We’ve all read the news about the refugee crisis in Europe. We’ve seen images of people from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, flooding to the borders of European nations as they flee conflict, war and terrorism in their home countries. The pressure on Europe is on, and our nations are now faced with a situation where we can either show our humanity and compassion – or turn the other way.
Unfortunately, the refugee crisis is bringing to light an uglier side of Europe – of how we value the security, safety and humanity of women and girls, both those already living in our countries and those coming to us looking for a refuge to flee from the horrors they face at home. In my native country, Finland, two rapes in which the suspected perpetrators are recently arrived refugees have dominated the news cycle and social media over the past few weeks, and given more fuel to the already rampant anti-immigration rhetoric that is happening not only in Finland, but all over Europe. My problem isn’t with the fact that sexual violence is getting more attention in the media and by our government than ever before – the issue is why. Finnish women get raped and sexually assaulted by Finnish men as well – but these attacks rarely make the news, unless it’s a particularly violent or heinous attack. When the suspected perpetrator is a foreigner, an immigrant, a refugee, it’s plastered all over the news cycle and social media fills up with hateful, racist and violent commentary in a matter of hours. Women and girls at refugee camps, both in the regions they are trying to leave as well as in the European countries they are arriving in are at extremely high risk of sexual assault and violence, many becoming victims of rape – but there’s no media frenzy about this issue. No headlines screaming for justice, no high level meetings to discuss what can be done to protect these women. Sexual violence committed by immigrants and refugees against native women of the receiving European countries is being used as justification for racist, hateful, anti-immigration rhetoric – and that is what I have a big problem with. It is not only hypocritical, but derails the attention away from the real issues around sexual violence and rape.
I firmly believe that any and all rapes and sexual attacks should be condemned and the perpetrators should be brought to justice, despite their ethnicity, race or immigration status – but that’s exactly where the problem lies. In my native country – and I believe this same phenomenon is happening in other European countries as well – sexual violence perpetrated by the native men of that country does not receive nearly as much attention as sexual violence by foreigners does. As the debate now circles around the issue of crimes committed by refugees, even less attention is paid to problems related to inadequate resources to combat sexual violence, insufficient support services to victims of sexual and physical violence, and poor legislation that is far from being compliant with international treaties such as CEDAW and the Istanbul Convention – both of which Finland, along with many other European countries, has ratified, and neither of which we are fully complying with when it comes to combatting violence against women and girls.
The reality is that there is no one face of a rapist. There also is no one face of a victim. Sexual violence continues to be so widespread and commonplace across the world that a rapist or an attacker can be anyone – and, as research has shown, in most cases the perpetrator of sexual violence is someone the victim already knows – a neighbor, a colleague, a boss, a friend, a husband. Not a stranger. Making refugees and immigrants the focus of this issue takes attention away from the fact that women and girls are most likely to be attacked by someone they already know, someone they would never suspect and look out for – which puts us at even greater of a risk.
Why do people jump to condemn violence perpetrated by a certain type of an attacker or a rapist, but turn the other way and accept the same violence when perpetrated by someone else – someone who looks like us, talks like us, acts like us? Perhaps it’s because the whole issue of sexual violence is very strongly tied to the notion of the perpetrator as “the other”, a stranger, someone who is not like us. When the victim is like us – a Finn in Finland, a German in Germany, a Swede in Sweden – it only makes our rage stronger. “The Other” is attacking “us” – our nation, our culture, our way of life, our belief system. And because the attacker is different, it couldn’t be me or you, it couldn’t be your father or your uncle or your brother or your cousin, it’s those others who do it. And that is how many people define their reaction – by disengaging themselves from the perpetrator while relating to the victim.
Why is this a dangerous thing? Because the only way we can really prevent and end sexual violence and rape is by learning to recognize all of it as equally wrong and always a violation of women’s and girls’ rights – despite the profile of the perpetrator or the victim. We must judge and condemn the act, every single time, in every single country and culture, with no hesitation. The victims nor perpetrators are not “others” – they are us. With one in three women and girls having experienced sexual violence, this issue is relevant to everyone. The value of a rape or sexual assault must always be the same: 100% wrong, a crime, a punishable act that we all must stand up against and condemn. None of us are immune, and none of us have the right to turn away. Not anymore, not ever again.
Featured image courtesy of Morgan Knorr/Flickr.