You have a friend who told you about a horrible experience with someone that made her feel uncomfortable. Although you feel sorry for her, the story of what happened starts spreading to your other friends in school and your community. They say that she asked for it because of how she dresses, so she got treated the way she deserves. You feel confused: on the one hand, you know your friend is traumatised and is not acting the same, but on the other hand, after listening to what other people say…maybe she asked for it? She does dress too sexy sometimes and is always talking to boys like she wants their attention. So what do you do?
To many people, if it were their friend, she would be in the wrong. But why do we jump to this conclusion?
Blaming someone for being wrong in the situation described is called victim blaming. Victim blaming shifts blame from the person who committed the crime to the victim. In our country, where Gender-Based Violence (GBV) is a big problem, blaming young women and girls fails to address the issues of why sexual harassment and assault happen in the first place.
In South Africa, social and economic problems result from inequality. Because of this, there is something called structural violence, which means that certain groups of people are privileged and better access to resources than others, and that unequal advantage reflects in our political and economic systems.
Different factors can define these groups: your gender, race or class are some examples. Regarding gender, men benefit from a system called patriarchy, which treats men better than women – socially and politically. And in a system that treats men better than women, holding men accountable for their actions is more difficult. It is easier to blame women for what they do than to understand that their actions do not mean they deserve violence against them. Victim blaming only increases feelings of shame and isolation for the victim, when it is those that committed the acts of violence who should feel guilty. The guilt and shame that victims often feel not only comes from those around them but also from themselves, which only worsens the situation.
In her article Everyday Feminism, Sian Ferguson says the one way to get over self-blame is to learn to be gentle with yourself. Society has taught us to think that certain things are acceptable and non-acceptable and that if we do not conform to a certain behaviour (especially as girls and young women), there is something wrong with us. But these taught ideas of what it means to be a “good” girl do not protect us from the violence of patriarchy.
You can dress modestly, make sure you’re home early, not go to parties, not drink, not do all the things you’re not supposed to and still experience Gender-Based Violence. The fact that boys and men also experience sexual violence, tells us that the problem is not girls or young women. The problem is with how society treats those who are vulnerable and in positions of lesser power.
Unlearning what we have been taught can be hard to do, especially when they are things that we accept as truth. But daring to think outside the box and question the things we are taught can help us treat others with more kindness and realise that we have better chances of dealing with societal problems by unlearning some of the toxic things we are taught about each other.
Eusebius McKaiser said in a Mail and Guardian article:”No girl or woman has a duty to stop rape. Boys and men have a duty to stop hating, raping and murdering women. We do it. We must end it.” We need to have an honest conversation about patriarchy and what needs to be done to change things. I know that if it were my friend, they would have my support 100%, even if it meant being seen as wrong. Because not being afraid to stand up for what is right and supporting those vulnerable in our communities will lead to the compassionate world we would all want to live in.
Tell us: What would your reaction have been if the person who was hurt in this scenario was your friend?
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