47. A Global Profile: Sexual Violence Against Women 

Author: Juliana Swaren, Sophomore

While some health issues, such as malaria and access to clean water, are more prevalent in certain parts of the world than they are in others, women’s health issues exist globally. Sexual violence against women, for example, is undeniably present in almost all parts of the world. Crossing geographic, political, social, racial, cultural, and economic divides, sexual violence is one of the greatest global issues in women’s health today, and can lead to a variety of serious consequences. Generally speaking, sexual violence against women can lead to depression, unplanned pregnancy, STIs, HIV, disability, injury, and even death (Skolnik, 2012). Globally, rates of sexual violence vary greatly- both regionally and by specific country or state. Furthermore, the specific causes of and factors related to sexual violence vary greatly across the world as well. While different in different parts of the world, sexual violence against women is one of the greatest issues in global health today, and therefore calls for a variety of interventions.

In the US, someone is sexually assaulted approximately every two minutes. Furthermore, about 237,868 people are sexually assaulted each year (Rainn, 2013). In Canada, approximately one in four women will be sexually assaulted at some point in life (SACHA, 2013). In both North American countries, most incidences of sexual violence occur with a non-stranger, and many occur with a partner or significant other. Similarly, in both countries, the majority of sexual assaults are not reported to the police- 60% in the US (Rainn, 2013), and 93% in Canada (SACHA, 2013).

Sexual assault is almost as prevalent in European countries as it is in North America. In Europe, 25.4% of women experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a partner, and an additional 5.2% experience sexual violence by a stranger (WHO, 2013). Rates of sexual violence differ greatly between European countries, ranging from 35% in the Czech Republic to 11% in France (European, 2013). Like in North America, however, the majority of incidents of sexual violence in Europe occur with an intimate partner and/or someone who is known to the victim.

Like in North American and Europe, the majority of sexual assaults in South America occur with known-attackers. According to the Sexual Violence Research Initiative in South America, between five and forty-seven percent of sexual assaults in South America are performed by an attacker who is intimately known by the victim. Additionally, between eight and twenty-seven percent of attackers are performed by a stranger (Contreras, 2010).

In Africa, incidents of sexual violence vary greatly by region. In Central Africa, incidents of sexual violence are often closely linked to political unrest, war, and military presence. As rape is often used as a form of military enforcement and torture, approximately 50% of rapes occur in the home. In Central Africa, many traditional belief systems render rape victims, and their children, shamed and exiled from society (Harvard, 2009). Like Central Africa, South Africa also has very high rates of sexual violence. In 2012, 64,000 rapes (or 175 per day) were documented in South Africa alone (UN News, 2013). According to the UN News Centre, rape in South Africa relates greatly to the traditionally patriarchal society (UN News, 2013). Additionally, according to the Human Rights Watch on sexual violence in schools is South Africa, sexual violence and rape is also very common in schools, perpetrators being both classmates and teachers (Ali-Dinar, 2001). In Sub-Saharan Africa, issues of sexual violence and rape are also extremely common. According to Advocate for Youth, “46% of Ugandan women, 60% of Tanzanian women, 42% of Kenyan women, and 40% of Zambian women report regular physical abuse” by a partner (Delano, 1998). Traditional norms in Sub-Saharan African make reporting abuse taboo, and abuse is concentrated most heavily in socially and economically disadvantaged women (Delano, 1998). Unlike in North America and Europe, sexual violence in Africa is often connected to war, known as war related sexual violence. During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, for example, approximately 500,000 girls and women were raped. African women displaced by war and violence often become victims of sexual abuse and rape as well (Isis, 2011).

Recently, the UN released a study that of 10,000 surveyed men in Asia and the Pacific, approximately half reported having committed physical and/or sexual violence against a female partner. In this same study, approximately 25% of men admitted to having raped. In this study, the most frequently reported reason for rape was sexual entitlement (or the idea that men have the right to sex with a woman, regardless of her consent), and between 1% and 14% of men admitted to having participated in gang rape (Half of, 2013). According to the Sigur Center for Asian Studies, an average of four rapes per day occur in India (Nham, 2013). Similarly, according to UN Women South Asia, almost half of the women who experience physical and sexual abuse in Asia are attacked by a partner (UN Women, 2013).

In Australia, 126,100 women were sexually assaulted in 2005, according to the The Australian Bureau of Statistics. According to this same bureau, 78% of female victims knew their attacker, and 99% of all perpetrators of sexual assault were male (Government, 2010). Like in North America and Europe, the majority of sexual violence against women in Australia occur when the attacker is an intimate partner, and many of the assaults occur in the home. Like in North America, approximately 80% of sexual assaults on females are not reported to the police (Australian, 2013).

According to the statistics, sexual violence against women is quite prevalent across the world. While variant by region and individual country, many acts of sexual violence are performed by a person whom the victim knows, often intimately. While in North America, Sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa, and Australia the majority of sexual violence acts are committed by a partner, this type of attack is not a majority in Central Africa, Europe, and Asia.  Globally, however, the general causes of sexual violence differ greatly. In Asia, studies point to ‘men’s entitlement’ as a major proponent for sexual violence (Half of, 2013), while in South Africa, studies cite a traditionally patriarchal society as a major proponent of rape and rape culture (UN News, 2013). In Africa as a whole, however, sexual violence is often related to war (Isis, 2011).

