Sexual violence is more than numbers, it is names and faces

In 2004, I counseled teenage girl’s survivors of sexual abuse who lived in a shelter after being abandoned by their parents or removed from their homes because of the abuse. The shelter was located in a wealthy neighborhood of Guadalajara, Mexico and the neighbors were upset and trying to get rid of the place not only because the house wasn´t in a very good shape due to the limited money available to sustain the girls, but also because they were low-income kids that had been sexually abused and these “weird cases” were a shame and didn´t give a good image of the area.

In that moment, overwhelmed by the injustice, I realized that sexual and domestic violence are the first encounter that many children have with oppression and trauma, which is why this is a problem to eradicate if we really want to build a better world. However, sexual violence is a taboo and nobody wants to talk about it. Not the government, not the media, not the teachers, not the parents, creating a continuum veil of ignorance that reinforce the same myths and stereotypes that allow these to happen and re-victimize the survivors over an over again.

At that time, because of this taboo, I didn´t have the understanding and knowledge about sexual violence as I do today. I was not even aware that I was also a survivor of child sexual abuse. My memory blocked it for more than 20 years but my healing process has led me to raise my voice to say that sexual violence is more than numbers, it is names and faces. Describing the fear, shame, guilt, hopelessness and pain that all the survivors suffer deserves much more than a paper. I honor their (our) incredible strength and courage by trying to bring awareness and attention through these few pages.

One of the consequences of ignorance starts with a simple statement: nobody knows exactly what it is. Sexual violence is about power and control and its roots are founded in the patriarchal culture. Sexual violence is also a silent epidemic and a cause and a consequence of many social problems. Sexism, racism, classism and other related societal phenomena are inextricably connected and overlapped with sexual violence in a variety of contexts. It is also a crime and “a serious public health and human rights problem with both short- and long-term consequences on… physical, mental, and sexual and reproductive health… it is a deeply violating and painful experience for the survivor”, according to the World Health Organization.

The Rape Crisis England and Wales, a network of independent member Rape Crisis Centres, defines sexual violence in a very accurate way as “any unwanted sexual act or activity. There are many different kinds of sexual violence, including but not restricted to: rape, sexual assault, child sexual abuse, sexual harassment, rape within marriage / relationships, forced marriage, so-called honour-based violence, female genital mutilation, trafficking, sexual exploitation, and ritual abuse. Sexual violence can be perpetrated by a complete stranger, or by someone known and even trusted, such as a friend, colleague, family member, partner or ex-partner. Sexual violence can happen to anyone (regardless race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, age, gender identity…). No one ever deserves or asks for it to happen. 100% of the responsibility for any act of sexual violence lies with its perpetratorThere is no excuse for sexual violence – it can never be justified, it can never be explained away and there is no context in which it is valid, understandable or acceptable.”

In Mexico about every four minutes a person is sexually assaulted and every two in the United States. One in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18 (direct services providers estimate that the real number is one in three children).

A new report “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action” launched on January 2014 by The White House Council on Women and Girls provides an overview of the problem: “Women and girls are the vast majority of victims: nearly 1 in 5 women… and 1 in 71 men… have been raped during their lives. Most victims know their assailants. The vast majority (nearly 98%) of perpetrators are male. Young people are especially at risk: nearly half of female survivors were raped before they were 18, and over one-quarter of male survivors were raped before they were 10. Repeat victimization is common: over a third of women who were raped as minors were also raped as adults. Other populations are also at higher risk… including people with disabilities, the LGBT community, prison inmates (of both genders)… the homeless” and undocumented immigrants. Rape is the second most expensive crime, behind only murder “…the existing research indicates that the costs are great… ranging from $87,000 to $240,776 per rape.”

The United States statistics reflects the sexual violence situation around the world: few research done and data coming from sources like police reports, clinical numbers and non-governmental organization that doesn´t reflect the heinous reality. Due to the stigma and victim blaming, sexual assault is one of the most under reported crimes and, even when is reported, only 3% of perpetrators end in prison. In some countries, like Mexico and other from Latin America, the numbers are similar or worst and it is even harder to obtain indicators.

Mexico is number one in sexual violence against women according to comparative research by the United Nations in 2010, with 44% of women sexually assaulted and followed by Costa Rica with 41%, Czech Republic 35% and Denmark 28%. In Nicaragua, assaulted girls under 19 years old represent 50% of registered pregnancy cases (Health Department). In Argentina, 54% of psychological therapies are related to sexual abuse or incest (Red en Lucha contra la violencia, abuso y trata). And in Bolivia, only 4% of lawsuit results with a sentence to the perpetrator (Defensoría del Pueblo).

Despite these devastating numbers there are almost no local agencies working on prevention and there are only a few saturated trying to take care of the survivors. Laws are incredible well written but due to the lack of political will they have not been translated into effective public policies. This in turn reinforces a policy context of generalized lack of consistent and reliable statistics, insufficient attention for the victims, insignificant budgets for prevention (including treatment options for rapists), and the loss of hope for survivors to gain access to justice.

Ending sexual violence, its causes and consequences requires an integral approach where everybody is involved. We need to generate not only quality and holistic care to survivors and their families, but also long-term, sustainable, people-empowering preventive strategies based on changes in social norms that perpetuate sexual violence. This of course should include governments assuming their responsibilities of ending the criminal impunity that comes from social and political tolerance to this problem.

However, there is some hope. In 2007, the New York Department of Health recognized sexual violence as a health problem and started to designate funds to focus not only on assisting survivors but also on primary prevention. Although now struggling with decreasing funding, the State has a Rape Crisis and Domestic Violence Program in virtually every hospital offering great advocacy services, free group and individual therapy, and primary prevention programs. There is also a big effort to keep training the judges, doctors and direct services providers as well as organizing activities and events to raise awareness. New York has a multidisciplinary model is continually improving but that seems to work. Even though the New York model is not sufficient because the numbers are still high, like everywhere in the world, people have more opportunity to find resources that can help them to make that horrible experience less harmful and move forward from victim to survivor.

We need to stop this epidemic that goes from generation to generation. We have to BREAK THE SILENCE to start the healing process in our communities: for the survivors, for the ones that are not here any more and for the ones that sadly are coming. It is through this healing process that we can start contributing to an enduring social change.