WCW Blog

The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

Eliminating Violence against Women

united nations day for the elimination of violence against womenI spend a lot of time thinking and talking about our research on sexual violence case attrition and why most rape cases do not go forward to prosecution. The way that cases move through the criminal justice system has been a concern to victims, practitioners, and researchers for the last 40 years. Our recent findings on sexual violence case attrition make it clear that most sexual assault reports made to the police do not result in the arrest of a perpetrator or in any prosecution. This isn’t because no one knows who the perpetrator is—it is not a reflection of random stranger-danger. Women are assaulted, raped, and murdered by someone they know much more often than by a stranger. This is true across the globe and yet the response to violence remains weak.

Societal response to reports of sexual violence reflects deep-rooted cultural ideals about women and a feminine ideal. In our research, we found that cases are less likely to move forward when women have engaged in behaviors that signal “risk taking" like drinking alcohol or are of lower status and reputation. It is the “ideal” woman who is more likely to be believed—the conservatively dressed woman, the woman of means who was shopping or walking home from her professional position, the woman whose career and family life reflects strict adherence to social norms. So, even while we celebrate a changing cultural environment that purports that women now have more agency, independence, and are “permitted” to embrace more of the behaviors that have always been okay only for men, women who were out alone and who had been drinking when they were assaulted are less likely to find that the man who raped her is arrested or prosecuted.

Now, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women—and after a week of more incidents of violence against women—both sexual violence and gun violence--- and amid concerns about the policy changes taking place on college campuses that will make women’s lives more difficult; and accounts of survivors of sexual assault who have been silenced, denied due process, and pushed back against on many fronts, we know we have not yet eliminated violence against women. Further, gender-based violence—violence that happens to women because they are women—is as blatant and as bigoted as violence perpetrated against one religious group. We are talking gender-based violence and femicide. How far have we really come? And what is needed to keep moving us closer to truly eliminating gender-based violence?

We have evidence of positive changes in rape law and sexual violence prevention, in care and support for survivors, and in bringing this issue of gender-based violence to the forefront both nationally and globally. We know that reductions in gender inequality can happen—this may occur when we elect more women to government leadership and we reverse the reductions in government social spending in areas such as health and education. Internationally, there are many leaders, advocates, and research that help us move the action against gender-based violence forward.

Now we must focus attention on turning research into action and promoting the changes needed in the community. Change requires that we not reify one form of knowledge over another. It’s no surprise to advocates that victim characteristics and victim behavior are associated with whether or not charges of rape go forward to prosecution. Recently in Ireland, an individual was acquitted after senior counsel for the defense remarked on the fact that the young female complainant was wearing thong underwear. This led to protests, the display of women’s underwear, and the hashtag #ThisIsNotConsent. Meanwhile, it is reported that an independent review conducted by a legal expert who is examining how rape and sexual assault cases are handled in Ireland is due at the end of the year. While such data will no doubt be valuable as are similar reports from South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the U.S., these provide evidence of what women have known all along--that what women wear or what they drink is used to sway the court system and jurors and to reinforce common stereotypes about men, women, and rape.

Clearly we need to assure that funds for implementing prevention programs and innovative campaigns directed at ending violence against women are available, and that such programs and the research conducted on their impact must continue to draw on feminist roots. All such work on gender-based violence also must be informed by intersectionality—the product of Black women’s activism and scholarship. For example, Tarana Burke founded the #MeToo movement that later became a global phenomenon to raise awareness about sexual harassment, abuse, and assault in society. #MeToo supports all who experience sexual violence and grounds this work in the real experiences of all women—young and old, Black, white, and brown, rich and poor. Research, undertaken in a setting that allows the linking of activism with the research, and that highlights the importance of data as a social change agent, is a necessary step to ending gender-based violence. A call to link activism and research should not be confused with activist research that seeks to prove a particular hypothesis. Sound principles of scientific research must be followed. However, we must assure that the voices of survivors and the skills and approaches of grass roots organizations underpin this work. These efforts are critical to success in eliminating violence against women and girls in all communities across the globe.

Linda M. Williams, Ph.D., is director of the Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. Her research focuses on justice system response to sexual violence, commercial sexual exploitation of women and children, human trafficking, intimate partner violence, and child maltreatment.

