Toward a More Nuanced Approach to Sexual Assault
Following Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to serve as an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court, and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that the judge sexually assaulted her in 1982, Americans have been increasingly focused on issues related to sexual assault. This recent attention provides an opportunity for activists, as well as scholars, to consider common themes and challenges across contexts regardless of geographic location. For instance, there remains a misconception that sexual assault is inherently worse in the global south than it is elsewhere, or that the United States has been exceptionally progressive in its approach to sexual assault. It has not been, and delving into our own context and other countries’ contexts reveals that. This discovery allows us to examine sexual assault, the relationship between institutional power and culture, and the means needed to combat assault with a more nuanced perspective.
Rwanda is often praised as the future of Africa for women. Its parliament is majority women and its capital, Kigali, hosts numerous government campaigns and organizations focused on enhancing gender equality. During my six weeks in the country, I conducted field research at a health clinic that provides medical and legal services to victims of gender-based violence. This multi-sectoral approach has been praised by the United Nations and in theory is superior to other countries’ approaches to gender-based violence—including that of the United States. Rwanda has made strides in addressing gender-based violence; however, my time in the country demonstrated that despite this apparent progress, sexual assault still remains a serious problem due to institutional and cultural norms.
There are two court systems responsible for handling sexual assault cases in Rwanda. First, there is the classic court system which has it origins in the colonial period. Second, there is the recently instituted gacaca system, an adaptation of participatory, community-level courts established after the 1994 genocide to address war crimes. The doctors I interviewed at the clinic argued that both court systems have been ineffective when it comes to prosecuting modern sexual assault cases because of ethnic and traditional norms. Due to the perceived role that men play leading the household, these courts often fail to take sexual assault seriously. Academic literature affirms the doctors’ observations and points to gaps in statutory law, insufficient protections for victims and witnesses who wish to report sexual violence, lack of training for authorities with respect to sexual assault, and poor representation of women among police and judicial authorities. The court systems’ failings point to a paradox. Government campaigns encourage women to seek legal justice, yet if they do, their case will likely be dismissed. Thus, perpetrators of sexual assault are not held accountable and the message is sent that assault is acceptable. The present state of affairs in Rwanda is further reinforced and complicated by the country’s benevolent dictator, Paul Kagame, who praises Rwanda’s gender movement to the point of suggesting that gender-based violence is not a problem in his country. Therefore, despite the prodigious number of women who are dehumanized by sexual assault and outright dismissed by the court system, Rwanda’s approach to gender-based violence is not only left unquestioned, but also applauded by the United Nations.
When I explain all of this to my peers, they nod; there appears to be widespread agreement that Rwanda needs to do better. Yet, people flinch when I suggest that the United States faces many similar challenges regarding gender equality. Sure, Roe v. Wade affirmed a woman’s right to choose, which the feminist movement argues was a landmark decision for institutionalizing gender equality. There is also the #MeToo movement, in which women and men have used grassroots action to stand in solidarity with survivors and challenge sexual predators in power. Additionally, court cases, such as Brock Turner’s, in which perpetrators of sexual assault were not held accountable have sparked widespread mobilization and demands for justice. It is these examples that people cite as making America notable when it comes to dealing with sexual assault; however, the recent confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh is a blatant challenge to the idea that America is exceptional.
Rather than taking Dr. Ford at her word—despite her credibility—the majority of our senators dismissed her allegations as unsubstantiated, and instead pointed fingers at one another. During the hearing, Republicans distracted from the central question of whether Kavanaugh assaulted Ford by hammering Democrats over the process that led to the revelation of the accusations. Texas Senator John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican in the chamber, bemoaned the "cruelty of the process toward the people involved" and intensified his criticism by calling the scandal the most embarrassing for the United States since the McCarthy hearings. President Trump attacked Dr. Ford at a campaign rally, mocking her for what she did not remember and highlighting how a man’s life had been shattered. Given Ford’s credibility and the seriousness of her accusations, Trump’s attacks were not justified and can only be made sense of as a tactic to play to his political base. Meanwhile, Democrats held press conferences in front of the Supreme Court and gave speeches on the Senate floor in support of survivors. “I stand with survivors” is now a partisan phrase and caring about sexual assault has become unique to the Democratic Party rather than a human issue.
The role that politics played during Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings is important because it reveals an underlying culture in the United States in which many people seem to sympathize more with the accused than the accuser. In response to Dr. Ford’s allegations, the President of the United States stated: “it’s a very scary time for young men in America.” Many expressed sympathy for Kavanaugh and his family rather than Dr. Fordand her own; local and national news sources reported that mothers cringed in fear that an accusation such as this one would be leveled against their own sons, and #HimToo went viral on Twitter. We witnessed predominant American culture appearing to be more concerned about the protection of men, even those accused of sexual assault, than about the everyday safety of women. We also witnessed how inept the American public has been in understanding how deeply sexual assault affects victims’ lives. Yes, the United States has made strides towards gender equality and minimizing sexual assault through policy and the #MeToo movement; however, both have had little impact on how sexual assault is treated culturally and handled institutionally.
In both the United States and in Rwanda, people in power dismiss allegations of sexual assault and further entrench the cultural norms that protect perpetrators of assault from being held accountable. The comparison between Rwanda and the United States reveals that dealing with sexual assault requires broad institutional and cultural change—something that remains constant independent of political or geographic context. This underscores that Americans should not view the global south’s struggle with sexual assault with condescension, or think that we Westerners are in some privileged position to save its people from their supposedly unique problem with sexual assault. This condescending attitude overlooks the serious problem of sexual assault that still confronts the United States. The realization that the United States is not exceptionally positioned to lecture the world about sexual assault allows us to enter into a broader conversation about how activists globally and domestically should work to confront this important issue.
Though societies across the world are shaped in different ways by economics, politics, and tradition, those advocating for shifts in gender norms—whether in Rwanda or United States—are all trying to navigate the same fight against institutional power and culture. Despite the extent of the barriers hindering progress on sexual assault, we find ourselves in a moment marked by opportunity. The reality is that we do not know how to handle sexual assault; rather than feeling discouraged, we must act to create meaningful change. This begins on our college campuses and in our workplaces. As students and employees, we must consider our institutions’ policies regarding sexual assault to determine what changes need to happen to ensure that perpetrators of sexual assault are held accountable and that sexual violence is taken seriously. It is through these shifts that we will ultimately help to shape a world in which the condemnation of sexual violence will become uncontroversial; survivors will be empowered, perpetrators will be held accountable, and communities will grow both stronger and more secure.
(The overhead photo by Tessa Varvares ‘19 captures the artwork of Sam Kambari.)