Why Should You Care About Sexual Violence?

Why should you care about sexual violence? This seems like a silly question to ask, doesn’t it? You read the news and there is a story about a woman raped in the Congo, in  CAR, in Syria, and you think to yourself “how horrible, what a tragedy.” Of course rape is an important issue, and morally reprehensible. Sexual violence is a human rights violation, it’s disgusting, and an atrocious part of modern conflict; however, it’s also seen as something that happens “out there,” in some far away war, in situations that don’t really impact your own life. We cringe, we are sad when we hear these stories…and then we move on. We may say that we care, but do we really?

As much we claim that sexual violence is important, worldwide trends sometimes speak to the opposite. Although there are a wide range of civil society actors working to end this practice, sexual violence is often sidelined by governments and international organizations. While there are UN organizations working on sexual violence, they are understaffed, incoherent, and have incredibly low amounts of funding. Governments ignore high rates of sexual violence in military institutions, and peace delegations often fail to see sexual violence as an important topic that needs to be addressed. Sexual violence is framed as a “soft issue,” taking a back seat to the more important issues of the day, such as military engagements or macro-economic policy. It is important, just not as important as other, more pressing, issues.

So then, why should we care? What makes sexual violence so special and why should we give up our already pressed time to care about another story of human suffering? That, dear reader, is what I’m going to try to convince you of.

Sexual violence has reached epidemic proportions:
I’m sure you’ve all heard the latest fatality reports from conflict zones across the world – 140,000 dead in Syria, thousands killed in CAR raids, dozens killed in Kiev protests. These conflicts are important and disturbing, and their rate of violence deserves to be taken  seriously; however statistics on sexual violence match and exceed many conflict casualty numbers, yet do not receive nearly the same attention. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, estimates of sexual violence reach as high as 1.8 million individuals. During the Rwandan genocide, it is estimated that 250,000 to 500,000 women were raped, and in the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict, between 20,000 and 50,000 were raped. In Sierra Leone, 215,000 women were raped during the civil war and in Liberia, it is estimated that 18% of the population has been subjected to sexual violence. Hundreds of women continue to be sexually assaulted in Burma, Somalia, Sudan, and Syria. When you take into account that very few will actually report sexual violence, these numbers are staggering.

Even when you turn away from sexual violence committed in conflict, numbers on violence against women are just as shocking. The UN recently released a study estimating that about every 1 in 3 (around 35%) women world-wide will experience gender based violence in their lifetime. Last week, The Lancet released another study estimating that approximately 7% of women world-wide experience violence at the hands of a non-partner. In some area’s, such as sub-Saharan Africa, these numbers reach as high as 21%.

It doesn’t just happen “over there”… sexual violence in epidemic in North America too:
When we talk about sexual violence, we often frame it as something that happens in armed conflict or something that happens far away from our ordinary life here at home. That assumption is extremely false. In North America, approximately 1 in 4 women will experience sexual assault in her lifetime. 18% of US women have experienced either rape or attempted rape in their lifetime, and 1 out of 17 Canadian women face the same. These rates are slightly lower for men, but are still prevalent.  Not only are these statistics startling, but the after effects of rape can also be horrifying. Victim-blaming and slut-shaming are common occurrences, with those meant to protect victims failing to provide an adequate response. Take for example the case of Daisy Coleman, who was drugged and raped by fellow students, blamed and bullied on social media, and then had to watch as her attackers were absolved of rape charges. Or the 14 year old girl from Missouri, who was raped by her teacher. She committed suicide after she was blamed for causing the rape, while her attacker was only sentenced to 30 days in prison. Or Rehtaeh Parsons, a Nova Scotia teenager who committed suicide after the video of her gang rape spread over social media, inducing bullying and harassment. These aren’t few and far between events. The wide scope of sexual violence, and it’s horrifying after effects, can be found in thousands of cases across Canada and the U.S. We need to recognize that sexual violence is also a pervasive element of our own society.

Sexual violence costs billions of dollars:
Okay so you’re still not convinced. Yes sexual violence is horrible, and yes maybe it occurs at a higher rate than you’d like to admit…but that still doesn’t explain why the world should care more than it already does. Sexual violence isn’t just a moral and social strain on our society though; it is also a huge economic one.

In Canada, the total cost of sexual assault is approximately 1.9 billion per year. The total cost of intimate partner violence is approximately 7.4 billion per year. This comes out to around 334$ per person, more than the cost per person of government revenue associated with fighting illegal drug use. In the U.S, intimate partner violence costs around 5.8 billion annually in health losses, and estimates go even higher when figuring in other related expenses. Economic losses through drops in workforce productivity are also prevalent. The U.S looses 8 million days of paid work annually because of the effects of domestic violence. Conservative estimates approximate that 1.2 GDP points are lost in Brazil and Tanzania because of violence against women, and some studies suggest it could cost up to as much as 10% of the UK’s GDP. Extrapolating globally, sexual violence and violence against women costs BILLIONS of dollars for the world economy.

A drain on economic resources also occurs when sexual violence prevents the victim from being able to participate in their community. For example, when militia’s use gang-rape in conflict, often this result’s in obstetric fistula, ostracizing the woman and hindering her from contributing to her community. The psychological effects she experiences (such as trauma and mental health issues) may also prevent her from returning to a normal life, causing strain on her family, her children’s well-being, and her ability to further their socio-economic status. All of these issues factor into poverty rates, cycles of violence, and a lack of social stability that is needed for economic success. In addition, these stats don’t even begin to touch on the amount of revenue that could be earned if other barriers to economic inclusion (trafficking, informal job markets, lack of financial access, ect.) were addressed as well – but that would be a whole other blog post.

Even a brief look at the economics of sexual violence gives us a clear picture: violence against women and girls costs money. TONS of money. It rips apart communities, and blocks energy and investment from being channeled into wealth creation alongside social cohesion. Sexual violence isn’t just a moral and social issue – its also just bad economics.

So…why should we care again?
As I’ve tried to demonstrate, sexual violence isn’t some far-away occurrence that affects a small portion of the world population. It doesn’t just happen in conflict zones and it doesn’t just happen in the developing world. It doesn’t just happen to women, and it doesn’t just affect the single individual that is assaulted. Sexual violence is a pervasive social and economic issue that affects huge portions of the worldwide population. And it will continue to affect huge portions of the worldwide population, unless a more drastic effort can be made to eradicate the use of sexual violence as a common practice.

There are reasons to be (slightly) hopeful. In 2008, the UN created a specialized department to directly deal with sexual violence in conflict, and the Secretary General has also spearheaded a Violence Against Women initiative. These efforts have been matched by other international organization, such as the ICC and the G8, who are making an effort to address sexual violence. Public outrage after gang-rapes in countries such as India and South Africa has led to increased debate and discussion on how we address sexual violence globally. Civil society organizations, academics, and policymakers are all joining in on this discussion, and high profile figures such as UK Foreign Minister William Hague have put sexual violence on the global policy agenda. Most importantly, there are thousands of grass-roots activists and survivors worldwide that work tirelessly to address sexual violence on the community level. These are all important steps in the right direction. But to get there, we have to care. The international community has to care,  governments have to care, and you have to care.

As I hope these examples demonstrate, there are many reasons why you should care about sexual violence. It’s a social, moral, economic, and political issue that affects us all.  For more information about sexual violence, check out some of the organizations posted below – they do amazing work on this issue area. And, if you fancy, you could follow my blog, since I’m sure there will be more posts related to this issue in the near future. Thanks for reading.

Women Under Siege

Women to Women International 

UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict

International Coalition to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict

Nobel Women’s Initiative 

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