Women’s Rights

A week or so ago, Saving the World’s Women appeared in the New York Times magazine, discussing the need for aid organizations to focus on women’s rights. This past week, the Huffington Post had 2 articles that are similar, or at least reference, this article.

Taking Women’s Rights Seriously

Yet, in supposedly civilised and enlightened times, girls and women around the world suffer unimaginable atrocities: forced marriage, rape, mutilation and death in pregnancy and childbirth. In Sierra Leone, a woman has a one in six chance of dying in childbirth in her lifetime — a grotesque transformation of what should be the happiest time in a family’s life into one of the most dangerous. Discrimination also means girls and women are more likely to be in poverty, denied schooling, deprived of health care, excluded from political and economic decision-making and die young.

In their important new book, Half The Sky, Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn tell very human stories of this abuse, discrimination and neglect. They argue that more girls have been murdered in the last 50 years simply because of their gender than all the people slaughtered in all the genocides. It is a conclusion which shames the modern world because, like slavery, this oppression is officially-sanctioned.

So a great challenge faces humankind: to match the abolition of slavery with the global emancipation of girls and women. This is not just moral reparation — though it certainly is that — rather, a fundamental empowerment essential for creating fairer, stronger and safer societies across the continents.

I once read in a book that the witch craze that killed tens of thousands of women actually overlapped during the Rennasaince, the age of enlightenment, where men made scientific discoveries and the humanities flourished. I’ve often thought we’re living during a similar time – a time when there is so much technology yet so little in regard to social progress, especially in regard to women and girls. How can we be making such strides in technology yet witness stoning, honor killings and sexual slavery?

Here’s an article that references the NYT piece. In it, Katz discusses the gender-neutral language used when discusing “violence against women.” Note that feminists have said this for years now.

Men Missing in Coverage of Sexual Violence in Congo

…But when it comes to being held responsible for the negative consequences of our behavior, including the widespread incidence of rape around the world, men are typically rendered invisible in the journalistic conversation.

Men’s role in rape is characteristically hidden in mainstream journalism through a variety of linguistic conventions. One of the more significant of these is when writers and speakers use the passive voice – consciously or not — to talk about incidents of sexual violence (e.g. “200,000 women have been raped since the conflict began.”). In addition, men’s central responsibility for the rape pandemic escapes critical examination whenever writers and speakers use gender-neutral terminology to talk about perpetrators, who are overwhelmingly men. An August 12 New York Times article reporting on Secretary Clinton’s trip provides a good case study of these phenomena.

The article appeared beneath the fold on page A8, in the International section. It was headlined “Clinton Presents Plan to Fight Sexual Violence in Congo,” by Jeffery Gettleman. The passive voice began in the first paragraph: “…Secretary Clinton…met a Congolese woman who had been gang-raped while she was eight months pregnant.” Passive sentence structures that hid male perpetration appeared in subsequent paragraphs: “…hundreds of thousands of women have been raped in the past decade.” “…countless women, and recently many men, have been raped.” “Hundreds of villagers have been massacred.” “The aid worker told Mrs. Clinton that an 8-year-old boy who had strayed out of the camp was raped the other day.”

This brief catalogue of passive sentences is not an attempt to single out the New York Times reporter for criticism. He was merely a vehicle for the transmission of the dominant ideology, which routinely obfuscates men’s culpability for rape through both conscious and unconscious omissions. Victims themselves often use passive voice. Gettleman quoted one woman, Mrs. Mapendo, who said “Our life is very bad. We get raped when we go out and look for food. “Another woman said “Children are killed, women are raped and the world closes its eyes.”

Umm, victims often use this terminology because it stems from the dominant ideology – they are not immune from it simply because they have been victimized…by men (there, I’ve said it!) Women and girls have adapted to the terminology (and actions) of the dominant group.

But while the gender of the perpetrators is obscured, the gender of the victims is stated plainly. The following sentence provides a clear illustration of this: “…an intensely predatory conflict driven by a mix of ethnic, commercial, nationalist, and criminal interests, in which various armed groups often vent their rage against women.” This type of language usage is ubiquitous in contemporary journalism. When the perpetrators are men, their gender is not mentioned (“armed groups.”) When the victims are women, their gender is in full view.

The result is that discussions about sex crimes, in the Congo and elsewhere, focus on what is happening to women, and not on who is doing it to them. In practice, this has obvious repercussions for so-called prevention efforts, which as a result of their focus on women, often amount to mere band-aid solutions. Of course rape victims and survivors need better medical and counseling services. But let’s not mistake those services for prevention — which can only be successful to the extent that men and boys are a part of them.

He concludes:

Unfortunately, the failure of journalists and others to use active language to describe who is doing what to whom, as well as their hesitation to use gender-specific language to talk about men and boys as the perpetrators of sexual violence, make it next to impossible to hold male (and female) leaders accountable for addressing these problems forthrightly. As a result, the struggle to bring a critical mass of men into the social change process necessary to achieve significant reductions in gender-based violence continues. Women — along with a small number of male allies — continue to mourn the victims, care for the survivors, and pick up the broken pieces in the lives of their traumatized children. And across the world we lurch endlessly from one preventable tragedy to the next.

Yes, that we do. I personally know of 3 cases of domestic violence occuring to people I know – a long list of gender-based violence that has affected my life and those around me. It’s time we stop picking up broken pieces and start focusing on how to prevent breakage in the first place.


4 comments on “Women’s Rights

  1. miss j says:

    In a general sense, I think the point is that we don’t say “men rape” but rather “women are raped.” The gender is only identified when it pertains to the victim. Linguistically, we remove accountability – just as we so often do in social circles and in courtrooms.

    If there’s a country that doesn’t criminalize rape, they’re probably not reporting on it – perhaps the reports are coming from foreign correspondents.

    Thanks for commenting~

  2. Kat Richter says:

    The use of the passive voice in rape cases is frustrating, but I’ve always had the impression that the use of passive was due to not knowing the identity of the rapist. How would you propose that journalists avoid passive voice (deflecting attention away from the criminal) when they don’t know who the criminal is? When the country they’re reporting from doesn’t criminalize rape?

    (This isn’t a criticism, but a thought exercise–if we are to get journalists to avoid using condescending, patronizing language, we have to not just point out their error but offer them specific recommendations to change what they’re doing.)

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