Sexual violence against women is a global crisis. Stop trying to make it a national one

Women’s inequality and the violence it enables remains embedded in our economies, societies, political systems, and institutions around the globe.
Women’s inequality and the violence it enables remains embedded in our economies, societies, political systems, and institutions around the globe.
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
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Two recent events in US embassies in distant parts of the world required us to confront the issue of sexual violence. On Feb. 3, the US embassy in Madrid issued guidelines for US citizens in response to rising rates of sexual violence in Spain. On Feb. 6, reports emerged of a five-year-old girl’s rape on the grounds of the US embassy in New Delhi.

Despite the transnational dimensions of each story, reporting framed both events in respective national contexts. Reporting on India, CNN emphasized the rising rates of sexual violence in the country and noted that in 2017 more than 32,000 rapes were reported. In its story on the issue in Spain, the BBC reported that rates of sexual assault had been on the rise for five years.

Coverage of rape and sexual violence that neglects the global context of gender-based violence invites readers to imagine this international phenomenon as a distant one, the purview of other societies. Reporting that limits the context of gender-based violence to a national space undermines efforts to raise awareness about this issue internationally—and potentially bars us from finding solutions that address the global dynamics from which this epidemic ultimately arises.

Further, the overall picture that emerges from international media coverage is that rape and sexual violence is the purview of the Global South, where these crimes are a systemic issue. Meanwhile in the Global North, sexual violence is portrayed as an aberration, and its rising incidence explained as a byproduct of advancements in data collection and reporting.

The scale of the global problem of gender-based violence is clear: the United Nations reports that worldwide approximately15 million girls aged 15-19 have experienced forced sex. Approximately 35% of women have experienced some type of physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives. Of the 87,000 female victims of homicide recorded globally in 2018, 58% were killed by intimate partners or family members.

How our global systems perpetuate gender-based violence

The conditions that allow for continual large-scale violence against women arise from the persistence of global gender inequality based in the historical devaluation of women’s contributions and their exclusion from the halls of power. This inequality—and the violence it enables—remains embedded within economies, societies, political systems, and institutions from India to Spain to the United States today.

Other shared global phenomena create conditions for ongoing extreme violence against women. A new report, for example, reveals that climate breakdown is driving up rates of violence against women, suggesting a relationship between the proliferation of gender-based violence and long-term forces such as climate change that know no national boundaries.

In its response to the US embassy releasing guidelines, the Spanish interior ministry cited rising reporting rates. Yet in other contexts, such as India, the flip side of this argument—that sexual violence remains underreported—serves to give the impression that this is somehow more of a serious issue in some parts of the world than in others.

Robust data and statistics are essential, and more reporting would indeed help to further expose the scope of this issue globally so that we can do a better job of combatting it. Yet the debate over whether rates are truly rising or that only reporting is rising is a discussion that ultimately distracts from the reality that sexual violence and rape are an endemic global problem.

We have enough data to know that women worldwide exist in a context of continual threats to their physical safety both from strangers and within their intimate partnerships and families. The historical lack of data collection on gender-based violence and the problems associated with official reporting are themselves a reflection of the historical devaluation of women’s lives and silencing of women’s experiences worldwide.

Reporting on the India US embassy rape brought back discussions of the 2012 gang rape that made international news, where analysts described how this event haunts the collective memory of women in India. Yet rape haunts the collective memory of women every day not just in India, but worldwide.

Sexual violence is a global problem that require a global framework to address. When an American woman is raped in Spain, or an Indian girl is raped on the grounds of the US embassy in New Delhi, we should recognize that these crimes exist within the context of an epidemic of gender-based violence that transcends national borders.