NAITORE: Sexual violence is a crime; we should treat as such

By Naitore Nyamu-Mathenge 

When a prosecutor asked a rape victim to prove she was a virgin before rape, otherwise the perpetrators should be set free; the case of an adolescent rape victim in Ethiopia looked like it was crumbling.

Fifteen years later, Woineshet Zebene Negash, who was 13 years old when Aberew Jemma Negussie and a group of accomplices broke into her house late at night, carried her away and raped her in 2001, was to get justice in a land mark case.

Ethiopia was asked to pay  $150,000 (Ksh15 million) in   a precedent-setting decision by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR).

Woineshet’s case paints the picture of how the girl’s voice is always inconsequential.

On her way to school, ‘they’ make degrading comments about her.  To get to school, those who offer rides will only do so for a price involving her body.

In school, a teacher, male classmates or other employees will make unnecessary physical contact with her. During class time, a teacher constantly makes comments with sexual innuendos that are directed towards a girl.

At the playground she is pushed around, her body parts groped and her uniform pulled up by the boys.

All these incidences may lead to rape or defilement, yet the unwelcome behavior and conduct towards girls is more often than not referred to as ‘normal’.

At such an early age, girls are trying to grapple with the many changes both physical and emotional.

When this unbecoming behavior with sexual undertones is directed towards these girls, they are meant to believe that it is the way girls are treated. They grow up knowing that at one point they will suffer some sort of discrimination, some sort of abuse.

When eventually they are sexually assaulted or abused, they still think that this is ‘normal’ hence no need to report. It is this perception that sexual violence is ‘normal’ that dissuades girls from reporting cases of violation.

To many girls this is what the society has instilled in their minds. In fact sexual harassment is considered as one of the ‘rites of passage’ for the adolescent girls.

Sexual abuse and violence is a heinous crime that transcends racial, economic, religious and regional barriers. World over, reports of sexual violence keep being reported day in day out.

One of the key risk factors for sexual violence is being young and female. In essence women and specifically young girls are at the highest risk of being victims of sexual abuse.

Adolescence is a critical time of development for girls as they transit from childhood to adulthood. This a time that is supposed to be filled with many positive developmental milestones.

However, this is the stage where young girls are vulnerable to all sorts of abuses including: rape, incest, and sexual assault. This takes away their right to bodily integrity, education, and many other rights enshrined in various Bill of Rights.

More often than not, those in charge of enforcing the law do not recognize that sexual violence is actually a crime and that justice should be expedited at all costs.

The girl’s character is often called into question whenever they report these cases and no one believes that they have been abused.

The normalization of sexual violence has resulted in the laxity of state agents in prosecution of such cases.

Equally, the society at large does not take cases of sexual violence with the seriousness that it requires. Hence the reason why many cases of sexual violence end up being arbitrated by the elders in the community in out of court settlements, with the perpetrators  doing  much harm than good to the victims.

It cannot be gain said that cases of sexual violation hinder the development of girls and they are left with lifetime scars.

There has been progress in terms of the development of many laws, policies that seek to protect the rights of women and girls. However just having these laws is not good enough; fully implementing these laws is what is largely required.

There is an urgent need to have rigorous efforts and measures that continually challenges the prevailing rape myths and gender stereotypes. It is due to these stereotypes that victims of sexual violence feel that is ‘normal’ to be sexually abused or are ashamed to report the abuse.

There is no doubt that ending the cycle of violence against adolescent girls requires concerted efforts from all sectors; the prosecutors, the health facilities and the NGOs.

It requires more than just passage of laws and ratification of conventions. Offenders need to know they cannot treat girls as commodities.

Girls need to learn that there is nothing ‘normal’ about being sexually violated. Girls need to be affirmed that should they undergo any form of violation, such cases will be investigated without the girls being prejudiced.

It is imperative that we shift the status quo, treat and recognize sexual violence as a global human rights violation of girls’ rights. Sexual violence is a crime and it ought to be treated as such!

Naitore Nyamu-Mathenge is a Program Officer Sexual Violence/Adolescent Girls’ Legal Defense Fund (AGLDF).

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