Victim-blaming has no place in the fight to be rid of harassment

Wednesday March 18 2020

A very unfortunate memo from a local institution surfaced online this week. Titled Cases of robbery and rape involving female students, the memo begins with a grim description of recent cases of robbery and rape, and earmarks some blackspots that must be avoided at all costs. What then follows is a bizarre statement that left me wondering if this was a fake memo. It reads as follows: ‘In all the three incidents reported last year, a clear case of recklessness on the part of our female students can be drawn.’

As if to intentionally dig this hole even deeper, the memo provides a cautionary tale to prove its point: One rape survivor apparently ‘entertained herself’ to a stupor and staggered back to school only to be attacked, mugged and gang-raped. The memo ends with safety tips specifically aimed at female students on how to avoid rape, including some interesting ones like ‘don’t accept sweets from strangers’.

The institution has since apologised and withdrawn the insensitive remarks. However, what remains clear is the insensitive manner in which we treat rape victims in this society. This memo reflects how we treat the most vulnerable in society, how we heap blame on them for atrocious crimes meted on them such as rape, rather than tackling the problem of rape itself. For the security and safety services office of one of Kenya’s most respected institutions to pin a tragedy of this magnitude on the victims’ ‘recklessness’ is not just proof of insensitivity, but a very strong message to rape victims: you are on your own.

This victim-blaming is exactly the reason why victims of sexual violence – women in particular – fail to report rape. Because the default question that often follows is: “What were you wearing?” Or: “What was a young woman doing outside alone at midnight?”

However, this memo could not have come at a more opportune time, in my view. Perhaps this should reawaken something in us. In the age of the #MeToo movement in which women across the world came out to speak boldly about their encounters with sexual harassment, this could be a teachable moment for us all on why we must treat victims of sexual violence with the respect and support they deserve. To be mugged in broad daylight is traumatic. To be mugged, roughed up and raped by three men is unimaginable pain. However, to be mugged, roughed up, raped and then blamed for your misfortune is the most atrocious thing that could ever happen to anyone. This needs to stop now. We must never have this victim-blaming discussion again, ever.

This was the week when Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was found guilty of sexual assault and rape, adding more power to the #MeToo movement and reminding us all over again the value of investigative and bold journalism. We must realise that times have now changed. That we are living in a new era, the #MeToo era, where we encourage victims of sexual harassment to come out boldly and speak their truth, call out their perpetrators and bring them to justice.

More importantly, this is a new age where we finally do away with the pretentious stopgap measures of victim-blaming and actually protect our children, women, girls and even men and boys from sexual assault.

The era of forcing rape victims into an uncomfortable silence is behind us now. We are no longer blaming women for rape and accusing them of malice when they speak up. We are listening more now; we are providing them with help and we are most certainly securing those blind spots you are telling them to avoid.

This is a new dispensation in which we must ask ourselves if giving women safety tips on how to avoid rape is really the right thing to do, or if we should begin by asking men to respect women and put an end to rape culture, which denies women their right to safety. This will also be the age where we will stop shaming victims of sexual of violence for what they have been through; the day we stop ostracising them and make them feel a part of our society without treating them as victims, but as survivors.

More importantly, we might also need to have that uncomfortable conversation about women and girls not being the only victims of rape. Men and boys also fall into this category, and we must accord them the same support and respect.

The writer is the director of the Innovation Centre at Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications. The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own.