At a time when ‘epidemic’ levels of sexual violence have been reported in some parts of the world, a focus is required on the meaning and impetus for sexual harassment, assault and rape and the patterns that have emerged in its incidence.
‘Sexual harassment’ is the term used to denote unwelcome verbal or physical advances of a sexual nature, though it can also signify non-sexual gender-based intimidation (for example women’s harassment in the workplace). Harassment can range from mild verbal bullying to physical sexual assault. ‘Sexual assault’ denotes any sexual act committed without consent, including rape at the extreme end of the spectrum but also includes any form of inappropriate touching against a person’s will.
It behoves to note that for both harassment and assault the perpetrators and victims can be either male or female and incidents can also occur between people of the same sex. Nonetheless, generally it can be said that the majority of reported cases worldwide pinpoint male attacks on women.
Efforts have been made to map worldwide patterns of higher risk areas; however, with such a range of acts coming under the definition of harassment or assault it is difficult to produce reliable quantitative data. Even concerning the act of rape alone – identifying the frequency of its occurrence can be further distinguished by whether the incidence (the number of rapes occurring during a given time period) or the prevalence (the percentage of persons that have been raped) is being calculated, and whether attempted as well as completed rape is considered. Even so, there are some known high risk areas.
Why is Sexual Violence Relevant?
The Democratic Republic of Congo has been described as the ‘rape capital of the world’ and one of the worst places for women to live worldwide. Here, sexual violence is largely conflict-related with rape being a dominant feature of the country’s five year war. Although the war ended in 2003, attacks have persisted in post-conflict times with the UN reporting more than 8,000 rape incidents in 2009 alone. Attacks in the war-torn country have been predominantly carried out on women targeted by militia during lootings, yet increasingly civilians are following the horrific example set. Consequently, Congolese women feel they are second-class citizens in their own country.
Egypt has increasingly been seen as a high risk area, with the sexual harassment of women recently described as ‘epidemic’ on account of a substantial rise in attacks since the revolution. Fair Observer's Natasha Smith was herself a victim of a mass sexual assault in Cairo's Tahrir Square in June. The harassment of Western female journalists and tourists (CBS’s Lara Logan suffered a similar attack in February 2011) has brought the increasing incidence to the public eye, but Egyptian women are also suffering severely.
Dressing ‘conservatively’ is arguably no longer seen as protection, as even women wearing the niqab (full-face veil) have also been attacked. In Egypt, sexual violence has been put down in part to increasing religious conservatism. Yet, deeper than this it is a problem rooted in the patriarchal fabric of society, with sexual assault seen by some as a way to ensure that women’s status does not rise above that of men.
However it is important to recognise that sexual harassment and assault are prevalent crimes in developed as well as developing societies. For example, rape is reported as being ‘normalised’ in some London gangs as a method of achieving status. In some areas of New York, just as in the rural villages of the Congo, people may feel compelled to change their daily habits for fear of some form of sexual abuse, such as avoidance of certain or all public spaces. Sexual harassment – whether verbal or physical – can restrict freedom of movement and violate basic human rights as well as bodies.
It can be said that poor education lies at the route of many cases where sexual harassment and violence are prevalent, and for this reason specific programmes have arisen to combat this. For example, the NGO Women for Women International aim to specifically educate men against normalising sexual violence against women in the DR Congo. However, breaking down the societal barriers that allow for sexual harassment of any kind are just as integral as the educational ones, in order to prevent epidemic and even isolated cases of this activity worldwide.