Violence against women widespread; U.N. study of six Asian countries examines why

September 11, 2013

Looking back over the past year, I realize I’ve written a number of stories about rape victims. There was the 23-year-old Indian student, brutally gang-raped on a bus in New Delhi, who died as the result of her attack.

Indian protesters participate in a prayer meeting for the rape victim in New Delhi on January 5, 2013. (Prakash Singh - AFP/Getty Images)
Indian protesters participate in a prayer meeting for the rape victim in New Delhi on January 5, 2013. (Prakash Singh – AFP/Getty Images)

Her case is in the news again this week. Four of the men who attacked her were convicted Tuesday of rape and murder. On Friday they were sentenced to death by hanging.

There’s Rehtaeh Parsons in Canada and Audrie Pott in California, both of whom committed suicide after the ordeal of their rapes. There’s the West Virginia high school student who was raped by two football players in Steubenville, Ohio.

And, of course, there are the three young women kidnapped and held hostage for years by Ariel Castro, who didn’t last much more than a month in prison before he was found hanged in his cell.

My interest in writing these stories may stem from the fact that I have three friends whose daughters were raped. Each case was different, although each was raped by someone she knew. Two ended up pregnant; one is raising her child, the other gave her baby up for adoption. One still struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anorexia.

I have to wonder: Why do men rape? How can they do this to women? We’ve been told it’s not a crime of passion but of violence. It’s not about sex but about power and control.

And is it as common as it seems?

So of course I find the results fascinating — and staggering — and depressing — from the massive U.N.-sponsored study looking at the causes and prevalence of rape in Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea. Part of that research was published this week in “The Lancet Global Health.”

Obviously, the study’s results don’t reflect American culture, and the researchers stress that their findings are from just six countries and should not be used to make generalizations even about all of Asia. Yet the results are enlightening and may help us all better understand violence against women.

Some 10,000 men were questioned, although the word “rape” was never used. Instead, they were asked if they’d ever had sex with a woman against her will or with someone too drunk or drugged to agree (or perhaps disagree). Which, of course, is what rape is, yet too many people fail to understand that sex without consent is rape, and a girl passed out at a party cannot give her consent.

“Rape doesn’t just involve someone with a gun to a woman’s head,” Michele Decker, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and co-author of a commentary that accompanied the study, told CBS News.

Nearly 1 in 10 of the men in the study has raped a woman, but that figure jumps to 1 in 4 if you include wives and girlfriends among the victims. The results varied widely from region to region, with the highest numbers in Papua New Guinea and the lowest in Bangladesh and Indonesia.

Why did these men force women to have sex with them? More than 70 percent cited “sexual entitlement” as the reason for rape. They simply believe they have the right to have sex with any women, whether she agrees or not. I can’t help but wonder if that sense of entitlement is responsible for some of the rapes in this country, especially when considering the culture surrounding high school and college athletes.

Nearly 60 percent said they had raped for entertainment because they were bored or seeking some “fun.” Theirs, obviously, and not the woman’s. About 40 percent of men blamed punishment or anger for their sexual assaults on women. (The men could give more than one reason so the results don’t add up to 100 percent.)

Rape began early for many of these men; half of those who had raped were just teenagers the first time. Four percent of them had participated in a gang rape. Almost half of the men had used either physical or sexual violence against their wife or girlfriend.

Few of the men had faced punishment for their acts against women. Anywhere from 72 to 90 percent of the men questioned never suffered any legal consequences at all.

As expected, men who were violent toward women were more likely to have been the victims of physical, sexual or emotional abuse themselves as children, or to have watched their mothers suffer abuse. Many also live in poverty or are poorly educated. It’s no excuse, but knowing these contributing factors can lead to change.

That’s the ultimate goal of the research: To figure out how to change behavior. Researchers wrote in a statement that accompanied the study, “The challenge now is to turn evidence into action, to create a safer future for the next generation of women and girls.”

It means changing cultural attitudes and beliefs, like that of a man from Bangladesh quoted in the report’s summary. “If I am angry, I prefer to teach her [his wife] an instant lesson,” he said. “If she disobeys, she must be punished. That is not wrong at all.”

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.
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Diana Reese | September 9, 2013