The optimism of anyone invested in women’s issues has good days and bad days. When it comes to sexual exploitation in particular, especially in conflict regions, especially as westerners, we’re often afraid to think about the state of women there, for the sake of our own emotional well-being. We feel lost and useless, even when seeing powerful people behind powerful podiums, addressing the welfare of women in those regions; Angelina Jolie and British Foreign Secretary William Hague hosted such a summit last week. But whether or not we’re paying attention, sexual exploitation is constant, but luckily there are people out there making a difference for the women affected.
According to Hayes Brown of ThinkProgress, the International Criminal Court is currently directing more attention to prosecuting “crimes against humanity” that are sexual in nature through a new proposal led by Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda. This is a step in the right direction, and Brown’s tone is hopeful, but he also cites a major failure when it comes to prosecuting sexual predators: the ICC’s failure to convict warlord Germain Katanga for rape.
Still, it’s a necessary dose of hopeful news, even though we know that war will always be war. After the Bosnian crisis especially, the concept of rape as a weapon disgusted many but also stopped surprising people, eventually becoming accepted as just another inevitable result of war. This is unacceptable. We must address sexual assault in conflict regions. As Jolie said, this kind of tacit acceptance merely sets the bar for “rape and more rape.” We might never stop feeling useless, but that shouldn’t stop us from speaking up and taking action.
What these cases have in common is that sexual assault is used systematically, as a weapon, to undermine women and even entire communities. Take Egypt, for example: during a presidential inauguration celebration in Tahrir Square this month, seven men sexually assaulted a teenage. They were arrested, and the victim was hospitalized. And if we’re talking about the normalization of sexual assault, 83 percent of Egyptian women are exposed to harassment. And in the Japanese rape of Nanjing, rape was used as a weapon to weaken the opposing community as a whole.
This time last year journalist Awel El-Khayt interviewed Egyptians of both sexes to find how people defined “sexual harassment.”Turning to mere boys for opinions, Dignity Without Borders documented that even some of the youngest saw harassment as necessary for persecuting women who don’t appear 100% pious. We also know that Serbs forcibly impregnated Bosnian women during the Bosnian Crisis to bear more Serbs, consequently shaking Serbian communities.
Underneath it all, these men recognize the power of the opposite sex, but in the most misplaced way possible. It shouldn’t be surprising – most misogyny is rooted in a fear of female power. The solution may lie in dismantling the gender binary that reinforces the notion that women’s strength is a threat to male control. Until then, these two main developments from the ICC and Egypt both spell out progress for women’s safety, by interrupting a damaging and all too common misperception about rape.