Sexual violence, human rights and the media

Sexual violence is usually not covered as a human rights issue.  As the archetypical normalized, invisible, overlooked and structural human right violation, it is more often treated as an everyday, normal problem rather than a violation of women’s rights to health, life, bodily integrity, education, and more. The culture of impunity that surrounds sexual violence, and the fact that rape is notoriously underreported, can hardly be detached from the media’s failure to communicate to people that they actually can report these as crimes.

It is a missed opportunity, and a troubling one, because the way the media chooses to frame sexual violence influences how people think about rape. They can shape, challenge and perpetuate dominant perceptions or illuminate harmful misconceptions and shed a light on the contestations and anxieties that surround the topic. Moreover, they can channel the outrage and disgust towards, for example, child-rapists into anger and calls for accountability towards our governments.  Making sexual violence newsworthy as a human rights violation, rather than something that happens to happen as long as bad men are around, matters.

Making rape newsworthy is not where the media’s responsibility ends. Exposing power-relations that underlie human rights violations also counts. As feminists have long demonstrated, rape is about power. Coverage of sexual violence shouldn’t end with a narrow description of what has happened to whom and how, but should also contextualize the events with an explanation of gendered power relations. Sexual violence should be seen as a violent performance of patriarchy and an enactment of masculinity; both pervasive and structural forces, but also fluid and therefore changeable. Focusing on the violent masculinities doesn’t mean identifying it as the sole cause; the blame must still be placed on the perpetrator. But not without mentioning the power structures that enabled or encouraged him to commit this crime; and the responsibility of the government to take action and show political will to fix these pervasive social ills. If the media would educate us all a bit better around patriarchy and masculinity, we might actually tell our governments to put political will behind their human rights talk.

The media’s ability to either encourage or discourage rape survivors to report their crimes to the police matters as well. Reading about arrests, trials and convictions and the laws that are violated with an act of nonconsensual sex is more likely to incline women to report rape to the police than grim media narratives that simply describe place, time and brutality.

The media have a responsibility to make sexual violence a human rights issue. Human rights education, then, should also include an education of the educators. Both editors and reporters need to know and understand what human rights are if a ‘rights culture’ is to be built.


(Photo Credit: Pinterest)

Because they are still human

James Kessler is a justice architect. That means he works in criminal justice architecture. He is a senior principal at Hellmuth, Obata + Kassebaum, Inc, better known as HOK, one of the largest architectural firms in the world. Here’s how they describe justice architecture: “As an integral part of society and a component of contemporary life in our cities and states, Justice Architecture is a powerful symbol that serves to define the image of justice in every community.”

In a profile this week, Kessler talked about women prisoners in the United States: “Incarcerated women, for example, are more likely to change, or want to change, Kessler said, noting “an incredibly high percentage – more than 50 percent – have been abused as children.” Statistically they also have more health issues than men, and 75 percent are mothers with the added burden of being away from their children, exacerbated by having been abandoned by their own parents in similar situations….In the past, and sometimes at present, Kessler said parity issues arise vis-à-vis men’s prisons, with fewer opportunities and programs available to women who comprise a much smaller percentage of the prison population.…One of the goals during incarceration, Kessler explained, is to ameliorate the anger that defines inmates. According to Kessler, because research has determined women have a much greater need for privacy than men, requiring them to live in open dormitories would very possibly build on that anger rather than helping to relieve it.”

Women prisoners’ anger, women’s anger, creates a different space and inhabits a different architecture than the anger of men.

The profile concludes with Kessler’s reflection: “As architects, we have social responsibilities and certain sensitivities, perceptions and skills to deal with unusual situations for the people that work in them, the people that visit them and for the people that are in them, because they are still human.”

Because they are still human. What determines the humanity of a prisoner? The architecture? The design elements? Such as shackles around the ankles and waists of women in labor and delivery?

In Rhode Island, pregnant prisoners are handcuffed and shackled. Earlier this month, the Rhode Island chapters of the National Organization for Women and the American Civil Liberties Union find this “troubling” and “unnecessary”. Rhode Island Department of Corrections officials see shackling as striking “a balance between the need for security and the interests of a pregnant inmate.” How is being shackled in the interests of a pregnant woman? She is still human, isn’t she?

In California, the ACLU is challenging the same “balanced” shackling of pregnant women: “In California, we currently shackle pregnant women. In jails and prisons, women are forced to walk with shackles around their swollen ankles, chains around their middles, and handcuffs behind their backs. They walk through downtown city blocks chained to one to another, trying their best not to lose balance”. The ACLU thinks this is cruel and unusual punishment, not a balance struck in the interests of pregnant women. But then, perhaps the interests of pregnant women and those of pregnant prisoners are not the same. Does “security” define reconstitute pregnant women prisoners as other than human? Is that the “balance”? What is the name of the different space created by shackled pregnant women walking, stumbling, falling?

