European & International News

The public discourse around the Strauss-Kahn affair: perpetuating violence against women

[Brussels, 20 May 2011] Since hitting the headlines last Saturday, European media has not been able to get enough of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair. The (now former) head of the International Monetary Fund was arrested in New York on charges of attempted rape, sexual abuse, a criminal sexual act, unlawful imprisonment and forcible touching in an alleged attack on a woman who works as a hotel cleaner. The long list of charges, combined with his top function and future political ambitions, were all the ingredients necessary to turn the DSK affair (as it has duly been dubbed) into a major media event.

The high-profile represented an opportunity to draw much-needed attention to the sexual violence and harassment which are commonplace in our societies today, a manifestation and contributor to persistent and wide-spread gender inequalities. Unfortunately, much of the public debate has been reframed to focus on the incompatibility of (sexual) violence and power. Conspiracy theories have been mooted and the alleged actions of the accused defended as acts of seduction rather than violence. The name of the victim has been leaked and publicised, her physical characteristics and ‘sexual allure’ put under the spotlight; she has even been accused of ‘benefiting’ from the alleged rape.

In the EU, one in 10 women experiences sexual violence – narrowly defined as rape or forced sexual acts – over her life-time. Although recognised as an extremely serious crime, little is done to address the issue. Rape victims are generally given little support, leading to extremely low reporting rates, and even lower conviction rates. [1]

The situation in terms of sexual harassment is equally grim. Defined as intimidation, bullying or coercion of a sexual nature, or the unwelcome or inappropriate promise of rewards in exchange for sexual favours, [2] sexual harassment is a form of violence against women recognised in international human rights instruments and EU law. [3] According to international surveys, between 40 and 90% of women in Europe suffer some form of sexual violence or harassment during the course of their lives. [4]

The widespread failure to take sexual assault as a serious criminal matter, the possibility of ‘double victimisation’ with survivors being stigmatised as bearing themselves the responsibility for their fate and the lack of attention paid to the privacy of the victim, are just a few factors that contribute to violence and harassment incidents going unreported. [5] Women’s organisations, including the EWL and its French Coordination (Press Release available here) are actively speaking out to demand an equal and fair treatment of the case. The first step to eradicating violence against women is recognising it as such.

[1‘Different Systems, similar outcomes? Tracking attrition in reported rape cases in eleven countries,’ European Briefing, Kelly, L. & Lovett, J., April 2009, CWASU

[2Paludi, Michele Antoinette; Barickman, (1991). Academic and Workplace Sexual Harassment. SUNY Press. pp. 2–5

[3EU Directive 2002/73 (recast in 2006) on ‘Equal treatment between women and men as regards access to employment, vocation training, promotion and working conditions’

[4Mental Health Europe, Violence against women: Let’s talk about it: http://www.violence-against-women.org/

[5Addressing rape in the Czech Republic: Quality of Services for Rape Survivors in the Czech Republic, http://www.stopznasilneni.cz/

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