Rape as a global phenomenon

by Washington Castilhos

As another rape case made national and international headlines, comments about the degree of sexual violence in Brazil resembling that of India has become commonplace in the country. The case of a minor who raped a woman while holding a gun to her head in front of passengers on a bus came only a month after an American tourist was gang-raped in late March in a transit van in Copacabana, one of Rio’s beachfront tourist attractions, while her male companion was beaten with a metal bar. The crime evoked the recent death of the 23-year-old student who was gang-raped on a bus in New Delhi under similar circumstances.


In Rethinking rape (Cornell University Press, 2001), American  philosopher J. Ann Cahill argues that any individual experience of rape  is deep-rooted in a social and political context, which also affects the  ways in which the victim, the perpetrator, their families, and local  institutions react and represent what happened. But different social  and political contexts share something in common: the rape cases that recently made the news globally can be seen under the same light.  Observers claim that despite social and cultural specificities in  countries as far apart as Brazil and India, both societies are marked by  a strong gender hierarchy, which makes the rape of women a likely  possibility.

"The more traditional a country is, the stronger the values are,” says the Brazilian lawyer Leila Linhares, director of CEPIA, a women’s rights organization. “But despite the fact that Brazil is not as traditional as India, our values design a social order with dissimilar perceptions and approaches for men and women. The legal status of women in India, as in Brazil, grants them equal rights. However, inequalities are culturally inscribed. Traditions, customs, practices of everyday life collide with legal provisions. In India, these days, the defense of honor is a common argument in cases of gender violence."

For her, the parallel between Brazil and India is that "rape, as well as other forms of violence against women, is not a reality of others. It is also our problem. Barbarism is not exclusive of the other," said Linhares.

And it is not indeed. The recent wave of rape cases in Rio – touted by the international press because Rio is preparing to hold the 2014 Soccer World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics – have cast a spotlight on the reality of a phenomenon that has been growing silently: according to the Public Security Institute, 6,029 rape cases were reported in the State of Rio de Janeiro in 2012––an 24 % increase in relation to 2011, when 4,917 cases were reported, for a mostly urban population of 16.3 million. That means 17 cases per day. Meanwhile, in New Delhi, with a population of 16.7 million, 572 cases were reported in 2011.

Rape, claims Ann J. Cahill, affects not only the women who are raped, but all women who experience their bodies as ‘rapable’ and adjust their actions and self-images accordingly. It is true. During the preparation of this text, some women users of public transportation I talked to said they often do not take the bus when they perceive the presence of men sitting in the back of the vehicle.

The women who are victims of this crime feel ashamed, guilty and therefore do not report nor seek police assistance, which makes it possible to say that, both in India and Brazil, under-reporting is a reality.

"It is an alarming state of affairs, due to a number of factors, of an either practical or symbolic nature . We have no way of knowing whether there are more or fewer rape cases in Rio or in Delhi, comparatively. Cultural conditions often hold women back from seeking help; although we have, in Brazil, instruments of punishment, tools for the systematization of cases and prevention campaigns against gender violence," says Leila Linhares.

The strings of sexual assaults in Rio have cast a spotlight on the unresolved contradictions and paradoxes of Brazil, a country where special police stations staffed largely by women were created in the 1980s, in order to assist women exclusively. In 2006, the Brazilian Congress passed specific legislation to deal with violence against women, and in 2010 the country elected a woman as president. In some city capitals there are special cars for women to ride on trains to avoid being harassed. However, despite instruments of protection and promotion of women"s rights, it is believed that the actual amount of cases are even higher than reported.

"I have no doubt that both in New Delhi and Rio underreporting exists. Rio de Janeiro certainly had more than 6000 cases in 2012. The increase reported for 2011 does not allow us to say whether the actual number of rapes rose or women are just reporting more, breaking the barrier of silence. We need to look at this more closely, since here in Brazil rape is characterized as private crime, so it is up to the victim to report it. It is believed that rape is a personal, private affair. That is discouraging to women, who see themselves penalized under such cultural values," added Leila Linhares.

Rape is a global phenomena, defines Indian sociologist Manjima Bhattacharjya, a feminist researcher at the Jagori Resource Center in New Delhi. "There are some alarming similarities between the two cases in Delhi and Rio – the gang-rape of a woman (not from lower socio economic category) in a moving vehicle, while riding with a male companion in a global city. But there are some differences too. For example: in Rio the woman was a tourist which may be one reason why it drew so much media attention. The response in Delhi was also massive, and proved to be a turning point for women"s safety in India – but I am not sure this is the debate framework in Brazil.”

