Sexual violence including rape of girls and women is a serious concern in our society today. Recently, several cases of rape in public transport have made the headlines. What are the root causes? One has to understand the overall status of women in society to unpack this problem. There is a tendency to tolerate violence against women. A culture of impunity means very few perpetrators are brought to justice, and the vicious cycle continues. Women are less empowered—socially, economically, and politically—which makes them more vulnerable.
Our societal attitude regarding gender roles is one of the reasons for sexual violence. There are traditional beliefs about masculinity and femininity. The majority of the people think that men are more powerful, and they will control sexual relationships to the extent that they are also able to apply force. This imbalance of power means that men are able to maintain their dominance over women. Rape is about power and control. Men with dominant attitudes are more likely to rape women. Sexual violence stems from a mentality which makes men think that they have rights over a woman's body.
According to research, men's childhood experiences are linked to perpetration of sexual violence in adulthood. Men who have been exposed to physical or sexual violence, or experienced neglect in childhood become perpetrators of violence at a higher rate compared to men who have not been exposed to these risk factors. Men who have witnessed violence against their mothers are more likely to perpetrate sexual violence (The Making of Sexual Violence: How Does a Boy Grow Up to Commit Rape? Evidence from Five IMAGES Countries, International Center for Research on Women and Instituto Promundo, 2014).
As a society, we are yet to learn how to respect women. If we do not treat women as human beings then it will not be possible to end sexual violence. Many even have a tendency to blame women's clothing or behaviour for rape. The fact that people ask women why they went out at night (when the rape happened) reflects the patriarchal mindset. This must change.
Media fuels traditional gender norms. Women are portrayed in such a way that they are only obsessed with physical beauty and are dependent on men. There is a disproportionate emphasis on their responsibilities related to household work and childrearing. But the reality is totally different. Women are excelling in all types of professions, and making significant contributions to national development. There is a need to highlight strong and successful women role models.
Usually parents give more importance to their sons than their daughters. In all cultures, girls and boys are viewed differently; this becomes more prominent in adolescence—while boys' social circle begins to expand around this time, the lives of girls become restricted. Boys start to enjoy privileges of being a man while girls begin to face the challenges that women endure. While growing up, boys gradually gain more control over their own lives including sexuality and also have increased mobility. On the contrary, girls get used to the socially defined role ascribed to women. As a result, it becomes difficult for them to assert themselves.
Gender stereotyping affects both men and women in negative ways. For example, men's risk-taking behaviour impacting their health and well-being (e.g. smoking and drinking, driving fast, multiple sexual relationships) could partly be attributed to the traditional concept of masculinity which depicts men as “strong”. At the same time, women are thought to be “weak”. In many cases, this misconception affects women's ability to lead their lives confidently.
The state must ensure that perpetrators of sexual violence are brought to justice. Positive masculinity should be promoted. Violence reduces when men are engaged in a caregiving role, which includes paternity leave, parenting training for both parents, presence of the father during the birth of the child, and involvement of fathers in raising children. All of these foster a strong bond between fathers and children ultimately contributing to a violence-free home environment. Bangladesh is lagging behind in engaging men in caregiving and nurturing roles as fathers and husbands, and initiatives should be taken in this regard.
It is important that children grow up seeing a respectful relationship between their parents. Girls and boys should be treated equally by parents/caregivers. If we can bring positive changes in the attitudes of girls and boys from a very young age, then prevention of violence will be possible. Boys need to be taught that being violent or exercising force does not mean that they are strong. Both men and women should be freed from traditional notions of masculinity and femininity that are harmful for them. In various countries, school-based programmes for boys that teach them how to be respectful towards women are proving to be successful.
It is critical to empower girls and women—socially, economically, and politically. Men should be engaged in the journey to empower women, as that brings positive outcomes. Experience shows that there is backlash against women's progress when men feel insecure and fear that they are losing out as governments and development organisations focus on women's empowerment.
Women and men should challenge gender stereotyping. If they become friends and support each other in the fight to build a society based on equality then our girls will be able to live in security, and both girls and boys will grow up to realise their full human potential.
Laila Khondkar is the director of Child Rights Governance and Child Protection, Save the Children.