Rights of Passage - 2005 competition


Women and rape

By Ellen Ferrington Michaelis, 18, NSW

Ellen"s essay Women and rape is a mature and thought-provoking examination of rape as a human rights abuse.

I live in a world where I can expect to have a career. It will not be without difficulties - no man has to argue over maternity leave or face the dubious prospect of a glass ceiling, or even the choice many women face of whether to have a family or continue their career.

But I have power. I have the right to determine my own place and path in the world. By contrast, women and girls in Darfur are penned into refugee camps, surrounded by militias - armed male militias.

If they venture beyond the boundaries of the camps, they face the horrifying and very real possibility of gang rape at the hands of those militias. Yet they must leave to collect firewood, which is essential to their lives. Without firewood, they cannot use the meagre rations they have. Rape is therefore a daily threat and tantamount to an attempt to starve the refugees to death.

To me, the most awful fact of these cases and of the crime itself is this. Rape strips women of their power in the most base and terrifying way possible. They do not have any control over their bodies, but instead are powerless to stop an inhuman violation occurring.

Worse yet, rapes are used as punishment. A punishment for belonging to one ethnic group. A punishment for women and a punishment for men. When villages are sacked by the Janjaweed militia, men are forced to watch as women are raped. That a woman"s body can be used for so many levels of violence and horror is almost unthinkable.

But it is the reality facing these women and girls. Amnesty has interviewed children as young as seven who have been gang raped. From my Western perspective, sex is regarded as something to learn in private, but most importantly in safety and love. Gang rape is the antithesis of my expectations. The horror is doubly evident as, in the West, I could achieve justice if such a crime occurred, while Darfur has no such law.

But even as I learn that rape was declared a Crime Against Humanity by the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague, the Janjaweed still attack and women still suffer. Human rights that exist on paper do not seem to affect those on the ground.

How then does one prevent rapes? Campaigns such as Australia"s Violence Against Women, Australia says No will not work in Darfur. I considered this as I read an article in The Sydney Morning Herald last week. A South African woman, Sonette Ehlers, has invented anti-rape condoms. They effectively attach to the penis and cause pain until removed - which can only occur through surgery. South Africa has an incredibly high number of attacks on women, estimated at over 100 000 a year. This device will identify the attacker, and help achieve justice. Men may even think twice about attacking women if they are faced with the possibility of pain and punishment.

Yet I find two problems in this proposition. First, it places the onus of stopping rape on women. Why should a woman have to protect herself against rape? Why should men, as the perpetrators of this appalling crime, not be the ones to change? Being proactive is important but it ignores the most basic fact - men rape women, not vice versa.

This raises the second point - when we, as women, discuss rape, there is a tendency to talk about "Men". Some individual males rape women. The vast majority respect women and their bodies. A case against rape is not a case against men. Men must be, as most are, aware of women as more than sexual, because when one ignores the humanity of a person they become objects. Objects are easy to abuse.

Men in South Africa must remind each other that women are people. They must look at women individually, and remember that each woman is a sister, a daughter, perhaps a mother. But more to the point, they are a person. Then rape becomes that much harder to act out, perhaps to the point that it will not occur.

I wish I could hope for the same in Darfur. Here however, the problem is greater than not seeing women as people. The Janjaweed view the African people as the enemy - and that is the greatest de-humaniser. They have no human feelings in the eyes of the militia - only weakness. That is why rape is the most complete form of torture in Darfur - women and men are weakened by it and must live with the results, be they pregnancy or the destruction of a child"s innocence and ability to trust.

Rape makes women vulnerable. It makes those who view the victim as human vulnerable. To hope that the Janjaweed will view these women as people is perhaps futile. Similarly it is impossible to ask women to protect themselves from that sort of hatred, and it therefore falls to those who are not vulnerable to such attacks to help. Women around the world, who like me, have power, must lend their support. We campaign to the United Nations and the Government of Darfur in the hope of change. Men around the world must too - because beyond the physical and the sexual, both of which are destroyed by rape, women must be regarded as, first and foremost, people.

[Please note: since these essays were written there have been changes made to federal government policy in respect to children immigration detention. For more information see http://www.minister.immi.gov.au/media_releases/media05/v05098.htm]