The Indian researcher refers to the fact that the string of sexual assaults in Rio was relatively muted until the American student was attacked in late March. The men who attacked the tourist in a transit van had already been reported by other victims before her, and the police had not paid sufficient attention to it. The reason, some experts argue, was that the earlier victims were largely poor or working class, reflecting one of Brazil’s extreme class divisions in society.

“Unfortunately, it had to happen to her before anyone would help me,” said the Brazilian woman raped before the American tourist by the same men. “Could this have been avoided if they had paid attention to my case?”

"For me the two incidents validate the evidence that rape is a global phenomenon, but even though rape statistics all over the world tell us this, the governments sometimes choose not to see it––as does the Western media," says Manjima.

The Delhi incident, which had a great impact worldwide and sparked a wave of protests in India, was one amongst many that have occurred in the country: data from the National Bureau of Crime Records show that as many as 97% of Indian women have suffered some type of abuse, and that a woman is raped every 22 minutes.

In Rio de Janeiro, according to the Public Security Institute, 1,500 cases have been reported over the first trimester of 2013. Delhi in particular had more than 500 complaints of rape this year, but only one conviction so far.

"This shows us that it does not depend on how sexualized or open a culture or a city is, what a woman is wearing and so on. India and Brazil, for example, are very different when it comes to what women wear in public spaces or how they behave. From what I know, Brazil is much more open and sexualized (sometimes problematically, as many feminist writers from Brazil have expressed) than Delhi, but in both places women can get raped or sexually assaulted with impunity. To me the similarity in both cases validates rape as a brutal act of power and deep misogyny that exists across cultures and countries," says Manjima Bhattacharjya.

The Ohio Steubenville gang rape case, in the U.S., illustrates how a universal culture of rape tends to justify and legitimize sexual assault: after raping a 16-year-old classmate at a party in August 2012, two football players from the local school posted in an online social networking service all the details of the rape, including photos, videos, comments and even emails sent while committing the crime. It was the indiscretion of the two 16-year-old boys that proved them guilty, since they themselves had published the evidence on the internet. The case shows that those who commit the crime of rape or who disseminates it in social networks often do not perceive that they are committing a crime––to such degree misogyny and gender violence are naturalized.

“Unfortunately the Western media does have a tendency to single out the global South (places like India and the Middle East) to illustrate misogyny, but current cases, like the Ohio Steubenville gang-rape have sharply brought out how this is not true and misogyny is everywhere,” says the Indian sociologist.

With regard to sexual violence, the situation in the United States and Europe does not differ much from the rest of the world and countries located in the Global South: in a study conducted by the Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the United Sates, researchers interviewed 8,000 women and 8,000 men. Using a definition of rape that includes forced vaginal, oral, and anal intercourse, the survey found that 1 in 6 women had experienced an attempted rape or a completed rape. At the time they were raped, 22% were under the age of twelve, 54% were under the age of eighteen and 83% were under the age of twenty-five. In the same study, 1 in 33 men had experienced a sexual assault. (Source: Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice, 1998)

In the Rape in America: A Report to the Nation, a study carried out by the National Victim Center in 1992, 60% of the women who reported having been raped were under 18 years old (80% of whom had been raped by acquaintances). The National Crime Victimization Survey, conducted in 2000, reports that youths 12-17 are two to three times more likely to be sexually assaulted than adults.

In January 2013, the British Ministry of Justice Office for National Statistics and Home Office released its first ever joint official statistics bulletin on sexual violence, entitled An Overview of Sexual Offending in England and Wales. It reported that approximately 85,000 women are raped on average in England and Wales every year; over 400,000 women are sexually assaulted each year; 1 in 5 women (aged 16 – 59) has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16. Download the full report, a summary and/or the data tables here

South Africa: "corrective rape"

According to a study by the University of South Africa, one million women, girls and boys are raped every year in the country. A portion of this number refers to the so-called "corrective rape" of women who are homosexually oriented. This form of sexual violence heightens the victim’s vulnerability. As a lesbian, a woman does not feel that she can safely access government -run public health facilities.

