Rape happens everywhere. In New Delhi, India; in Steubenville, Ohio, USA; in Congo, Africa. In houses, in clinics, in schools, in the fields, in buses, in refugee camps, in hotels, in your own backyard. It happens to all kinds of women and girls, all kinds of men and boys are perpetrators and all kinds of people are enablers -- urban and rural, rich and poor, modern and traditional, educated or not, and who use cell phones or not.
You get the picture. There is no special context or situation for rape. And yet, we spend so much of our time trying to address the contexts and situations of rape by focusing on protecting our girls and not on changing the attitudes and behaviors of perpetrators and enablers of violence: don't travel alone on the bus or train after dark; please don't wear that short skirt -- it looks lovely, but you are going to attract attention unnecessarily; please don't drink around boys because they will take advantage of you, etc. I heard these warnings growing up and I didn't always heed this advice because I would have never been able to live the life I wanted, but I have worked hard to minimize situations where I might have been attacked. And yet, at every stage of my life as a girl and a woman, be it in India, in the U.S. or now in Vietnam, I have experienced sexual harassment (thankfully, not rape) and/or fear of violence in my everyday life. Violence against women has become normalized; we accept that this as a way of life, that this is how boys and men act, and that is why we should focus on protecting ourselves and staying out of dangerous situations. What do I mean by normalized? I can best describe it through some of my own experiences as a young girl and a woman.
When I lived in India, I was "protected," by my parents and family members. I was lucky to have a safe space at home, but when I stepped out, like millions of girls, I stepped on to a minefield facing daily hazards such as these: I was groped almost everyday in the public bus going to work in Mumbai; my breasts were grabbed by a random bicyclist as he rode past me while I was walking on a street in Chennai; I was felt up in a movie theater in Mumbai by a man sitting behind me-his foot creeping its way through the crack of the fold up chair; I had a "two finger" check by a reputable Mumbai doctor even though that wasn't a part of the medical examination required for a student visa application to study abroad when I was 16 years old; I had another doctor in a large hospital in Mumbai congratulate me on my fit upper body as he "checked" my breasts and not my heart in a routine annual examination; and the water pump supervisor of an apartment building we lived in took it upon himself to give me and my friend, tweens at the time, "live" sex ed in his rooms in the basement of the building.
When I lived in the U.S. (as a young woman and until recently as a mother and working woman over the last 20 years) I worried about date rape, being attacked while running on a track by my house or in the park, being assaulted in a parking lot, or being pulled in to a van if I stopped to give a man directions.
And now, living in Hanoi, I worry about my growing daughter as she begins to take on the world. She wants to be able to take a taxi back from school when she stays late. Many parents allow it because the perception is that Hanoi is safe. I won't allow it because I know what "can" happen.
I've lived life to its fullest, albeit with all its safeguards. I am fortunate enough to have been spared any brutal attacks so far, but this isn't and cannot be considered as normal or lucky. Millions of women face daily fears, abuses, and even death while perpetrators and enablers continue doing what they've always done with impunity. But sometimes things go wrong, very wrong. The tragic, brutal gang rape on a moving bus of a bright, young woman in Delhi, or the alleged football team rah rah rape of a high school girl in Ohio, or the brutal rape of girls in the Congo by men in uniform are extreme cases of violence against women, happening every day, but they don't always make the news in a world that normalizes rape and violence. And when they do, as they have recently, an unprecedented global uprising swells and demands action from all of us women and men, boys and girls to create a NEW NORMAL, one where boys and men respect and value women -- all women.
Creating this New Normal will require private and public partners -- political, social, legal, economic and cultural -- to work collaboratively to punish perpetrators and enablers (including political leaders) of sexual and physical violence against women. More importantly, the New Normal will require a strong and sustained inter-generational grassroots movement to prevent sexual violence and the male domination of women house by house, school by school, and community by community. Let's do it!