Break the silence to end violence against women

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No matter what society thinks about violence against women, the fear women feel in the face of any form of violence is real, says Yasmin Bathamanathan.

“This violence against women, it’s all about education. The more a person is educated, the chances of them raping or abusing women is lower.”

“It happens a lot more in countries like India, Indonesia and Africa. More rape and violence there.”

I was stunned. There he was standing right in front of me and sharing his take on violence against women (VAW) at the launch of the Penang Goes Orange campaign organised by the Penang Women’s Development Corporation (PWDC).

There we were, standing on Malaysian soil, where we condone victims marrying their rapists, letting rapists and abusers off with hardly a slap on the wrist, seeing a rise in teenage pregnancies and the contraction of HIV among women, and so on.

As a staff of PWDC and campaign manager for Penang Goes Orange, I felt the months of hard work the whole organisation had put into the campaign was vindicated as at that very moment, I saw how absolutely necessary it is to raise awareness of the issue.

“You guys are doing the right thing by educating people,” he said, giving me just the “in” I need to “educate” him.

“Do you know that VAW does not discriminate?” I said, “It cuts across all socio-economic class, ethnicity, religion and education.”

“Really, meh?”

Sigh.

So I went on to elaborate the various forms of VAW: rape, domestic violence, slavery and trafficking of women and girls, restrictions placed on a woman’s right to income (economic abuse), revenge porn, online stalking and so on. “Street harassment like catcalling is also a form of VAW,” I said.

“Wah, like that how to live?”

Exactly, and yet women live with various threats on a daily basis.

VAW, unfortunately, is often understood as extreme physical violence and abuse committed against women. When we think of VAW, we often think of crimes such as rape, domestic violence, sexual assault and physical assault. Sexual assault yes, street harassment not, but actually, both are forms of VAW.

It is perplexing that in order for us to accept or believe that a women has been violated, we demand physical proof. And unless the woman bears scars and bruises and is evidently forcibly penetrated with a penis, she would have a hard time convincing people that she has endured violation of her person.

Which is why we had the acquittal of Bunya Jalong, the 60-year-old man who not only sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl, but also had impregnated her. The justification for his acquittal: he had penetrated her with his finger, which does not count as rape because it is not a penis. Even in cases of underage sexual assault such as this, the conditions of the assault need to be perfect (re: severe) for the victim to receive any form of justice.

Yet no matter what society thinks about VAW, the fear women feel in the face of any form of VAW is real. We bring our girls up to think that a boy who teases and hits her is showing his interest in her. Playground bullying is warped into displays of attraction and passed off as flirtation. You may think it is nothing but harmless displays of attraction or acts of love and passion but think about the message that is giving to girls and women:

  • A boy might hit you but because he likes you, you should be happy.
  • A man whistles at you – take the compliment, he thinks you are hot.
  • He loves you, has a lot of money and doesn’t let you work outside – you are so lucky to have him as your husband.

We tell women and girls that abuse is chivalry and romance and to have a taste of it is good fortune.

Is that not what we are teaching our girls when it comes to rape as well, especially when as a society we think that marriage is the antidote to premarital and illicit sex?

When we have an average of 18,000 teen girls getting pregnant each year in Malaysia and only 25% of them are taking place out of wedlock, I believe it is very clear what we prioritise – morality over the rights and freedom of womenfolk.

In her speech at the launch of the campaign, Chong Eng, the Penang ExCo member for women, family and community development, said: “Last year, majority of the rape victims in Penang were girls between the ages of 12 and 16. 90% of the suspects were persons known to the victim, such as family members and boyfriends.”

How horrifying is that?

Even though one woman is raped every 35 minutes in Malaysia, only two out of 10 rape cases are reported. Clearly the message we are giving women has been internalised – this is life; deal with it.

So when we have a society that does not view VAW as a serious crime and violation of human rights (women’s rights are human rights, and to say otherwise is a crime in of itself), how then do we send the message across that what is deemed as innocent flirtation or acts of passion – stalking, possessiveness, catcalling, unsolicited sexual advances – are also forms of VAW and must be stopped? That to share photos of a women and girls online without their consent is VAW? That to threaten any form of violence online is also a form of VAW?

The only way I can think about finding a solution to this festering wound on humanity is that we have to talk about it. Engage with those around us in open conversations on VAW, its manifestations and impact on women and girls. Challenge everyday sexism. Talk about sex, consent, respect and health. Get women and girls in the discussions; allow them to lead the discussions. What we need to do collectively is to break the silence before it is too late.

I’m going orange this November and December as well as every 25th of the month in my part to break the silence. Will you join me?

Source: The Malaysian Insider

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