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#MeToo is a step forward, but it's time for bystanders and perpetrators to stand up

metooI applaud the strength and solidarity of the women (and men, too) who are asserting with the hashtag #MeToo, that they are among the estimated one in five women who have been sexually assaulted and one in four working women who have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Hundreds of thousands of women are assaulted each year in the U.S. Enough IS enough. What I now want to know is how many men will stand up against it. Maybe things are changing… It did not take long before we saw that men were writing #IHave and now as I suggest #IWill which can reflect steps they are taking and will take to end the role they have had in promoting gender-based violence and sexual assault, to assert that they will NOT stand by while sexual harassment and assault happen, that they will call it out when they see it.

Classic rape is recognized as a crime --- when a male stranger attacks a woman at night, kidnaps her, or breaks into her home, and then forces her at gunpoint to submit to sexual acts it is (usually) seen as rape. But this does NOT describe most rape, nor are most perpetrators of sexual assault strangers. Those of us working in this field have recognized for years that most rape occurs at the hands of someone the victim knows. While some of what draws our attention today is workplace sexual harassment not involving sexual contact, clearly in the context of the Harvey Weinstein allegations we are hearing about actual sexual contact, forced sexual contact, contact against the will of the victim. The lawyers can tell you what statute covers this behavior in your particular state, but when it occurs without the consent of the woman or child or when she is unable to consent, this is a crime. A serious crime that can result in jail time, a crime which should result in the attention of the criminal justice system-- though nine times out of ten it does not.

We have known for decades that most rape is perpetrated by men known to the victim; study after study have found that many hundreds of thousands of women and girls (as well as many men and boys) are sexually assaulted each year. So why are we still surprised to hear about it today? (Yes, we are doing better responding to sexual assault and, yes, it is gratifying to see the support that the women who have come forward to report what has happened to them in Hollywood are now—mostly—receiving. But year after year after year this is still with us.)

Again and again we see a backlash against the victims. Perhaps our system of justice will prosecute those who rape very small children or 97-year-olds, or those who assault women who are the valued mothers and daughters of powerful white men, but most sexual assault is not reported and, even when reported, does not lead to an arrest or prosecution.

blogquote linda metooWe must remember it is not only Hollywood producers who sexually assault and not only young actors who are the victims. The rapists and perpetrators of sexual assault include:

  • the boss of a 17-year-old working in a fast food restaurant who needs her job so she can go to college, or
  • the supervisor of a 30-year-old mother who is a dishwasher, waitress, cashier, salesperson and needs her low wage part-time job to feed her family,
  • the manager who knows his employee can’t quit or take the chance of being fired so she won’t report or can’t find the time to go to the police or to court to press her case,
  • the manager, the frat-boy or the professor who knows the victim won’t risk the shame and humiliation of reporting and this won’t make it dangerous for him to continue assaulting her or others,
  • The senior colleague of an assistant professor who will decide her fate on the promotion and tenure committee,
  • The fellow student, the upperclassman or the star football player who knows his attention will flatter the first-year student or the jock who knows after she has had a lot to drink that he has a good chance of getting away with a sexual assault-- he knows that when she passes out in the dorm room, or by a dumpster in the parking lot, or no matter what happens to her, she will be too afraid to scream out or report what this star athlete has done,
  • Or a bus driver or taxi driver, priest, teacher, uncle, military superior, or neighbor who assaults the mother of his child’s best friend,
  • Finally there is the ex-boyfriend or partner who thinks that he is entitled to sex because she consented in the past, because he knows her secrets and can prey on her fears, insecurities, or her shame.

This is the reality of rape—a crime most likely perpetrated by a man known to the victim – an acquaintance, “friend,” classmate, employer, or partner. Such rape is more common than stranger rape. In spite of extensive data showing that rape is underreported, rarely falsely reported, and even after many Harvey Weinsteins--too many to count-- many still hold inaccurate beliefs about the nature of rape, when and to whom it happens, and its impact on the victim—the women who are young and old; Black, white and brown; rich and poor.

