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Women need a voice against abuse

Sexual assault must not be cloaked in euphemisms

  • Virginia Saldanha, Mumbai
  • India
  • September 20, 2011
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It was interesting to hear Dominique Strauss Kahn (DSK) attempting to redeem himself upon his return to France, describing his encounter with a New York hotel maid as “inappropriate,” “a moral failing,” and denying “using violence.”

The criminal case against him collapsed as prosecutors said Nafissatou Diallo’s “lack of credibility” meant the case could not continue.

DSK also said he felt “afraid and humiliated by the US justice system.”

What would have happened to him if this incident had occurred in India? Sexual harassment of women in the workplace is covered by the Vishaka Guidelines issued by the Supreme Court of India in 1997.

The guidelines were the result of years of effort by activists following the gang rape of Bhanwari Devi, a social worker who was attacked after trying to intervene in a child marriage in 1992 in Rajasthan.

According to the guidelines, sexual harassment is not confined to instances of rape or assault but also includes “unwelcome sexually determined behavior (whether directly or by implication) as physical contact and advances; a demand or request for sexual favors; sexually colored remarks; showing pornography; and any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature” that offends the dignity of the person it is directed towards.

The guidelines take into account the effect such behavior has on the victim and, most importantly, when such behavior comes from persons using their positions of power to degrade, humiliate or demand sexual favors.

“Third-party harassment” is also covered under the guidelines, which is relevant in the hotel sector where employees have contact with third parties through interactions with clients and guests.

In India, it is possible that DSK would have been found guilty. Would he have complained about a justice system that had hauled him before a court for “inappropriate behavior towards a woman from whom he demanded a sexual favor and who is definitely in a position of power?

At a recent Consultation on Gender Relations in the Church, one of the presentations drew attention to the fact that language is important when discussing abuse.  Misleading or euphemistic words such as “inappropriate” to describe an offence or crime of sexual harassment or abuse minimizes the harm done to the victim and softens the misconduct of the offender.

The term “moral failing” implies sinful behaviour that is made right by forgiveness from God, not necessarily from the victim, who understandably may not forgive unless she sees that justice is done by way of an apology from the offender and punitive action to prevent further abuse.

The harm done to the victim is not considered.  The seriousness and coercive nature of the abuse/harassment using power and privilege is not taken into account.  Sanctions by authority and accountability to the community are made redundant when God forgives even the greatest sinner.

“What happened was more than an inappropriate relationship; it was an error, a moral failing of which I am not proud,” said DSK, presenting himself as a contrite, humiliated victim of a woman who sought justice for the abuse of her human dignity.

When the abuser uses a narrative that places himself in the category of victim, the woman is left with no appropriate language to describe her experience of abuse.  She is therefore seen as the temptress, seducer, the one who invited the inappropriate advances by trapping the unsuspecting man in a situation of error and moral failure. Is it any wonder then that the criminal case against DSK was dropped on the grounds that Ms Diallo's case lacked credibility?

Do we see similarities in our own backyard?

The recent Consultation noted that the current attitudes towards woman victims of abuse use a discourse that leaves them with no language to name violence and abuse of women in the Church. This has effectively silenced them. They are left with a sense of guilt to suffer the burden of the “sin.”

To correct this injustice, the institution of an independent, woman-headed and women-centric investigating and grievance redressal commission similar to that mandated by the government in the Vishakha guidelines, in all parishes or dioceses in India, to enable victims to seek justice, was strongly recommended.

It should be noted that these women need to be gender sensitive to the issue of sex abuse by clergy. Only then can the Church claim to give all women victims of clerical sex abuse the justice and “life in abundance” promised by Jesus.
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