Earlier this month, something close to a miracle happened. Cyntoia Brown-Long, a woman who had been languishing in a Tennessee jail for more than 15 years, was finally freed on parole. A sex-trafficking victim, she had been convicted for shooting dead the man who forced her into prostitution. Despite being just 16 years old at the time of the shooting and claiming she acted in self-defence, as she thought she would be killed herself, Brown-Long was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison, with no chance of parole for 51 years. She was only released after her case garnered international attention, with celebrities such as Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West supporting her cause.
At the same time, more than 10,000 kilometres away, Iraq marked a tragic anniversary: five years since ISIS overran Tal Afar, raping Turkmen women and forcing them into marriage. Of the 450 Turkmen women who were kidnapped, only a handful have returned home. Yazidi women who faced the same fate after being captured and enslaved were welcomed back into their communities by their spiritual leaders but the Turkmen women are still largely shunned by society. Ayatollah Al Sistani, the highest Shia cleric in Iraq, has yet to address their plight or welcome their reintegration into society while their children remain stateless. Stigmatised and shamed by their own communities, many have faced little choice but to remain with their captors in Syria.
The stories of Brown-Long and the women of Tal Afar might seem to be worlds apart but they have one thing in common. They demonstrate how women are punished for crimes against them, particularly victims of sexual violence. Women who have been raped or sexually abused are not always viewed as victims but often treated as somehow complicit in the vile actions of their tormentors. This victim-blaming is known as rape culture, encouraging impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence and preventing victims from coming forward in the first place.
A shocking example of this was the case of Brock Turner, the Stanford university student sentenced to just six months in jail in the US in 2016 after being convicted of three charges of sexual assault. His father begged the judge in the case not to send him to prison, saying it was "a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action". Judge Aaron Persky justified the lenient sentence by saying: "I think you have to take the whole picture in terms of what impact imprisonment has on a specific individual's life."
Yet, as Turner’s victim told the court, her attacker had failed to think of the devastating and permanent effect the violent episode would have on her. “You are the cause, I am the effect,” she told him in her victim impact statement.
According to the United Nations, at least 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence. Yet only 1 per cent seek professional help and the vast majority of rape cases still go unreported.
From 2016, the #MeToo movement shed light on the insidious nature of rape culture, infiltrating all walks of life, from Hollywood to the workplace and home. Although the movement has encouraged more women to speak up about their experiences and seek justice, three years later the struggle is still not over.
The movement, launched by Tarana Burke, a civil rights activist from the Bronx, still needs to amplify the voices of some of the most vulnerable members of society. While Hollywood celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Ashley Judd have been vocal in their condemnation of offenders, those who do not enjoy the same limelight sometimes struggle to be heard.
For the past week, protests have rocked Mexico – the second deadliest place in the world for women after Brazil, with 1,812 women killed this year alone. Thousands of women have been filling the streets of Mexico City, spraying police officers with pink glitter, after two teenage girls were allegedly raped by police officers. The allegations have led to heightened feelings in a country where women face constant threats from violence and harassment. So far this year, 200 Mexican women have been kidnapped.
Rape culture is pervasive, wherever it is found; it fosters the idea of impunity for sex crimes and pins the blame firmly on the victim. We can and must do better to counter these toxic narratives and change societal attitudes to encourage victims to come forward. The language we use plays a big part in that; there are no crimes of passion, only violence, assault and murder, and they should be named as such. Only when we stop treating victims as if they are the ones on trial will we encourage them to seek justice.