I have been lucky thus far in my lifetime; I’ve never experienced any sexual violence. Yet. It could still happen in the future. That might be a grim perspective, but it’s the reality for many women, children, and some men in Guyana and around the world. Sexual violence is an epidemic, both globally and locally. Rape, incest, and sexual assault are the most blatant violations. Harassment on the street and in the workplace, unwanted touching and attention- these are less invasive but extremely commonplace, affecting vast numbers of people. Statistics from the World Health Organization indicate that 35% of women worldwide have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence. Other international studies reveal that approximately 20% of women and 5–10% of men were victims of sexual violence as children. However the real scale of the problem remains unknown since many victims do not report their experience.
Sexual violence seriously affects one’s physical and mental health. HIV, other infections, and unwanted pregnancies can be acquired, as well as sleeping and eating disorders and substance abuse. Victims can also experience post-traumatic stress, depression and suicidal thoughts, and their work, family, education, and social lives disrupted. Traumatized children who do not get adequate care and counseling can be further victimized and/or become perpetrators themselves later on in life. In short, sexual violence takes a severe toll on individuals and communities, on multiple levels.
Here in Guyana, sexual violence is rampant. Almost everyone has a story to tell, either about themselves, or a friend, family member, or acquaintance. Much has been said and done about this issue over the years, with many workshops, trainings, public awareness sessions, etc. But sexual violence remains widespread. One reason that these attempts have mostly not succeeded, I believe, is because they fail to address the root of the problem. While one can be taught to better manage their anger, to improve their coping and communication skills, and to stop abusing alcohol and other substances- the sociocultural belief that women are subordinate to men- remains largely untouched by most anti sexual violence initiatives.
Patriarchy is the system that enshrines the belief that men are the superior gender in daily life and structures governing society. In Guyana and worldwide, patriarchy has been wrecking havoc for generations. Under patriarchy, the oppression of women and children becomes automatic, engrained, and unquestioned- in other words: normal. Under patriarchy, sexual violence flourishes as a way for men to continually assert their dominance and authority over women, children, and men they view as subordinate. When one believes that men are the superior gender, born to dominate, it becomes easy for them to get away with violence, especially when the law enforcement and judicial systems are run by other men.
In patriarchal societies like Guyana, rape victims are blamed for provoking their rape by wearing revealing clothing. Under patriarchy, the perpetrators of sexual violence walk free (in Guyana, less than 2% of all rapists are convicted). In patriarchal societies, sexual violence is allowed because stopping it would mean confronting the ignorance and bad behavior of other men, which would disrupt the balance of power. Instead of doing this, band aid non-solutions and insincere, meaningless ‘apologies’ are applied while the status quo remains unchanged, offenders are protected, and harmful stereotypes continue to be perpetuated.
In patriarchal societies, men with wealth and in positions of power get away with abusing their wives, girlfriends (and sometimes boyfriends), and other people, sending a message to the rest of society that such crimes aren’t really serious, that wealth trumps justice, and that the systems that are supposed to protect and enforce the laws do so on paper only.
A patriarchal society is a sick society. Patriarchy perpetuates ignorance and stereotypes about gender that limit individuals’ ability to freely express themselves, to achieve all their life goals, and to have equal access to goods, services, and opportunities. Patriarchy encourages discrimination and violence against those who are different from the majority. Nonsensical beliefs such as it being unmanly to show emotions, that there’s something called ‘women’s work’, that transgender individuals and other people who breach the gender ‘norms’ are lesser beings and not deserving of the same rights and protection as others, that appearance is what matters most, that the man is the head of the household- these patriarchal beliefs do more harm than good and contribute to inequity, stigma, and violence. To repeat, a patriarchal society is a deeply unhealthy one. Even men, who are the beneficiaries of patriarchy, suffer under such a system by having to conform to rigid gender codes and not being able to fully explore and embrace their complexities.
Tackling patriarchy is no easy task. It means confronting deeply ingrained stereotypes that many people have adopted as cultural and religious beliefs over generations. It means pushing for systemic, fundamental change, not just superficial tokens. It means more than talk about rights and empowerment. It means confronting power and acting to change ‘norms’ in ways which may not always be popular.
There are also multiple spheres of oppression, with gender-based persecution being just one type. Inequity based on race/ethnicity as well as class/income, as well as discrimination on the grounds of age, educational level, physical characteristics, and sexual orientation- to name a few others, have been in existence as long as men have been oppressing women. Complicating things is the fact that a person can be both a victim and an oppressor, at different times, and in different ways. Also, having women in positions of authority is not enough to dismantle patriarchy. Many women who have been socialized under patriarchy come to believe its tenets, to self-subjugate, and continue to uphold sexist ways of thinking.
As such, attention must be paid to the intersections of identities and the struggle must be on multiple fronts. The good news is that people, beliefs, and cultures are constantly changing; indeed, change is fundamental to our survival. Dismantling patriarchy will not only eradicate sexual violence but create a healthier society overall.
Sherlina can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org