The Importance of Men Seeing Women as Human Beings

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After several high-profile cases of violence against women around the world, is there finally hope for change?

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Anupam Nath/Associated Press

Before she was killed by Oscar Pistorius on Valentine's Day morning, Reeva Steenkamp planned to wear black the next day. The model wrote about it on Twitter and Instagram, but this was no mere fashion choice. Steenkamp intended to join a "Black Friday" protest to put the spotlight on violence against women, especially in light of the Feb. 2 rape and murder of 17-year-old Anene Booysen in Bredasdorp, a small town in South Africa's Western Cape province.

Booysen's death has not received the level of worldwide attention as that of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh Pandey, the New Delhi woman raped and murdered in December. But their stories share chilling similarities in the details. Both women were gang raped. Both women were slit down the middle of their abdomens. Their attackers reached inside and ripped out their intestines.

Booysen's aunt described her injuries to the Cape Argus: "Her throat had been slit, all her fingers and both legs were broken, a broken glass bottle had been lodged in her, her stomach had been cut open... That which was supposed to be inside her body lay strewn across the scene where they found her."

Both women later died as a result of their extensive injuries. Before they died, each gave a statement from her hospital bed to police that helped to apprehend the attackers.

These are anything but isolated incidents. South Africa has notoriously high levels of violence against women. In a survey in New Delhi conducted last October and November, before Pandey's rape and the public outcry that followed, 95 percent of women said they felt unsafe in public spaces. Nine out of 10 women reported they had experienced sexual violence in a public space in their lifetime, ranging from obscene comments to groping to stalking to rape.

Hundreds of thousands of Indians turned out for candlelight vigils after Pandey's death. Some protests turned violent. In South Africa, remembrances of Booysen have been fewer and more muted. But the country's president is finally taking notice of the issue publicly. In his state of the nation address on Feb. 14, Jacob Zuma, himself previously charged with rape and later acquitted, mentioned Booysen and, for the first time in his presidency, talked about "the need for unity in action to eradicate this scourge."

Treating girls and women as less than human is not behavior contained to developing or middle-income countries like India and South Africa. Next month in Steubenville, Ohio, high school football stars Trent Mays and Malik Richmond go on trial for the rape of a 16-year-old girl last August. She was also raped repeatedly and carried unconscious from party to party, her body hauled by her limbs. Photos were tweeted and put on Instagram. In a 12-minute video made that night, another party-goer, Michael Nodianos, turned the assault into a stand-up routine, laughing at his own jokes about the "dead girl." A sampling: "She's deader than O.J.'s wife." "She is so raped right now." Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said last week that he didn't have enough evidence to charge Nodianos with a crime.

In one moment from the video, behind the maniacal laughter, another boy can be heard off-screen: "That's, like, rape. It is rape. They raped her." You can hear the realization dawning in his voice. A few minutes later, the same voice asks, "But what if that was your daughter?"

That comprehension—drawing a line between the woman or girl who is lying there "so raped" and the women and girls in the lives of men who would rape and men who would stand idly by—could be the tipping point in stopping this violence.

"Men are part of the solution," says Stella Mukasa of the International Center for Research on Women. "There are programs that work to engage men and boys. We need to amplify those efforts."

Before Booysen's death, I wrote about one of those programs by men in South Africa that works to change behaviors and attitudes in young men toward women. The Steubenville "rape crew" needs a similar program. Nodianos' giggled response to the question posed? "If that was my daughter, I wouldn't care. I'd just let her be dead." A stupid joke that makes an important point: Men first must place value on the women and girls in their own lives.

After a weeklong hearing, a South African magistrate granted Oscar Pistorius bail today. In this case, it's too early to know if Reeva Steenkamp was one more victim of intimate partner violence, or victim of a trigger-quick man afraid of burglars. On the day she was killed One Billion Rising organized what it called the biggest global action ever to end violence against women and girls. Events in 207 countries aimed to draw in one billion women and men worldwide to dance and raise their voices on behalf of one billion women on the planet who are raped or beaten in their lifetime. People rallied and danced for Jyoti Singh Pandey in New Delhi and for Anene Booysen in Cape Town. In Steubenville, a flash mob descended on the courthouse steps, for the unnamed high-school girl.

If worldwide awareness and outrage lead to sustained action—changed behaviors by men and boys, arrests and prosecution for rape and gender-based violence—then maybe everyone finally gets the message. Women and girls are not bodies to be mauled and dragged around.

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Kimberly Burge is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist, a contributing writer for Sojourners, and a former Fulbright Scholar to South Africa. She is author of a forthcoming book about girls growing up in post-apartheid South Africa. 

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