Kendra Pierre-Louis is a Justmeans staff writer with an interest in creating healthier, more sustainable society. She's particularly interested in the intersection of business, sustainability and economics. How can we structure an economic system that allows business to behave better? She has a M.A. in Sustainable Development from the SIT Graduate Institute and a B.A. in Economics from Cornell Uni...
Rape, Culture and Sustainable Development
Recently a man, appointed by authorities to protect her, raped a 15-year old girl. He also raped a 13-year old girl, and sexually assaulted another 15-year old. He pled guilty. His punishment? Probation. The fifteen-year-old girl that he raped? She received a year's worth of incarceration for essentially skipping school.
Similarly, a man crawled through a woman's window, threatened her at knifepoint stating that if she screamed he would kill her sleeping family. He then raped her. On his way out of her home he brazenly asked for her number - she thinking strategically gave it to him. The woman immediately reports the rape; the cops tapped her phone line and manage to record the assailant who does indeed call her. During the course of the conversation he admits to raping her. Yet despite this confession, he is declared not guilty. The jury feels that there is reasonable doubt, that perhaps the girl did know him, that perhaps she had consented to sex by knifepoint and had simply changed her mind after the fact. This despite the fact that she violently protested that she did not know her assailant and no one could establish any outside connection between the two.
Both of these cases happened in the United States, but the US is not alone in the way in which it views and treats women. Worldwide, when it comes to sexual assault between a man and a woman, the woman is almost always at fault. This inequality is rarely codified into law, but rather is codified in the court of public opinion that views what a woman wears, or a woman's sexual past as evidence that any given sex act was consensual.
In Australia, a Sydney court stated that skinny jeans cannot be removed without a woman's consent and thus acquitted a man charged of assaulting a woman. In South Africa, where 1 in 4 men admit to having raped a woman (an interesting parallel to the 1 in 4 women in the US who have been sexually assaulted) a doctor invents an "anti-rape female" condom called Rape-axe, which to quote the June 21st, 2010 CNN "a woman inserts the latex condom like a tampon. Jagged rows of teeth-like hooks line its inside and attach on a man's pn|s during penetration once it lodges, only a doctor can remove it. "
What does this have to do with Sustainable Development? Plenty.
We spend a lot of time in Sustainable Development discussing structural issues, ranging from sustainable food to green building - we talk very little about creating a sustainable culture. Yet time and time again on the ground efforts have shown that the greater gender inequality, in general, the greater economic development lags.
You simply cannot create a sustainable society in which half of the citizenry is afraid, enraged or otherwise treated as second class.
Why use rape to get this point - that women matter - across?
For two reasons.
The most obvious reason is because women are being raped. Some are raped as a tool of war, but more often women are raped just because. Worldwide estimates state that as many as one in three women are raped or sexually assaulted. In fact, one of the largest reasons behind the sustainable development push to get women access to potable water supplies closer to home is because, in general, the longer the walk to water the more likely they are to be raped on the journey.
Think about that for a minute. Not only do billions of the world's women have to accept a daily reality in which they are not educated because they have to assist with housework, but, in the course of doing that labor they risk being raped. Then, to add insult to injury - they are often blamed for their assaults.
Secondly, it is important to consider that rape on this scale is not simply an individual action, but rather a culture. The reason why 1 in 4 men in South Africa can admit to raping women, and the reason why the man who assaulted three women admitted to it, is because they sincerely believe in their heart of hearts that it is no big deal. And worldwide, global culture reinforces that belief.
Take for example, the dominant meme across American college campuses, that when it comes to rape "no means no". Implicit within this assumption, is the idea that unless a woman is saying no to having sex, she means yes. Stated somewhat differently, the idea is that consent is implied unless otherwise taken away.
This is mind-blowing.
No other act is consent implied - One cannot enter another's home without first asking the homeowners permission. Similarly, taking another's money in the absence of explicit permission is known as theft or robbery. Yet for some reason thrusting oneself upon another without explicit consent to do so is perfectly ok if the assailant is a man and the victim is a woman - unless she says no. Even the TSA has the decency to ask permission before they begin a pat down.
Let's imagine for a second, the converse. Imagine a world in which one-third of men were being raped, in which most cases went without prosecution, that the advice as to how to stop rapes were generally coached in how men could avoid being in situations that could lead to rape (don't drink alcohol, ever, don't go out, don't stay at home, don't travel alone, don't go out after dark, etc), as opposed to shifting the behavior of the actual rapists.
Wouldn't it make a lot more sense to simply tell the perpetrators of the crime to don't be a rapist?
This cultural inequality so keenly evidenced in rape culture, but is endemic in larger culture - including in sustainable development - has to be addressed if we hope to usher in a more sustainable society.