Blaming the victim

Published April 22, 2021
The writer is a consultant psychiatrist.
The writer is a consultant psychiatrist.

RECENT debates linking how women dress to the issue of rape have only reinforced the need for a more scientific conversation around violence against women in our society.

It is established that sexual violence is a gendered crime; women are disproportionately more likely to be assaulted than men. Blaming the victim in cases of sexual violence may be a global phenomenon, but it is particularly endemic in patrilinear cultures where restrictive beliefs about women’s roles and rights in society dominate. Women are seen as vulnerable and incapable of protecting themselves or exercising agency. This is a regressive view because it portrays women as weak and passive in absolute terms, and men as strong and active, thus fortifying deep-rooted social inequities around gender. This also hardens hierarchical norms wherein women must comply with their invulnerable saviours. As a result, paternalistic and controlling attitudes deepen.

Read: What are rape myths and why are they far from harmless?

When it comes to sexual violence, women are conventionally perceived as both vulnerable and culpable, with bystanders and perpetrators blaming their physical constitution as inviting sexual attention. Thus, women are reduced to live with the shame associated with having both bodies that provoke men, and an inability to prevent this violence from being inflicted upon them. Cultures that are strongly influenced by religious doctrines tend to endorse traditional gender roles and are more likely to ascribe blame to victims who deviate from these traditional roles.

Victims in Pakistan are traditionally thought of as having flouted some prescribed rules of appearance and behaviour. On impulse, those tasked with responding to sexual crimes (such as police officers, lawyers, journalists), also hunt for these external signs to attribute responsibility to the victim. One reason why victim-blaming is so common is because stakeholders too have incentives to cushion themselves from the responsibility of preventing such crimes. Another reason why society at large blames the victims has to do with the just world theory. The theory suggests that bystanders convince themselves that the world is a safe place and that bad things only happen to people if they did something wrong to deserve it; in other words the potential for injustice is dismissed.

When it comes to sexual violence, women are conventionally perceived as both vulnerable and culpable.

It is important to recognise that stereotyping victims to fit a certain profile is not only naive but precludes a more scientific approach that lays bare the risk factors leading to these heinous events. Predetermining women’s vulnerability to violence is also worrying because it is coupled with the notion of men’s invulnerability, thereby valorising masculinity. Sexual violence is always a crime. It has nothing to do with desire, and can never be justified because women are exploitable or men are naturally aggressive. Perpetrators of sexual violence have a heightened sense of entitlement and a desire to exercise power over others. They blame their victims and justify their actions to avoid punishment, while continuing to abuse others. In fact, the notion that women’s bodies are inherently susceptible only naturalises violence in society.

Looking for a causal link between women’s vulnerability and sexual violence can be damaging because it suggests that harm can be averted if women were to act differently. In other words, it shifts the burden of responsibility onto victims rather than onto perpetrators. The debate also individualises the prevention of sexual violence, while ignoring a significant array of institutional and social factors that perpetuate crimes against women.

Blaming the victims of sexual violence is a social phenomenon with serious implications for personal recovery of the victims and towards a collective response to prevent such crimes. Failure to acknowledge the true nature of crimes against women is also a violation of human rights.

Presently, Pakistan is preparing to implement the Anti-Rape (Investigation & Trial) Ordinance, 2020 and Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020 to ensure justice to victims of sexual violence. At the moment, these crimes are severely underreported, because most victims and their families prefer not to report out of fear of further victimisation. This happens when they are not believed, or worse, blamed or shame-induced by police, the press or their broader community. As a result, perpetrators often go unpunished, signalling a growing social tolerance for sexual violence.

The psychological consequences of blaming the victim, or delegitimising their experiences, are far-reaching. Survivors of sexual violence suffer from complex trauma and struggle to recover when they live with guilt and self-blame, as many do. Their trauma is compounded when they are marginalised within their families, or by friends. It is difficult for a traumatised individual to confidently rely on reasoning when confronted with widely held views by society, and so victims tend to understand their own trauma from the perspective of others. Feelings of guilt are fostered by victims believing their action (or inaction) contributed to a negative outcome. Victims thus evaluate themselves and their behaviour in the run-up to the crime negatively. The personal meaning of a traumatic event for an individual crucially influences the development of severe stress disorders and can affect their chances of seeking help.

Growing political attention to sexual violence in Pakistan is encouraging. In order to develop a better understanding around the prevalence of sexual violence, it is crucial that the government collect data to identify individual, situational and institutional risk factors that contribute to sexual violence.

To this end, it is imperative that we adopt a holistic approach for the prevention of sexual violence, that starts by addressing deeply ingrained attitudes and performances of individuals that reinforce sexual injustice. Educational programmes to challenge the link between the vulnerability of women to sexual victimisation and hegemonic masculinity, and a public discourse to address myths around sexual assaults and secondary victimisation are crucial.

It is equally important that we offer training to policymakers, media, police, lawyers, judges, health professionals and others who deal with victims of sexual violence, so that they may respond sensitively and be aware of harmful attitudes and practices that can perpetuate a vicious cycle of victimisation.

Although psychosocial support should be inherent in all responses to sexual violence, at the same time pathologising victims and victimhood is best avoided for a more enabling road to recovery.

The writer is a consultant psychiatrist.

Twitter: @AsmaHumayun

Published in Dawn, April 22nd, 2021


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