BY MPHO KUHLMANN
“What was she wearing?” “Why was she walking alone so late at night?” “Well, she shouldn’t have drank that much.” These are the most likely questions and remarks even among Botswana’s politically correct chattering classes whenever discussions veer to cases of rape and assault.
A Gender based violence indicators study in Botswana by Mercy Machisa has revealed that it is almost an article of faith among a sizeable group of Batswana that rape victims are to blame and this cuts across gender and social station. States the report: “communities often blame survivors for being promiscuous and seducing perpetrators … 30% of men and 18% of women agreed that in any rape case the victim has to be questioned for promiscuity. Twenty nine percent of men and 12% of women agreed that in some rape cases women wanted it to happen. Twenty one percent of women agreed that if a woman is raped she is to be blamed for putting herself in that situation. Only seven percent of women agreed that in any rape situation the woman should be blamed for putting herself in that situation.”
While the study report suggests that victim blaming is a fringe attitude, the situation on the ground however suggests that the tendency is subliminally mainstream.
When a woman is raped at night, most “concerned” citizens would most likely question why she was out walking alone in the first place. When a teenager is sexually assaulted at a party, the first questions would be “how much alcohol did she drink and what was she wearing?”
Dr Sethunya Mosime, senior Sociology lecturer at the University Of Botswana says “Victim-blaming comes in many forms, and is oftentimes more subtle, and unconscious. It can apply to cases of rape and sexual assault, but also to more mundane crimes, like a person who gets pick pocketed and is then blamed for his decision to carry his wallet in his back pocket. Any time someone defaults to questioning what a victim could have done differently to prevent a crime, he or she is participating, to some degree, in the culture of victim-blaming. This culture of victim-blaming is so insidious that even women participate in it. It sends a message to girls and women that they are, first, responsible for being attacked. This is about calling perpetrators the victims and victims the perpetrators. The idea that a woman who goes out scantily clad will be pounced on is the most common myth across generations. They could be in their jeans, school uniform, or pajamas. We blame victims and we ask them what they could have done to prevent it.”
Victim blaming inadvertently contributes to the culture of denial and ignorance in which perpetrators are allowed to thrive. When someone has been assault, the last thing they want to hear from anyone is that they could have done something differently to prevent it from happening. Victim-blaming undermines the lack of action victims may have felt during their assault and creates the false notion that they are responsible for what happened to them. One reason people blame a victim is to distance themselves from an unpleasant or traumatic experience and, thereby, confirming their own invulnerability to the risk. People reassure themselves by thinking, “Because I am not like them, because I do not do that, this would never happen to me.”
Kgomotso Jongman of Jongman Psychotherapy Clinic in Gaborone says “The amount of scrutiny and speculations that a woman or girl goes through for any type of violence perpetrated against them are attempts to strip them off their agency and dignity to push them back to the same space from which they braved to break through. They are questioned for the attire they were (or weren’t) wearing, places they were at, people they were with. The blame lands even harder on women if they wear an attire at a specific time and place that society disapproves of; this force many of them to adopt silence, rather than pursuing justice. Victim blaming has long been recognised as a major push back for women’s agency to speak out about their experience of violence, especially if it is sexual violence. Victim blaming sends a message that has rippling consequences, warning women who dare to dream, dare to break the silence not to do so. Not everyone who engages in victim-blaming explicitly accuses someone of failing to prevent what happened to them. In fact, in its more understated forms, people may not always realize they’re doing it. Something as simple as hearing about a crime and thinking you would have been more careful had you been in the victim’s shoes is a mild form of victim-blaming.”
Loago Mosweu who works at Premier Clothing in Gaborone says “victim-blaming deters other survivors from coming forward because of the backlash they see on those who do report their assault. These survivors then do not receive the support they may need, extending their trauma. Perpetrators, again, are able to escape and have the ability to commit assault again. Another reason victims chose not to report their rape or assault is the fear that others might believe that they were at fault for their attack. No victim should fear the questioning of their credibility if he or she chooses to come forward about his or her assault.”
Dimpho Mangwe from Pula Dental Clinic in Gaborone told Sunday Standard Lifestyle that, “I think that as women we have been taught that we are not physically strong enough or capable enough to fight back and that men don’t feel pain so any attempts on our part to defend or stand up for ourselves will be laughed at and in fact incur even greater violence. When this happens, it is likely we will be told we provoked the situation. We have been taught that we are not valuable and therefore are not worth fighting for and that if something bad does happen to us, it is because we somehow invited it, should have expected it and overall deserved it. We are taught to feel shame when we are assaulted because, “bad things don’t happen to good girls”. We must have asked for it. We must have secretly wanted it or at least were too stupid to prevent it.”