded 52,420 cases of sexual offenses in their 2018/2019 crime Statistics. Of the total number, 41,583 cases were rape. That means every day for the entire year, 114 South Africans were raped. Bear in mind, these numbers only reflect the cases of rape that were reported to the police, not the unreported cases, or cases of compelled rape, attempted rape or even other forms of sexual harassment.

In Nigeria, the recent rape and gruesome murder of Uwaila, a 22-year old woman, sparked public outrage and a series of protests demanding the long-overdue reforms that will protect women from the persistent wave of sexual violence against them. These protests took to social media, which created the hashtag “#WeAreTired”. A more recent development in Ghana is a viral audio recording of a young nurse on duty who is heard desperately begging for her safety in the same moment she was being coerced into having sex by her boss. “WeAreTired” speaks for Uwaila, it speaks for the young Ghanaian nurse, it speaks for Chanel Miller and women all over the world who have ever been touched without their consent, groped in a crowded place, intimidated, coerced or physically forced to engage in any sexual act against their will. Sadly, some men do not realise that sexual harassment goes beyond rape itself. When you continuously make advances at a woman, to the point where she subtly increases her pace on the corridor to avoid running into, it counts as sexual harassment.

Regrettably, rape, sexual harassment and rape culture are not limited to women. Men also fall victim to this menace. Women, however, undoubtedly get the short end of the stick, especially in the workplace. According to a 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) report in the United States, more women than men are raped or experience some form of sexual harassment. In the workplace, sexual harassment and objectification is often a form of power-play. It occurs at every stage of employment like during the hiring process, pay negotiation, promotion or even continued employment. This plague in the workplace has led to the dismissal and resignation of several women, some men and a progressively hostile environment for those who have no option but to stay.

At the same time, falsely accusing a person of rape is unpardonable. Rape and sexual
harassment are very sensitive issues and should be dealt with delicately. Making false
accusations do not only ruin the reputation of the accused but progressively undermine the voices of actual victims.

For victims, the consequences of rape and sexual harassment go beyond physical violation, it strips them of every sense of confidence and self-worth, leaves them with a persistent insecurity and fear of being violated. Many of such women have come out to talk about their inability to sleep at night or walk alone after surviving rape or sexual harassment. Author and rape survivor, Alice Sebold, on recounting her story explained: “since then I’ve always thought that under rape in the dictionary, it should tell the truth. It is not just forcible intercourse; rape means to inhabit and destroy everything” (Sebold, 2017, p. 127). Alice, and many women like her are since exposed to the risk of depression, suicidal thoughts, isolation and other post-traumatic disorders in addition to the risk of sexually transmitted infections and diseases.

Time and time again, we read headlines and news stories of women falling victim to sexual violence and harassment. Why aren’t we angry enough about this? Why should women continuously beg for their safety? It should not take the gruesome rape and murder of a young girl to agitate for a safe space for women. Clearly, it is not the absence of laws that is fueling this continuous plague, so why aren’t these laws working? What is being done to preserve the dignity of the women who are harassed and sexually molested instead of shifting blame to them? A rape survivor should never have to think herself lucky after seeing her peer who was raped and murdered. Lucky that she will never feel safe again? Lucky that she will battle with trauma or that she would look over her shoulder for the rest of her life? Societies need to reinforce the mechanisms that protect the right of a woman to her body and highlight the fact that her clothing is not an invitation to violate her, neither is a man’s looks an invitation to
violate him.

Researched by: CSMR Africa and COAWM
Analysed and Written by: CSMR Africa for COAWM

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