By Daphne Holmes
Sexual abuse and assault continue to run rampant across society, especially in certain parts of the world. And while many individuals and organizations advocate for better protection, women remain vulnerable to sexual injustices. Human trafficking and forced prostitution, for example, touch the lives of young women globally—and the phenomenon isn’t limited to third-world or developing countries. The United States faces some of the same concerns less developed nations encounter protecting women in American society, where one in five women report experiencing sexual violence at some point during their lives.
Mental and emotional trauma leads to a variety of issues for women grappling with sexual abuse. But the experience also leads to physical injuries and unwanted pregnancies for many victims, complicating the personal and social toll of sexual assault. With high awareness and so many people united against sexual violence, why does the problem persist?
Unfortunately, maintaining a culture of equality and respect for women is not a universally held principle. In many regions women’s rights lag behind men’s, so they are at an immediate disadvantage for personal security. And when cultural ideals don’t recognize women’s right to freedom and safety, supporting institutions like government, law enforcement and education probably don’t either. The result in many regions is an unbreakable cycle of discrimination that leads to negative outcomes for women.
Social Instability Increases Risk
Wars and other conflicts escalate risk for women, who get caught in the middle of social crises. In many cases, rape and sexual violence are used as extensions of the mayhem caused by warring factions to increase the toll on enemies. As a result, refugees and women and girls caught amid fighting become victims of mass rape and other atrocities. Poverty is another social factor playing into the hands of widespread sexual assault. Women unable to fend for themselves economically are at the mercy of men who control the resources within society. As such women will remain vulnerable until education and opportunity increase their economic mobility. Homeless women, for example, can be easy targets that are frequently exploited, simply because their social position is not deemed worthy of protection from sexual assault.
Enforcement and Accountability
The fact is, most rapists are not held accountable for their actions. It is estimated that 60 percent of sexual assaults are never reported, and those that do come under scrutiny don’t always lead to justice for victims. When the unreported incidents are included, for example, only about three of every 100 rapists ever serve jail time for their crimes. Stricter interpretation of laws and just sentencing are potential remedies to lax enforcement and prosecution, which would also reinforce society’s commitment to protecting women from sexual assault.
A variety of risk factors contribute to the prevalence of sexual assault, including drug and alcohol abuse, sexual abuse as a child, and cultural hostility towards women. And since women face sexual aggression within the health care system, in schools, and from their own domestic partners, no segment of society is off-limits for improving protection for women.
A prudent approach to reducing women’s vulnerability to sexual assault is to partner with international organizations to increase awareness about sexual violence and working to change the social conditions behind the culture of sexual abuse found in many countries. Furnishing additional human services to offset the devastating impacts of sexual injustice reinforces society’s commitment to women’s rights.