"These cases show these women’s level of vulnerability, both individually and as a social group, because of their sexual orientation and because access to services that are available to "women in general" does not guarantee that their needs as women who have sex with other women will be satisfied. These two dimensions are interrelated in such a way that makes it impossible to analyze one without referring to another other," anthropologist Maria Luiza Heilborn (CLAM / IMS / UERJ) and physician Regina Maria Barbosa (Unicamp) argued in an article published in the edited volume Learning to Dance: Advancing Women’s Reproductive Health and Well-Being from the Perspectives of Public Health and Human Rights, edited by Alicia Ely Yamin (Harvard University Press / CLADEM, 2007).

Since 2002, the South African government has allowed public health services to make available antiretroviral drugs for survivors of sexual violence, given the prevalence of AIDS in the country.

Quite frequent in South Africa, corrective rape––a hate crime in which a person is raped because of their perceived sexual or gender orientation, in order to "correct" it or to make the person conform to gender stereotypes––, reports of such violence have also seen an increase in Brazil. The last notorious case took place on May 11 at a freshman party at State University of Rio de Janeiro. The victim, who had kissed another girl at the party, was raped in the university parking lot by another male student who said he would "teach her to like a man."

"Invitation to rape"

According to Brazilian lawyer Leila Linhares, first of all there should be a change in the mentality that prevails among families and society. "Women remain socially devalued and rape is one of the extreme manifestations that reflect this devaluation. Especially because rape, beyond cruelty, carries strong symbolism: the humiliation of the victim and the triumph of the aggressor. We need more than repression, which is nevertheless important. We also need to reflect on the values that create the conditions for such acts," she says.

For sociologist Manjima Bhattacharjya, the problem is that rape continues to be treated as a different sort of crime, not as a serious crime. "The Delhi case helped us move beyond this barrier at least and garnered popular support to change laws and bring about police and judicial reform in a way it addresses sexual assault on women. I don"t know if this will be the case in Brazil––this is an example of how two similar cases can go in different directions depending on the political discourse and timing around them. The Indian feminist movement has debated the use of the term "rape". For decades we have tried to change it to "sexual assault", since the term "rape" is associated with many other things––like shame and stigma. Rape is constructed as a socially embarrassing incident for the victim, so women prefer to keep quiet."

According to her, cases of rape are underreported for several reasons. One of them is that the number of convictions is low. "So women feel there is no point in reporting it, as nothing will come of it. Then there is the police, who often refuse to file a complaint as they may not believe the woman, and judiciary. Judges are often sexist and there have been rape cases where the judge has suggested the victim marry the accused to resolve the conflict! It all needs urgent reform and a gender-sensitive overhaul. Third is that rape is constructed as a socially shameful incident for the woman involved, so women may prefer to keep silent rather than risk revictimization, although some of this is changing. With the Delhi incident itself, the most significant impact was the sharp rise in reports of sexual assault," recalls Manjima.

In a study conducted after the death of the 23-year-old student raped by 6 men on a bus, in December, 68% of the Indian judges interviewed said that a “a woman is an invitation to rape".

There are further-reaching issues there––the idea that women are to be blamed for sexual assault on them, that "boys will be boys," and so on. In Egypt, as in Brazil, the sexual harassment epidemic on women mobilized the attention of news media and academic circles. A study conducted with women and men by the Egyptian Center for Women"s Rights in Cairo, Giza and Qalubiya showed that no specific group of women is more subject to sexual violence. Abusers do not distinguish between categories victims or types of women. Any women may become victim of sexual violence.

The ECWR research reveals that 48.4% of Egyptians and 51.4% of foreign tourists interviewed (all age groups) are subjected to sexual harassment. Regarding the physical appearance of the victim, 62.5% of the Egyptian women and 65.3% of Egyptian men involved in the study stated that clothes that expose the body make women more vulnerable. In turn, 44% of foreign women heard rejected this idea. For them, a woman’s appearance is not a determinant of harassment.

Rape as a weapon of war

In “Balkan as metaphor: between globalization and fragmentation” (MIT Press, 2002), Croatian feminist Vesna Kesić remembers that all women who have experienced rape are afraid and ashamed of what happened to them, whether it occurred on a trip to the beach, whether in the context of war, where it is often used by armed actors (legal and illegal), not only as a weapon of war against the enemy, but also as a mechanism to enforce or reinforce social and political hierarchies. Situations like this have been observed in countries such as Colombia and Mexico, where the struggle between the armed forces, guerrillas, paramilitary, and drug traffickers has resulted in systematic sexual assaults against women. Although sexual violence has been typified as a war crime by the International Criminal Court, these crimes continue to be prosecuted as ordinary crimes.

