The vulnerability of women is a damaging stereotype that must be exposed
On 8th March, International Women’s Day (IWD) was celebrated around the world. Every year, it’s an opportunity for the international community to highlight the challenges faced by women all over the world. Scanning various social media sites, there are two distinct opinions about IWD being thrashed out: the first was excitement and celebration, and the second was cynicism. What’s the point of International Women’s Day, many asked. Well, consider the following.
These are the words of a Colombian victim of sexual violence who had been raped by a group of illegal paramilitaries: “They made me undress. They sexually assaulted me for more than five hours. I have scars all over my body and a mental scar that will never heal.”
Did you think, upon reading, that this victim was a woman? If so, you’re not alone. Most people who have read that thought the same. It’s not surprising, considering that Juan’s story is one we rarely hear about when talking about sexual violence in conflict. We assume that the victim is a woman because we’ve been told that the victims of such incidents are women, over and over again.
In Colombia, women are often portrayed as the most desperate victims of the Colombian armed conflict, a conflict in which almost four million Colombians have been displaced. In 2008, the Colombian Constitutional Court ruled that women are ‘quantitatively and qualitatively disproportionately affected’ by displacement. The court identified 10 gender risks which, they say, solely apply to women. Number one is sexual violence and exploitation.
The reality is that sexual violence against men is very common. In Colombia, a third of reported cases of rape by a member of an armed group are committed against men. Yet studies on sexual violence against men are virtually non-existent. Men, after all, are not supposed to be the victims.
The Colombian government’s programme for victims of sexual violence is for women and girls only. Male victims are therefore left with little recognition of their status and no support in repairing their lives. This can be damaging for women too, as the male voice of the victim is increasingly overlooked, the more the stereotype of women as defenceless and weak is perpetuated.
The Colombian case is not a one off. Sexual violence against men has been reported in almost every modern conflict. Research about men and women in conflict, however, often fails to dig deep enough to tell the true story and ends up reinforcing gender stereotypes. Men are imagined as fulfilling a spectrum of roles, including the protector of women and children, the brave soldier and the hero. There are the negative stereotypes, including the violent aggressor or rapist, which, although negative, are seen as a more “natural” roles for men to play. The third and lesser known category of male stereotype is that of vulnerability, that of the victim or coward.
As vulnerability is a characteristic most commonly attributed to women, cowardice or victimhood are seen as socially unacceptable values for men to demonstrate. The widow, the rape victim and the dependent cut off from her source of financial nourishment are all images of vulnerability. This is how women in war are depicted.
The stories we rarely read are that of the male victim of sexual violence, the woman guerrilla, the emasculated male refugee or the financially independent woman. But these are common stories and stories that need to be told if we are to move away from stereotyping women and men.
What I’m proposing is not that everyone should sit around for hours deconstructing every single daily occurrence from a gender perspective, or to outlaw stereotyping completely. Rather, I’m proposing awareness: awareness of how stereotypes may float past you without you even noticing, awareness of how we use them in everyday life, and awareness of how identifying them may just undermine their strength.
The research on gender and conflict needs to be broader and more in-depth to include the grievances of male victims of sexual violence. If this happens, we can start to expose the damaging stereotype of the universal vulnerability of women. After all, women who are labelled this way are robbed of their voice, their choices and are in danger of making the vulnerable and passive women stereotype a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Image from: http://duckrabbit.info/blog/2011/07/male-rape-guardian-photofilm/
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