Plenty of criticism can be levied against journalists and researchers living and writing in foreign countries. Because local news stories are usually written within culturally specific contexts to audiences that share some of the values and perspectives of the author, it is impossible for a foreign researcher to interpret news stories in the same way as the intended audience.
I acknowledge this shortcoming in my research and generally try to rely on the opinions of others instead of my own; but every once in a while, an idea is so pernicious that it transcends culturally-protected status to warrant condemnation at the international level.
Blaming rape on the victim is one of those ideas.
Fortunately, I have never had a personal experience with rape, but I have been pickpocketed and I have seen several friends in Kampala be robbed from a few feet away. The first and most common reaction to being robbed is to blame yourself. What did I do wrong? How did I get in this situation? Why was I so stupid? Sadness and anger overwhelm.
I don’t know if the majority of rape victims have this reaction, but I imagine that at least some do. And if that is the case, then the cruelest thing you can possibly do to a rape victim is to reinforce this devastating feeling by implying, Yep. It was your fault. You were an idiot. Not only does this absolve the perpetrator of responsibility for a violent crime, but it can also permanently damage the victim’s psyche, self-confidence, and sense of security.
People in the United States are certainly guilty of propagating this hurtful practice. This August, U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin made international headlines when he said that women’s’ bodies “shut that whole thing down” in instances of “legitimate rape.” This seemed to imply that there are cases of “illegimate rape” that might be the victim’s fault.
One of the worst victim-blaming horror stories from the American media is when a community in Cleveland, Texas insinuated that an 11-year-old girl was at fault for being gang-raped last year because she wore “makeup and fashions” and hung out with teenage boys:
Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.
Unfortunately, this kind of insidious victim-blaming is also part of the political lexicon in Uganda. Yesterday, the Daily Monitor reported that the Youth and Children’s Affairs Minister, Ronald Kibuule, told young girls at a youth camp that “indecent dressing is not only to blame for the rampant defilement and rape cases in the country, but it is also a sign of desertion of cultural norms and values that ensured dignity for all.”
Kibuule added that “dressing indecently seduces men who end up raping or defiling girls” and he also called for legislation to punish women who dress inappropriately. Although these words are paraphrased by the Daily Monitor, I assume that they correspond with what the minister actually said. And if that is the case, then what kind of messages does this send to young women—including those who have been or will be victims of sexual assault—and to young men about the causes and responsibility for rape?