In a couple weeks, the Governor of California will have the opportunity to strike a new balance, limiting the use of restraints on pregnant women who are prisoners.

In Texas this month, the ACLU and the Texas Jail Project have charged the Dallas County jail and others in the state with shackling prisoners during labor and delivery.

This week, the U.S. government submitted a report to the UN Human Rights Council. This is the first time the US has ever reported on its own human rights situation. Prison is included in the report. It appears in Chapter III, “A Commitment to Freedom, Equality, Dignity.” Prison is in the third section, Dignity. There are safeguards for dignity in law enforcement and criminal justice, dignity and incarceration, dignity and criminal sanctions, dignity and juvenile offenders. Dignity abounds. There is no mention of dignity and women. There is no mention of the shackling of pregnant women prisoners.

It is August in America. Pregnant women prisoners across the country are being shackled. Even though they do not appear in the report on human rights, they are still human, they are still women … aren’t they?


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Women and Water: Natural, Human, and Women’s Rights

This month I want to vary a little from my initial theme and talk more broadly about the right to water and the right of water, without highlighting any specific organization.  While the right to water and the right of water may seem to be the same thing to many people, the two are extremely different.  I recently had the opportunity to attend a conference on the right to water, where the intersections of these three issues were discussed.

The right to water is the idea that people have a right to water resources, and to use them to their best advantage.  When people talk about how women in the developing world should have access to clean water, this is a right to water.  The same can be said for restoring the rights of indigenous peoples to the water resources once taken from them by colonialists – they are fighting for their right to water, and their right to use water. (This can also be considered a water right, which deals with water from a legal, property standpoint).  It is generally agreed that all human beings should have a right to water.  Where there is disagreement is in how to enforce that right and how to ensure that all people have access to that right.

The right of water looks at the issues from a deep ecology or spiritual ecofeminism type of perspective; meaning that it looks at water as the right-holder.  As a natural resource, and perhaps the one most necessary for sustaining the life of human beings, water has a right to be preserved and protected.  Since water cannot physically represent itself, people must protect the rights of water.

Women fall into this junction of human rights and water at many different sections.  First, and perhaps the most obvious, women have been tied to water through religions for centuries.  Traditionally, water has been personified as a woman — the sea is feminized.  ‘She’ becomes a source of tremendous natural (I use natural here to mean from the world of nature) power that men must conquer and control.  Once water is feminized, the similarities between water and the oppression of women become more apparent.  While women are oppressed and restricted, water is conquered, forced to change its course, and privatized.

Second, women are the primary gatherers of water in the developing world.  In some places, women must walk miles to the nearest water source, sometimes more than once a day, in order to bring back enough water for their families and their domestic duties.  These walks are long, not necessarily safe routes, putting the women and children who walk them in danger.  A better global stewardship of water resources would make these challenges less dangerous and time consuming.  Attention to water conservation and climate change issues would make water scarcity less of a problem.

The UN’s report on the health of water stated that half of the world’s hospital beds are filled by people sick or dying due to water-related illness that could be completely preventable with access to clean, safe water.  These are not new statistics.  For years now, it has been evident that water resources are becoming scarcer, and the water that is left is more polluted than before, and that developing countries are bearing the brunt of that (with notable exceptions around the developed world).

Is this exemption from international relief due to the feminization of water resources? I think that is a large part of it.  Water quality and quantity is an issue that directly affects human life.  We cannot exist without water.  Water has been defined as a human right – the South African government admits that water is a natural right that all people should have access to.   Granted, South Africa is not the best example when it comes to implementation of equitable water practices, but the government has taken the step to declare water a natural right. Yet access to water, the right to water, is still debated, couched in legalese, allowing nations to disregard it and manipulate that right how they see fit at the moment in time.

The right to water has been marginalized much as women have been.  ‘She’ (the sea, the river, the stream) is restricted and not consulted in the decisions regarding her fate.  Thanks to feminism, women have been able to regain control of many of the decisions about their lives, in certain areas of the world.  However, the decisions concerning water resources are still left to the minds of men rather than consulting the women who are both the primary water managers and are likened to water in traditions.  Here is where the linkage needs to take the next step.

Yes, access to water is a human right. Yes, women are the primary interactors with water in many developed countries.  And yes, water is often coded as female.  Since all of these are true, than the access to water is a women’s right as well as a natural right and a human right.


(Photo Credit: UN Water)