In order to address this truly global epidemic, an international coalition to address sexual violence against women must be established. While specific to individual cultures and societies, a major proponent of sexual violence and rape is gender inequality. Across the world, women’s manufactured inferiority to men perpetuates the issues of men’s entitlement and sense of power that ultimately encourage acts of sexual violence. In order to combat this type of inequality, and therefore this greater epidemic, an international coalition must be formulated to combat theses issues. Centered upon equality, this coalition would consist of various representatives from individual countries and continents, as to reflect the major sociocultural and political causes of sexual violence in each region. While widespread, this coalition would serve as a substantial international effort to combat sexual violence, but would also develop and facilitate programs specific to individual regions. In areas where many acts of sexual violence are a consequence of political unrest and war, the coalition would work to initiate protection programs female refugee and internationally displaced persons. Additionally, the coalition would work to advocate for the outlawing and additional enforcement of gender-biased practices, such as sex selective abortion, Female Genital Cutting, child marriage, and dowry marriage. Because many of these practices demean women, outlawing such acts will serve to promote the sociocultural status of women in affect areas; and partnerships could be made with the UN to outlaw these types of acts. That all being said, many of these practices has cultural roots and purpose, and would therefore need to be educationally discouraged, as well as simply outlawed.

In addition to established region and country specific programs, and working to outlaw gender-biased practices, the coalition would work to combat sexual violence against women through the larger empowerment of women worldwide. First, by working with existing education programs and initiating new programs, the coalition could work towards women’s empowerment by promoting education of girls worldwide. Because being education contributes to good health and success, educating female children is critical to enabling women’s empowerment. In areas where applicable, the coalition could finance and establish programs to financially incentivize parents to send female children to school. Through this type of incentive, female children could be viewed as an asset, contrary to the widespread perception of female children as a burden. In addition to educating students with normal curriculum, however, the coalition would need to established specific education programs for both male and female students. While female-specific programs could focus on positive attitude, confidence, and empowerment, male-specific programs could focus on respect for women. Ultimately, both types of programs would center on gender equality.

In addition to education initiatives, the coalition would establish programs to reach out to adult females as well. For example, in areas where many women are economically dependent on their male counterparts, microloan and Village Health Worker programs could be established to increase financial stability and freedom. In many parts of the world, women are subjected to do sexual violence due to their lack of sociocultural and economic standing. Therefore, partnered with the aforementioned social-empowerment based programs, these economic initiatives could service to financially empower women as well.

While many of these sexual violence determent programs speak to the causes and proponents of sexual violence in developing countries, these programs do not sufficiently address regions such as North America, Europe, and Australia. Generally, the literature addresses sexual violence in more developed countries as an issue of  control or power, rather than as an issue of disadvantagement and gender inequality. Because most developed countries are generally more equal in terms of gender, sexual violence is typically depicted as an act of aggression, rather than of an issue of gender inequality. However, in even these more developed countries, where gender discrimination and inequality still exists, sexual violence is at least partially a result of the perpetuation of traditional gender roles and women’s disadvantgemnet. To this end, anti-sexual violence initiatives in these regions of the world must also focus on women’s empowerment, but in terms of the discouragement of traditional gender roles, as well as the prevention of benevolent sexism. In the same way that education programs would be useful in developing countries, education initiatives aimed at encouraging gender equality to school-age children in developed countries could serve to promote equality and therefore discourage the disadvantgemnet and gender inequality that promotes rape culture. In developing countries, more streamline and punitive legal prosecution of sexual violence crimes could serve to deter acts of sexual violence, as well as increased legislation related to these crimes. Because underreporting of sexual violence is such a serious issue in North America, Europe, and Australia, as well as in developing countries, initiatives to encourage and enable disclosure could also be beneficial. Lastly, social campaigns aimed at openly addressing rape culture, particularly those meant to deter ‘slut shaming’ and victim blaming, could also be beneficial in these more developed regions.

Discussing and addressing issues of sexual violence on a global scale calls into discussion the idea of privilege. When dealing with a deeply sociocultural issue, one must consider how potential solutions unfairly impact one group or cultural over another. In considering the example of outlawing gender biased practices on a global scale, for example, many of the practices one person may consider unethical or obscene are culturally significant to another person. Similarly, as revealed in the discussion of sexual violence in developing countries versus in North America, Europe, and Australia, it is evident that these more developed regions have less profound steps to take in terms of changing the culture of women’s empowerment as related to sexual violence. However, as revealed by the statistics, issues of sexual violence transcend almost all national and regional borders, make this crisis considerably immune to privilege.

In order to address sexual violence on a global scale, a widespread international coalition is needed. The global sexual violence epidemic relates most directly to the ‘promote gender equality & empower women’ Millennium Development Goal, as well as the goal aimed at promoting primary education (through education-focused solutions). Through women’s empowerment and gender equality driven programs, as well as region-specific sexual violence prevention initiatives and stricter legislation, steps can be taken to fight back against this global epidemic. While criminally- and psychiatrically-motivated acts of violence and sexual assault may always occur, the known-perpetrator trend of sexual violence worldwide points for the need to combat these issues using global gender-equality initiatives.

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