Yes, it is notable that women can now join in and feel supported enough to tweet #MeToo and in so doing make it clear that rape is not rare, that rape can happen to anyone. But now, it is also time to ask the bystanders and the actual or wanna-be perpetrators to stand up and say #IHave to indicate “I sexually assaulted someone,” “I stood by while my friends or classmates or colleagues did it,” or “I know men who bragged about it.” And use the hashtag #IWill to assert they will no longer stand by and do nothing but instead that they will stand up and support victims and survivors. #IWill stand up and call out these behaviors even when powerful men state “I just start kissing them. I don't even wait...when you're a star they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything."

Linda M. Williams, Ph.D., is senior research scientist and director of the Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College.


Need help or assistance? In the U.S., call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.4673.

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In India, Action to End Child Marriage Has a Long Way to Go

india schoolgirl blog crop2The Supreme Court of India ruled last week that sex with one’s wife under 18 years of age will be deemed as rape for which the husband can face up to 10 years of imprisonment. This judgement, being hailed as “landmark” by Indian media, irons out a major discrepancy in the Indian law: while the age of consent for women in India is 18, an exception in the Indian penal code allowed men to have sex with their wives between 15-18 years of age regardless of their consent (Indian law does not acknowledge marital rape).

While it is indeed a laudable step on part of the Indian judiciary that called out the “artificial distinction” between a married girl child and an unmarried girl child to be “arbitrary and discriminatory”, the judgement puts the spotlight on the issue of child marriage itself. A recent study conducted by IndiaSpend -- a journalism non-profit -- found that nearly 12 million Indian children are married before the age of 10, a mind-boggling figure that shows that child marriage continues to be a real and persistent threat in the country. We also know that early marriage can be disastrous for a girl’s sexual and reproductive health. According to Girls Not Brides, complication in pregnancy and childbirth is the leading cause of death in girls aged 15-19 globally. Considering that, this indeed is a landmark judgement which will now present a barrier to men wanting to consummate their marriages with their underage brides. However, the moment one begins to think about the wider socio-cultural context that child marriages take place in, the judgement sounds wildly optimistic and impracticable.

india childmarriage quoteIt is common knowledge that there is a link between lower levels of education and early marriage. The IndiaSpend research also found that as many as 5.4 million married under the age of 10 were illiterate, and 80 percent of them were female. Given that we are talking of a largely illiterate female population that is subjected to child marriage, what are the chances of them seeking legal recourse when faced with the prospect of forced consummation of marriage? Child marriage is also very often a discreet affair, one that is deeply entrenched in patriarchal values and traditions, and wary of the State machinery. Given how little agency a girl child has in a marriage, it is highly unlikely that she will report her husband for having sex with her. What, then, is the way forward? The obvious answer is education. It has always been known that educating girls and boys is one of the most effective ways of eradicating child marriage. Even the government of India acknowledged it when it said that child marriage is a reality in India due to economic and educational inequalities. However, what our government really meant was that given that child marriage is a reality, we might as well allow the consummation of marriage before the legal age of consent because “the institution of marriage must be protected”.

The government’s paranoia regarding the institution of marriage, as if it were more endangered than the Bengal tiger, is preposterous. And I don’t mean to be facetious about this. The government’s delusion is both amusing and scary; it has used this defence not only to argue for lower age of consent in child marriages but also against criminalizing marital rape which is an ongoing battle in the courts. In fact, in defence of not criminalizing marital rape, the government said that India could not follow the lead of western countries as “India has its own unique problems due to uneven literacy, economic and social diversity." Granted that India is an extremely complex terrain for the implementation of any such law, it cannot be used as an excuse for maintaining the status quo. Besides, it is not the government’s job to uphold the institution of marriage and what they call the Indian family system, based on the assumption that sexual consent is implicit in marriage and a nod to women’s autonomy will destabilize the institution. This is important because unless the government gets its priorities right, it will not be able to focus on levelling the “uneven” playing field that it acknowledges as the cause of social problems, also required for the effective implementation of women-friendly laws.

Nandita headshotNandita Dutta is deputy manager at the Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality (CSGS) at Ashoka University in India. CSGS is a partner of the Wellesley Centers for Women.

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