(Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to attribute a quote to Akhilesh Yadav’s father.)
In response to outrage over the rape and hanging of two girls in his state of Uttar Pradesh, chief minister Akhilesh Yadav suggested people google the realities of such crimes in other states. And his father’s take: “They are boys, they make mistakes.”
That only caused more outrage.
And yet compare their statements to that made a few months ago in the allegedly more liberal USA, as the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) advised a White House task force to curb rape on college campuses. The nonprofit encouraged campuses to move away from “unfortunate trend towards blaming ‘rape culture,’ ” because “rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime.”
In India, advocacy and organizing efforts are calling out the “culture” of rape, the “boys will be boys” mindset of the likes of the Yadavs. In the US, the incredibly large, influential RAINN is stepping away from that terminology and speaking of sexual violence as isolated incidents, completely apart from any systematic lens.
Some people say India is the rape capital of the world. Others point to the US, with rape being more common than smoking. (The reported stats: A woman is raped every 20 minutes in India. In the US? Every six minutes.)
Yet if you look across the globe there is no country, no culture, no community where violence against women does not exist. And in fact, in most of the globe, the rates of sexual assault are shocking and growing, which is made even more tragic by the fact that usually they are undercounted. Most current statistics don’t even fully capture many kinds of violence—violence within same sex relationships, child sexual abuse, elder abuse, forced marriage, to name a few. All over the world women, girls, men, boys and transgendered people are being raped.
To consider the epidemic of sexual violence as anything other than a travesty of mind-blowing proportions does a disservice to the culture of violence against women and the millions of survivors of violence who struggle against shame, isolation and lack of support. This is not a case of isolated, occasional incidents. Consider RAINN’s own stats:
- 44% of victims of sexual assault are under age 18
- 80% are under age 30
- 60% of rapes are not reported to police
- 97% of rapists get away with it
These are not the hallmarks of the activity of a small percentage of the community. These are indicative of a larger systemic problem.
There is a rape culture. But it is true that rape is not caused by so-called cultural factors—meaning, that there is no culture in the world that legitimizes the sexual assault of any other person.
We need to define culture more broadly. Culture is defined as the set of traditions, practices, beliefs and arts of a particular society and is used to explain the particular way of thinking and way of life.
I run an organization that advocates for cultural competence in our responses to violence against women, and works to shift cultural norms that promote subjugation of women, as one cause of gender violence. To be sure, there are harmful traditional practices that must be changed and challenged. But there are some unfortunate global truths. Discrimination against women and violence against women in all its forms occurs at unconscionable rates. That definition of culture is far too small for what we have going on in the world.
We have a global culture, a set of beliefs, customs, and practices that, across the world, regardless of community, geographic location, religion, discriminates against women and relegates them to inferior status, and tolerates the perpetrators of harm.
There is a global rape culture, and it permeates our entire way of life.
This culture is so embedded in us, that we raise our children and comport ourselves with our rape culture without a second thought. Pulling out your house keys blocks away from your home is one of those cultural practices. Carrying a cardigan on a blazing hot summer day to cover up against lewd gazes is a cultural practice. Telling your daughter, when she goes off to college, to never put down her drink—or if she has to, to never drink from it again is a cultural practice.
I don’t believe in complaining without providing solutions. The reason the news from India sticks with me is because it views boys as only a problem. As rapists-in-waiting.
The solution: We must raise boys and girls to value each other, and view each other as equal. I think that parenting should be equal so that children see what shared partnership looks like. I think that gender inequities must be challenged, and women and girls must have true equality. Challenging the rape culture should not be on the shoulders of an individual person, but a shared responsibility of everyone involved. We cannot tolerate this violence as we currently are. We have to hold ourselves accountable to doing this hard work, both within and outside the criminal legal system, through intersections and inclusive approaches.
Ending the global rape culture is a global job.