Earlier this year, in May, a 16-year-old girl was gang raped in an abandoned building in Rio de Janeiro. Following the rape, graphic material of the incident was circulated online, including pictures and video footage of the girl lying unconscious.
Outraged, Brazilians took to the streets of Copacabana in Rio and marched on Brazilia’s Supreme Court, demanding justice for the girl and calling for action to be taken against the country’s problem with sexual violence. So far, seven men have been charged (according to the Independent), but it’s thought by prosecutors in the case that other perpetrators still walk free.
For a lot of people, this case will have been a stark reminder of the high profile gang rape which took place in South Delhi, India, in 2012. Jyoti Singh, a 23-year-old physiotherapy intern, was travelling on a bus with a male friend late at night when her friend was knocked unconscious and she was beaten and gang-raped by a group of six men, including the driver. Both Singh and her friend were then thrown off the bus and left on the side of the road. The attack resulted in six convictions, an international outcry about the prevalence of gang rape in India – including protests across the country and vigils held after Singh's death, as well as the documentary India’s Daughter, which aired on the BBC in 2015.
It is disappointing that it takes an attack this horrific to draw attention to an ongoing issue, but what’s more disappointing is that the attention failed to change much; gang rape remains a critical problem in India. In March this year, a 28-year-old woman was gang raped in front of her three-year-old daughter, the Independent reported. Last month, another woman in India was gang raped by the same group of men who had raped her three years ago ,according to the BBC. And this month, the Indian Express reported the gang rape of a female student in an apartment in Delhi. The attack lasted two days while the woman’s rapists filmed it in order to sell the footage – for which there is a growing black market in the country.
Because the problem of gang rape is so endemic, the charity Equality Now have decided to launch a new campaign raising awareness around what needs to be done to tackle the issue. They are, in part, riding on the back of the publicity driven by the Brazil case, but the stance they take is clear: we cannot wait for more cases of gang rape to happen before we are galvanised to respond. Instead, says Christa Stewart, Sexual Violence Programme Manager at Equality Now, their legal team are looking at the cases that have happened in order to identify where the penal system has failed survivors of gang rape. By doing this, they can then lobby for changes in regional legislation and, with it, attitudes to gang rape, leading to an overall crack down.
“Equality Now look at cases with the most egregious consequences in order to change laws around sexual violence,” Christa begins over the phone from New York. “First we try to focus on gaps in the initial response to a rape [by law enforcement], because as we know, that sets the trajectory for a victim’s recovery and how society will view the act. This has to do with ensuring there are protocols in place for a victim-centred approach from the very beginning,” she continues. “The biggest global problem is a victim-blaming attitude, and a sense that justice systems need to improve markedly for survivors to feel like they can come forward and achieve justice.”
Christa gives the example of Morocco, where some societal attitudes deem a woman to be tainted by rape, or diminished in value, meaning that many cases are quietly settled outside of court. Until 2014, a perpetrator of statutory rape could marry the underage woman whom he had attacked and be made exempt. Elsewhere, says Christa, sentencing for rape can be so lenient that you’d hardly think it a severe crime. “In Kenya we’ve seen perpetrators of gang rape sentenced to mow the lawn,” Christa tells me. “If the perpetrator isn’t brought to justice it really reinforces the idea that women don’t have autonomy over their bodies – so we’ve worked on the letter of the law on national and international levels to alter how these sentencing laws are impacting women and girls.”
Although Equality Now always try to place sex crimes in context by working in partnership with organisations and lawyers on the ground in local areas, Christa urges us not to think of lax attitudes towards rape as a remote problem; there was the Canada cop who said a women should avoid dressing to entice rapists back in 2011, and the recent rape in Stanford USA, where the perpetrator received just six months jail time. Gang rapes can take place anywhere, too; in war torn countries, on college campuses, in inner city estates. It’s not a crime exclusive to developing countries, as some stereotypes would have us believe. “Cases seem to be dispersed but really, there’s a prevalence of sexual violence in all societies,” says Christa, “and right now people are becoming conscious of that.”
Sociologically, it’s thought that gang rape is caused by a number of factors. According to psychologist David Lisak, an expert in sexual and violent crime, speaking in the New York Times on the subject of the Delhi gang rape and gang rape more broadly, one reason is the idea that a woman is culturally worthless or deserves it (see the “victim blaming” Christa talks about.) Another reason is mob mentality – the idea that you are less culpable for a crime if it is committed in numbers, as well as a culture of competitive masculinity, and the notion that “if a man’s sense of efficacy and competence as a man is threatened, it [gang rape] is a way of restoring their masculinity.” In a report published in the Lancet journal (Jewkes et al (2013) “sexual entitlement”, “entertainment” and “a means of punishment” were the main reasons cited by perpetrators of gang rape across Asia.
In India specifically, it seems there is another impetus for gang rape that is on the rise: profiteering. According to the India Times, videos of gang rapes fetch around £1 and last 2-5 minutes. “Porn is passe. These real life crimes are the rage,” a shopkeeper told the paper anonymously. Christa explains that the issues surrounding the videoing of these crimes is complicated; it can be used to blackmail the victim into staying quiet, but also used as evidence against the perpetrators. When footage from the aforementioned rape in Rio was disseminated online, Christa says it allowed prosecutors to establish that the rape had happened, that the victim was unconscious and unable to defend herself. But she points out that the consequences of videoing can be enormous for the survivor of the assault: “Really, it means there’s no end date.”
Proliferation of Rape Porn 24 MAGGIO 2015
As it stands, women are being prosecuted in the Arab Emirates for their own gang rapes under convictions spanning illicit sex, alcohol consumption and sex with multiple partners. In Papua New Guinea, where the law enforcement to population ratio is very low, a Lancet study found that around one in seven men admitted to having committed gang rape. In India, Singapore, Lebanon Malta and the Bahamas a man is still legally entitled to rape his own wife. Around the world, rape is literally written into the law. If anything is going to change, survivors need to be made to feel like they can report incidents of rape and obtain justice, while perpetrators need to understand that they will face proper jail time if they commit such a crime.
Meanwhile, Equality Now are chipping away at the issue as they continue to monitor how the Brazil gang rape case is unfolding, making sure that the defence council doesn’t bring up the survivor’s sexual history, for example. "All perpetrators in the Rio case must be arrested and a trial needs to take place which does not further victimise the survivor," says Christa. "We need law enforcement to have regular training on this issue and employ a victim-centred approach in cases of sexual assault. We need first responders to provide forensic examinations carefully and quickly. And we need services for victims to be provided by the government."
If you would like to support Equality Now's campaign, visit the campaign web page here. If you would like to speak to someone about a rape, you can contact the UK charity Rape Crisis.