To heal society the first step is to ‘destigmatize’ rape

Jessica Buchleitner – WNN Opinion

Outside Nebraska State Supreme Court
Outside the Nebraska State Supreme Court. Image: Nebraska Judicial Branch

(WNN) GLOBAL: Although convicted of 13 counts of murder, 5 attempted murders, 11 sexual assaults and 14 burglaries, serial killer and rapist Richard Ramirez receives hundreds of letters every year from adoring women at San Quentin State Prison. Some arrive with lipsticked kisses and others with photographs. The state of California allows this “fan club” to exist due to the inmate’s bill of rights, a provision in the California Penal Code. Ramirez also receives free healthcare and gets his meals hand delivered to him daily. Could one consider Ramirez to really be paying for his heinous crimes of rape and murder despite being incarcerated on death row?

Women rape victims ultimately pay for the crimes committed by their perpetrators. The violence of rape produces lifelong emotional and psychological scars. Across the world there is little justice for the crime of rape due to shame, humiliation, religion and law.

On May 11, 2012 the Nebraska Supreme Court said a woman can be sent to jail for refusing to testify against the man she accused of sexual assault. The case of a Kansas woman found in contempt after refusing to testify against a 63-year-old Nebraska man charged with sexually assaulting her when she was 7 years old sparked the ruling. In attempt to avoid public humiliation and shame commonly endured by rape victims, the woman refused to take the stand and was ordered by a judge to testify or face 90 days in jail in April 2011. The Nebraska Supreme Court upheld the judge’s decision, saying a state law that allows witnesses to decline to testify when they would be publicly disgraced does not apply in criminal cases. Yet the shame and humiliation of public testimony will forever haunt this victim as it does all victims who cringe on the witness stand through the horrific details of bodily defilement.

In a recent case across the world in Morocco, Moroccans demanded a change to Islamic penal code after a 16 year old girl committed suicide because a judge forced her to marry her rapist. Article 475 of the Moroccan penal code allows for the ‘kidnapper’ of a minor to marry his victim to escape prosecution.  The article is often used to justify a traditional practice of making a rapist marry his victim to preserve the honor of the woman’s family. But Morocco is not the only country with such laws.

In December 2011, the story of Gulnaz, a 21 year old Afghan rape victim, appeared in major media outlets. Gulnaz was raped by her cousin’s husband at the age of 19. After reporting the crime to local police to seek justice she was charged with adultery and handed a 12-year prison sentence. As a result of the rape, she gave birth to a daughter on the floor of Kabul’s Badam Bagh jail, and was informed that she would have to marry her rapist in order to restore honor to her family. Until aid organizations stepped in to prevent this atrocity from happening, the girl was doomed. Like Article 447 of the Moroccan Penal code, Afghan law fails distinguish between rape and adultery, which is a crime under Shariah law. Unfortunately hundreds of women raped in Afghanistan are serving prison sentences for crimes perpetrated against them and in many cases, their perpetrators roam freely.

In Bosnia- Herzegovina, many perpetrators of sexual violence crimes continue to enjoy their freedoms and often remain in the same communities as their victims holding jobs and normal family lives. Survivors of the estimated 20,000- 50,000 mass rapes, which occurred during the Bosnian war, still suffer trauma and other psychological and physical problems due to the ridicule and social stigmas they were subjected to. According to Margot Wallström, U.N. Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, only 12 cases out of an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 have been prosecuted as of 2010.

In the United States, reproductive rights are under constant attack in legislation and most of the arguments directly concern the case of rape and abortion. In May 2011, Kansas legislators approved a bill that required women who wanted their health insurance to cover abortion to buy supplemental policies that only cover the procedure. Republican Pete DeGraff voiced an offensive rationale for the perceived need to plan ahead in life and equated rape insurance to having a “spare tire on his car”.

Perhaps the most recent attack on reproductive rights, which directly affects victims of rape and molestation, came in the form of the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act”. The controversial bill intends to expand Hyde amendment restrictions on the use of federal funds for abortions, opposing even indirect funding streams regarding abortion services. According to the bill, procedure limitations should not apply: “if the pregnancy occurred because of an act of forcible rape or, if a minor, an act of incest.” But what exactly is “forcible rape”? Isn’t this continuing to further limit what acts define rape and molestation?

A 2010  Department of Defense study entitled “National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey” revealed that nearly one in five women surveyed said they had been raped or had experienced an attempted rape at some point. According to “Ending Violence against Women”, a United Nations Campaign, around the world, at least one woman in every three has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime.

Rape and sexual assault victims suffer from emotional trauma and will suffer for life. Victims in Bosnia resorted to infanticide. Victims like Gulnaz in Afghanistan swallow rat poison or self immolate to escape marriages to their rapists. Other victims take to self-mutilation, will engage in destructive sexual acts or even seek violent relationships with men.

The first step is to destigmatize rape within our communities. Appeal to the victims and provide them with a safe space for reporting these crimes. The next step resides within our own systems of justice towards perpetrators. Stricter penalties need to be imposed on individuals who commit crimes of sexual violence. The final step is focusing on legislation that is honorable to a woman’s right to choose regarding her reproductive experiences.


Jessica Buchleitner is a journalist who has interviewed victims of sexual violence for her book “50 Women”. At the United Nations 56th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women she served as an NGO delegate where she met with victims advocates from 12 countries. Follow her on Twitter @50womenproject


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