Sexual assault was frowned upon in my society but as long as there was no unwanted penetrative sex it was not a crime.
It is 15th October 2016. I have just been comparative shopping for a new carpet to complement my newly renovated living room. The whole morning has produced zero results. I am tired. I go to a lunchroom to relax and regroup. As I am sitting there waiting for my order I overhear a conversation about Donald Trump’s alleged sexual assault on women. This intrigues me. I start wondering if sexual assault is a taboo and crime in most cultures.
The President Donald Trump scandal was topping sales of all tabloid newspaper in the west. I started wondering whether a presidential candidate in Asia, South America or Africa would cause such a public outcry. Let us examine sexual assault in a contextual and cultural way.
Sexual assault may be defined as a sexual act or innuendo without the consent of the assaulted party. I wonder if this definition applies to all cultures and people. I only got wind of its classification as an assault during my legal studies. It occurred to me that I had witnessed and heard of many sexual assault cases throughout my life. For some reason, in my society these cases did not garner much outrage or criminal consequences. Sexual assault was frowned upon but as long as there was no unwanted penetrative sex it was not a crime.
When I was growing up there were three ways of reacting and dealing with sexual assault situations; a) silence on the whole matter b) The victim would get her male relatives or friends to go and beat some sense into the perpetrator c)Blame the victim for calling it upon herself or himself. Sadly, a) and c) were the most common ways of dealing with it. Although, nowadays in Africa sexual assault is reported and punishable by law it is not yet fully understood enough to have more victims step forward and report it.
Asia is similar in its stance on sexual assault. Excessive restrictions and pressure is placed on the victim not to disclose the crime. It goes beyond the individual. For example, in India (most parts) it is the family’s honour that is blemished if the victim reports her assaulter. There have been cases of family members killing the victim so as to “honour” the family name. Over and above that, the victim is supposed to be chaste and untouched by sexual leanings. Purity is essential. If she is sexually mishandled she is of poor marriageable value and therefore will take the brunt of the blame from family members and invariably be the scorn of her community. This makes it very difficult for the victims to come forward thus making sexual assault a paper crime that is of no consequence and practically nonexistent. It goes without saying that for the majority it loses its purported wrongful and criminal nature. It is not a crime. It is not even a delict. In China crimes of a sexual nature are mostly stigmatised. The victim bears the mark of disgrace. Women’s Rights Activists in China sometimes struggle to speak out against these crimes for fear of being arrested. In a case early this year, five members of an awareness campaign attempting to raise awareness on sexual harassment were arrested (asafeworldforwomen.org). And the charge was patronizingly called “picking quarrels”. With this kind of attitude sexual assault is no doubt not of much consequence in that society.
A 2016 article on humanosphere.org states that women in Latin American cities (South America) face higher rates of sexual assault and the number is increasingly growing. The popular reasons that the women will not report these crimes is stigma, fear of retaliation and a lack of trust in the judicial system. Honduras is considered to be the worst place to be a woman I watched a ABC news documentary (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VERguOc0laE) depicting the “normal”sexual crimes and murders that occur commonly in the country. It is a culture of sexist machismo that unfazes even children because of its common occurrence. The women’s rights movements and awareness campaigns are silenced to the point of being non-existent. A Peruvian associate of mine once mentioned to me that the same applies in Peru. People just accept it as part of life. This brings to question whether sexual assault is a crime there. Perhaps in theory it is but in practice not at all.
Recently the news has been awash with campaigns and awareness movements against sexual assault and harassment. It all started with an exposé detailing allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual improprieties against women. Very soon personal stories began pouring in from women in all industries across the world. This led to the hashtag #MeToo campaign, a rallying cry against sexual assault and harassment. A seemingly simple action brought about empowerment, awareness, empathy and sympathy from both men and women across the world. This gives a sense of the magnitude of the problem.
Stigma needs to be set aside so society can be more open to accept sexual violence and criminalise these pervasive and horrendous acts that appear to be normal in most parts of Africa, Asia and South America. Awareness and Education are key. Immense penalties must be visited on the perpetrators. Admittedly, it is very difficult to change long accepted notions and cultural leanings of any society. It will take time but it is definitely worth the effort. If it can happen in the west it can happen everywhere.