An eleven-year-old girl in Washington, DC, reports that she has been raped … twice, and the police respond with disbelief. Ultimately, despite all evidence, she is arrested and jailed for false testimony. Scores of under-age girls in Oxfordshire, in England, report that they have been raped, and the police respond by blaming the girls for poor choices and misbehavior. In both instances, years later, the police issue an apology. In the Oxfordshire case, this past week, it was decided that no officers would be charged. Apologies will just have to suffice.
Sadly, these stories are not shocking; they are typical. When did girls become the enemy? What’s going on?
What’s going on, indeed, when a judge in Sweden and judges across the United States and the United Kingdom exonerate rapists because the girls they raped “seemed older” than their biological age. What’s going on when, in Nigeria, child brides face the death penalty for having defended themselves against their older and abusive partners, all of this despite Nigeria’s having actually outlawed so-called child marriages ten years ago.
These are but a few stories culled from the news last week, and they all converge on a simple question. What’s going on? What’s going on when all the first responders refuse to protect girls. Be clear: no one failed. They refused. The judges, police, social workers, and child protection agencies all refused. While each case is its own case, the story is not about the United Kingdom or the United States or Sweden or Nigeria in isolation. The context is an ascendant global refusal to listen to girls, and all of this at precisely the moment in which allegedly girls are `making it’ on the global development stage. They may be making it on the stage, but in the streets, schools, courtrooms, police stations, and child protection agency offices, they’re being rejected, viciously and violently.
When a convicted rapist in India blames women for the violence they suffer, the world claims to be shocked and horrified, and with good reason. However, an equal horror lies in the spaces in which those clothed with the robes of law and State violate the law as they wreak greater violence on women and girls at their most vulnerable moments. From India to South Africa to Sweden to the United Kingdom to the United States to Nigeria and beyond, rape crisis centres play a vital role, and what is needed is less shock and awe, less outrage, and more action, including more money.
Rape Crisis Centres build safer communities for all. Along with counseling survivors, Cape Town Rape Crisis provides court support, education and advocacy. As Kathleen Dey, Director of Cape Town Rape Crisis, recently noted: “Survivors taking their trials to completion and feeling able to give a strong testimony is crucial in addressing the low conviction rate.” The key is a vision of a realizable compassionate and safe community built on justice, mutuality, equality, and love. That’s a tall order. It requires many people and, again, lots of money. As Alison Tilley has argued, an immediate step in South Africa would be to ramp up the Sexual Offenses Courts.
The line between a convicted Indian rapist and judges, police, social workers around the world is short and direct. We must work to transform the horror into justice. Girls are not the enemy. Girls who report having been sexually harassed or exploited or assaulted are not criminals. Translating that simple statement into lived reality means vigilant monitoring and extensive education at police stations, courtrooms, schools, hospitals and clinics, child protection agencies, legislatures and beyond. That’s why Rape Crisis Centres matter, and that’s why we need to support them.
Dan Moshenberg writes at Women In and Beyond the Global and at Africa Is a Country, and is Director of the Women’s Studies Program at The George Washington University in Washington, DC.