#MeToo: At Home and Abroad (January)

For our first month, January 2019, the Rights Writers introduce their topics and give an overview of the main actors and debates.

I was two months into my first semester of college when one of my friends came home from a night out, saying that she had been raped by a man at a fraternity party. Two months later, a friend from high school called me in tears, telling me about how a friend of hers had offered her a ride home from a library, and then pulled the car into an empty parking lot and assaulted her. Every orientation week I sit through a presentation which says 23% of undergraduate women experience rape or sexual assault, that 40% of undergraduate women on Duke’s campus experience sexual assault by the time they graduate, that women of color, transgender, and gender non-conforming students experience disproportionate rates of sexual violence. These statistics live in my head not as numbers, but as stories—-stories told by nearly every woman I know—-which have piled up throughout my three years as a college student. I am no longer surprised, although I am always angry, when another one of my friends sends me a text saying “Something bad happened”.

courtesy of author

Sexual violence, an umbrella term defined by the World Health Organization as encompassing rape, sexual assault, stalking, and sexual harassment, is undeniably a human rights issue. However, feminist scholars have long criticized the efficacy of the human rights framework in addressing issues of gender-based violence and women’s rights more broadly. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, is limited in its discourse about the equality of women, limiting our understanding of human rights abuses to acts committed in the public sphere, and thus exonerating those committed by private actors. In response to feminist critique, additional covenants and treaties have been introduced as part of the United Nations human rights canon, so as to more adequately address the specific human rights oppressions of women. The 1993 UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, in particular, has been essential in increasing the scope of the responsibility of the state to protect women from acts of gender-based violence.  The UN now recognizes that states have the responsibility to address rights violations committed by private actors, such as family members, intimate partners, and acquaintances, as opposed to focusing only on violations committed by state actors, such as wartime rape. This new body of legislation builds upon the founding declarations’ guarantee of equality and freedom from discrimination in order to argue that gender-based violence constitutes discrimination against women. Thus, international human rights law now mandates that state governments take steps to appropriately address issues of violence against women when committed by both state and private actors.

pic: By Montanasuffragettes – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65691016

            For young women around the world, schools and universities are one of the most common sites of sexual coercion and harassment committed by private actors. In a case of sexual violence in 1991, more than 70 teenage girls were raped by their peers at a school in Meru, Kenya. A survey of Australian Universities in 2016 found that more than half of respondents were sexually harassed in a university setting. These statistics begin to showcase the breadth of the problem of sexual violence around the world, despite the fact that sexual violence remains a neglected area of research. Additionally complicating matters, sexual violence is an extremely underreported crime both to police and on surveys. Although the prevalence of sexual violence can be estimated through these methods, there is a substantial, unquantified prevalence of incidents of sexual violence.

            On November 9, 2015, United States Vice President Joe Biden penned an op-ed titled “It’s On Us to Stop Campus Sexual Assault” for immediate release to college newspapers and online outlets across the country. In the piece, Biden details his initiative It’s On Us, which recognized sexual violence on college campuses as “an epidemic”. Vice President Biden’s initiative followed the nineteen-page Dear Colleagues letter, which was released by President Obama’s assistant secretary for civil rights, Russlynn Ali, in 2011. The letter reiterated to campus officials their responsibilities in upholding Title IX provisions related to sexual violence and establishing a reduced burden of proof for university sexual misconduct hearings. The Dear Colleagues letter, in conjunction with Vice President Biden’s explicit focus on university sexual violence, made sexual assault a primary focus for nearly every university administrator in the country. The focus on university sexual violence has shifted considerably after the transition from the Obama administration to the Trump administration. Most notably, in September of 2017, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced she was rescinding the Dear Colleagues regulations issued under the Obama administration. The Department of Education released their proposed new rules for Title IX late last year, the long-term effects of which still remain to be seen.

            Looking back, perhaps it is unsurprising that I decided to spend a semester away from campus life, choosing instead to study human rights in New York City, Chile, Nepal, and Jordan. In every country I visited, I spoke with women and girls about sexual violence. I wanted to know if they felt comfortable reporting, or talking about the issue with family and friends. I asked about the movements against sexual violence in their countries. I wondered if the #MeToo movement had global repercussions. Throughout the upcoming semester, I plan to address the human rights issue of sexual violence, specifically as it occurs on American college campuses. I hope to use what I learned from women around the world, and their stories of both struggle and strength, to inform my understanding of sexual violence as it impacts the women I am around every day.

Sonali Mehta is a junior studying Public Policy and Human Rights. She is an advocate for the use of restorative justice in university cases of sexual violence. Sonali has been involved with Kenan since participating in Project Change her freshman year, later participating in the Kenan FOCUS and as a member of Team Kenan. She enjoys photography, drinking tea, eating hummus, and re-reading Harry Potter.

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