In Colombia, 30% of reported cases of sexual abuse occur in rural areas, and have to do with the armed conflict taking place under different modalities. The most recurrent is the recruitment of women and children by illegal armed groups for the purpose of sexual slavery, controlling the sexual and emotional life of women by imposing standards of behavior, harassment and sexual abuse of women who refuse to have sex with members of the military and armed gangs, as well as the forced exchange of food and luxury objects for sexual favors with minors.

In other cases, rape has been used to intimidate human rights defenders. In Mexico, for example, rural women and indigenous people of the state of Guerrero have confronted the army for their responsibility in several cases of sexual abuse, assassinations and torture. In retaliation, members of the armed forces have tortured, raped and murdered these leaders, in order to punish the entire community for their work in defense of human rights. In 2010, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemned the Mexican State for those crimes.

In countries where government action is weak and where multinational companies have control over natural resources, illegal armed groups hired by these companies perpetrate this kind of violence so that communities can not threaten their economic interests. This is observed in Guatemala, where indigenous leaders who denounce the expropriation of land and natural resources by private agents are victims of multiple forms of violence, especially sexual assault.

State response is still inconsistent. In 2008, the Colombian Constitutional Court ruled in protection of the fundamental rights of women victims of the armed conflict. A bill to reduce the impunity of cases of sexual violence is currently under review by the Colombian Congress, which would Grant such acts the status of Crimes Against Humanity. If passed at the Chamber of Representatives, the iniciative will be debated by the Senate.

Rape has been used as a weapon to discredit individuals, groups and nations, to violate the enemy and control descent in enemy territory. It happened in the Bosnian war.

A PAGU (UNICAMP) Journal article by anthropologist Andrea Carolina Schvartz Peres analyzes serial rapes in concentration camps or with the intention of impregnating women. War rapes would be a message to men that the losing side loses all illusion of power and property.

"Rape was itself an instrument to spread fear, but its use––in numbers, news etc–– sent the message that a woman––as an ethnic family symbol, mother of the nation––when violated, symbolizes the victimization of an entire nation and the need to protect its men. It means the failure of the country, a symbolic castration of their supporters,"she says.

According to the author, rape was effective as a weapon of war: it caused fear, facilitated ethnic cleansing, consummated the conquerors’ spoils, and classified the conquered according to their ethnicity or nationality.

"In short, bosniaks’ ethnic cleansing unfolded according to a scenario planned beforehand. Those who planned the attack on Bosnia-Herzegovina knew that brutal mass rapes and abuse of bosniaks would reach the summit of the ethnic nation pyramid, and thus, with the goal of ethnic cleansing, it would push people to an exodus, especially from those places where they formed the majority of the population, as in eastern Bosnia," the anthropologist explains.

Meldijana Arnaut, journalist and researcher at the Center for Research on Crimes against Humanity and International Law in Sarajevo, adds:

"The role of women is always related to the role of the mother and, in many cultures, they are the symbol of the spirit of the community. In collective consciousness, women are linked to children, to families, and to the community to which they belong (…) assault planners knew well the mentality of the inhabitants here. They aimed to hurt and humiliate the woman as a member of a nation."

"In a societies like Bosnia and ours, marrying and having children are fundamental values. We can read this as a patriarchal society, where women play a key role, as they are the source of a biological and cultural nation. This nation, or patriarchal society, was actually threatened by the mass rape of women," adds Andrea Schvartz Peres.

According to the anthropologist, it is hard to tell the exact number of women raped and abused during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is known that the number of women who preferred silence is not small. The European Community Commission points to 20,000 cases, but other sources much higher figures (between 60 and 100 thousand cases).

Journalist Meldijana Arnaut explains that, according to the European Community, around 28.000 women were raped in Bosnia from 1993 to 1997. According to the association "Women – Victims of War", in Sarajevo, 25,000 people were raped or were sexually assaulted.

Men and children were also victims of rape or suffered sexual violence in Bosnia, as it is currently happening in African countries in conflict, such as Somalia and Congo, where rebels have been raping babies. However, the invisibility of sexual violence against men and children is due to a dangerous hierarchy of plausibility, according to anthropologist Andrea Schvartz Peres. "Sexual violence against women is seen as something more normal, more speakable, more understandable, than sexual violence against men, children and elderly people. This hierarchy makes some forms of rape invisible, so it is considered "minor" or "less atrocious", she concludes. An economy of the speakable and the unspeakable seems to apply to sexual violence as a universal phenomenon.

* Fábio Grotz contributed reporting from Rio de Janeiro, and Manuel Rodriguez from Bogota