A few months ago, a respected colleague at a dinner table recounted how a female coworker made unwanted sexual advances toward him and almost jeopardized his position at work. As he recounted that he was terrified, some of the people laughed and dismissed the idea that males can be victims of sexual harassment.
As the world recently concluded 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, we must remember that it is not just women and girls who face this kind of violence and speaking up can be hard for everyone.
Working as a peace builders for several years in conflict zones around that world reveals the terror that war brings. But many people also face terror at home, perpetuated by people that they have known for years. From personal experiences, we have learned that being a woman makes you vulnerable.
Indeed, both of us are women survivors of sexual violence in Nepal and Pakistan, respectively. South Asia has a peculiar problem of sexual harassment and a number of its countries are featured as dangerous for women. In public and private spaces, sexual violence takes place with very low conviction rates.
But white straight women form the major part of the victims, boys, men and LGBTQ folks are also targeted. The lower number of boys, men and LGBT folks may also be due to less data available and a much uglier taboo for speaking up.
Based on available country surveys, it is estimated that no less than 75 percent of the world’s 2.7 billion women aged 18 years and older, or at least 2 billion women, have been sexually harassed. South Asia has one of the highest rates of physical and sexual violence against women and girls. And though research shows that boys face nearly the same degree of sexual abuse and exploitation as women and girls, data on violence against men is almost non-existent.
Some evidence suggests that at least 1 in 6 men are sexually assaulted around the world. A survey by the Asia Pacific Institute on gender based violence found that as compared to 23% women, 18% men experienced some form of sexual violence. With sexual assault comes stigma of shame and self-doubt, it is more pronounced in men and many men report feeling powerless.
Given the dearth of data on male survivors, it is not surprising that throughout the South Asian region, victim safety programs are overwhelmingly directed at protecting girls and women. Granted that the numbers of boys and men are small when compared to the overwhelming abuse and violence faced by women and girls, but since when did numbers define consent, violence and abuse? In an ideal world, you would want everyone to be more humane, but why are we so focused on people being man or woman or gay or transgender or bisexual? Are we not all humans at the end of the day? Can this one binding entity not define us all?
The World Health Organization prescribes general principles for addressing sexual violence such as medico legal care, but in many low and middle-income countries many of the prescribed processes and systems are not in place. However, it is time to offer some general guidelines for ensuring all sexual abuse survivor’s safety by setting clear and visible policies on how to address issues of sexual abuse at the national, sub-national and local level in countries and organizations.
Specific guidelines on how to get help from safe spaces should be common knowledge and help should be easily accessible without stigma for victims. We need to create work and home environments where people of all genders can speak up about abuse without fear of retribution.
Allegations need to be investigated, but the priority should be towards ensuring victims’ safety. Due to the unique nature of each sexual assault incident, situations may arise that require the use of discretion in developing a tailored response that appropriately addresses both the individual victims’ needs and the public safety concerns.
Privacy and secrecy are crucial components of a victim’s safety in cases of sexual violence. Therefore, it is necessary to have emergency abuse/violence shelter locations or safe spaces, whose locations are confidential and that there are laws in place that prohibit the publishing of names of rape victims.
Of course, this becomes difficult in countries where coordination between law enforcement agencies, legal justice systems and social welfare agencies are non-existent.
This brings into focus the role of traditional communities where elders may act as the individual guides for the victims’ rehabilitation, they can also help the victims to reestablish trust with other community members. Moreover, strengthening the community-based networks is essential as they can be used to coordinate efforts around sexual violence recognition, prevention and rehabilitation.
Ultimately, we must help all survivors regardless of their gender in ways that do not place undue burden on them and do not harm them further.