First it was the military. Then college campuses and churches. Then prisons. Then war crimes and UN Peacekeepers. I wrote about them all, with increasing despair. Now, there are stories of sexual aggression emerging from Baltimore’s public housing sector, the refugee and migrant camps abroad, and even the public squares of some of Europe’s finest cities. How can so much violence against women continue to persist?
When we think of the US military the problem spills over into the National Guard, which is subject to state, not federal law. Take the example of Jennifer Norris, who served in the Air Force and two National Guards. Sexually assaulted four times in two years, like many other military women, she faced retaliation when she revealed what had happened. She calls it “the biggest betrayal I ever experienced,” and admits she thought of suicide. Forced into medical retirement, she says she got fired for being raped. According to Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand (D-NY), “the true scope of the violence in military communities is vastly underreported.”
Campus rape was brought to light chillingly in Jon Krakauer’s 2015 book, ‘Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town’. Rape is the most underreported serious crime in the US and at least 80 per cent of rapes go unreported. Less than five per cent of rapes are prosecuted and fewer than three per cent end with a conviction and jail time. Kraukauer shares dramatic stories of several young women in Missoula, who were raped by the university’s revered football players and the post-rape travesties these women endured from university officials, police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, the media and the public. How could so many people act in collusion like that, we must wonder? And that’s just one college in one town in America.
We hardly need reminders of travesties committed by clergy of all faiths and their religious communities but here’s a chilling example. In 2014, a pastor in Memphis was arrested for sexually abusing a 16-year old family member. The church and family had been told about the abuse two years earlier but had decided that rather than report the crime to the police they would pray for the offender. I can’t help wondering what’s become of that child while the perpetrator walks free.
When it comes to prison abuse I get my information first-hand from an incarcerated woman I’ve corresponded with for over 20 years. She has personally experienced medical sexual abuse and she knows lots of women who are forced to have sex with guards in order to be free from physical and emotional punishment or to get sufficient basic supplies. Another favourite means of sexual assault? Think about jeering guards watching strip searches on hidden cameras or participating, as some in a Texas county jail did for three years, in onsite “rape camps”.
Stories of victimisation of females by UN Peacekeeping forces are particularly egregious. Take the story of sisters Gisele, 14, and Esperance, 15, two orphans who were beaten and gang-raped in the Congo. Or of Joaki and Chantal, both 14, who were impregnated in 2005 by Uruguayan peacekeepers there. The soldiers went home while the child-mothers remained abandoned by them, and the UN. A landmark study by UNICEF reported in the 1990s that “in six out of 12 country studies, the arrival of peacekeeping troops [was] associated with a rapid rise in child prostitution.” A later review concluded that sexual abuse and prostitution followed most UN interventions.
Related to this, rape as a war crime remains widespread, particularly where there is ethnic conflict. It is often used as a means of psychological warfare in order to humiliate the enemy, and it can include sexual slavery or be part of ethnic cleansing.
Meanwhile, migrant and refugee women are now facing rape and other sexual assault as they desperately seek safety and asylum. According to a recent ‘New York Times’ piece, women are frequently forced to pay down their family’s debt to smugglers by providing sex and there has been a surge in trafficking and other abuse by fellow refugees and police officers. And then there was New Year’s Eve in Cologne, Germany, when male refugees surrounded large numbers of celebrating women and sexually accosted them.
Domestic abuse has also spiked. One psychologist in Berlin reported that nearly all of the women in her care have experienced sexual violence. It’s so bad the therapists have to seek help to deal with the stories they hear.
Closer to home a disturbing scenario emerged out of Baltimore in December 2015 when it was revealed that at least two dozen women who live in public housing there were routinely denied maintenance services for things like gas leaks, no heat, and rat infestations unless they agreed to have sex with city maintenance employees. Allegedly, the city’s housing commissioner knew about the abuse and did nothing to stop it.
Whatever the cultural causes of such heinous violence, they serve to remind us, yet again, that sexual violence against women continues unabated, pervasive and deviant beyond anything that can be tolerated, anywhere for any reason.
What are we – individuals, communities, countries, nations – going to do to stop it?
Written byElayne Clift
Elayne writes about women, social and international issues from Saxtons River, Vermont. An award-winning writer and journalist, Elayne’s work has appeared inThe Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor,The Chronicle of Higher Education, Vermont Magazine and various other magazines, periodicals and anthologies. She serves as Sr. Correspondent for the international syndicate Women’s Feature Service and is a frequent contributor to Women’s Media Center.