The courage of women
FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - November 9, 2019 - 12:00am

We have a pretty good gender balance in the Philippines, certainly compared with China and India, our biggest neighbors by population in the Indo-Pacific. In 2017 it was reported that there are 70 million more men than women in those countries. In this region as a whole we women are definitely outnumbered, and that has consequences, though I’m not convinced that our attitudes toward each other as men and women are solely data-driven.

Do the numbers explain why, in 2013, the biggest study of its kind found that one in four men in the region admitted they had raped at least once in their lives? Is that really just the result of men outnumbering women? The UN-led study on men and violence collected data from more than 10,000 men and 3,000 women aged 18-49 between 2010 and 2013 in order to understand why men commit violence against women and what can be done to prevent it. The countries included were Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea. Nearly half of those men interviewed reported using physical and/or sexual violence against a female partner, ranging from 26 percent to 80 percent across the sites. Nearly a quarter of men interviewed reported perpetrating rape against a woman or girl, ranging from 10 percent to 62 percent across the sites.

It means that, if the numbers bear out across the region, you know someone who has been abused and violated, if you haven’t been yourself.

Hold that thought for a second.

It’s an extraordinary report because it goes beyond the numbers, by asking the men who participated to explain why they raped. “Rape was most commonly motivated by a sense of sexual entitlement,” according to the report. “Across all sites in the study, the most common motivation that men reported for rape perpetration was related to sexual entitlement – men’s belief that they have the right to sex, regardless of consent. In most sites, this was reported by 70-80 percent of men who had raped.”

Now let’s return to that earlier deduction. If “you know someone who has been abused and violated, if you haven’t been yourself,” it must follow that you also know someone who has abused and violated, if you haven’t yourself.

Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking in particular about rape as a weapon in conflict, not only because I’ve spent several weeks with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, but also because of my friend Leesa Gazi’s film “Rising Silence.”

Gazi’s documentary is an intimate exploration into the lives of some of the estimated 200,000 Bangladeshi women who were raped during the Liberation War that founded Bangladesh in 1971. They were taken to “rape camps” and held for months.

Gazi wanted to find out more about these women whom her father, a former freedom fighter, remembered seeing standing back to back in their hundreds in trucks on their way to the capital Dhaka. They were strangely missing from history books. Gazi insists her film is not about rape. “It is about the strength of women who have picked themselves up after facing brutal physical and emotional abuse.” Instead it shows “their will to survive, and their fighting spirit in the face of rejection and stigma, for the sin of having been raped,” she told The Guardian newspaper.

It’s a behavior that is not new to the Philippines. More than 1,000 girls and women in the country were sexually enslaved by the Japanese during World War II. About 70 are still living.

What happened in Bangladesh, in the Philippines, in Myanmar, South Sudan, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other conflicts happening right now shows that sexual violence in conflict cannot and must not be dismissed. The pattern continues to this day and must not be dismissed for it to end.

In 2018, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad. Mukwege is a Congolese gynaecologist who has spent his career treating tens of thousands of rape survivors. Murad is a Yazidi woman from Iraq who was kidnapped and kept as a slave by an IS judge, raped and beaten every day, before she escaped and became a human rights campaigner.

“Turning a blind eye to this tragedy is being complicit. It’s not just perpetrators of violence who are responsible for their crimes, it is also those who choose to look the other way,” Mukwege said as he accepted the prize. Women in the DRC have been prey to systematic rape since 1998, perpetrated mainly by rebel groups.

“So far, the perpetrators of the crimes which led to this genocide have not been brought to justice. I do not seek more sympathy; I want to translate those feelings into actions on the ground,” Murad said. More than 6,500 Yazidi women and girls have been kidnapped, raped, bought and sold, and Murad pointed out that the fate of 3,000 women and children was still unknown.

“If we need to shame a family, we go after their daughters, if we need to shame a community, we go after their daughters, if we need to shame a country, we go after their daughters. That’s the same mindset that’s transcending in war and conflicts and we must stop it,” explained Gazi.

In Bangladesh, the recognition of the women as “birangona” or brave women of the war the day after liberation was done is a unique recognition of them not as victims but as courageous in their own right. Since 2015, they have been given pensions in recognition of their contribution to the birth of the nation.

It seems to me that this kind of recognition is an essential and creative way to utterly subvert the narrative on rape. In the act of rape, the perpetrator does not make a victim but creates a hero. It is a shift in thinking that works well against an enemy during a conflict, but what if the enemy is among us every day? In peace, are men any more entitled? Or women any less courageous?

Gazi asks a question of herself that I think we all need to think about: “How can a woman’s body instigate so much hatred and so much violence?”

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