Journalists can help curb gender-based violence

Training journalists how to better cover gender-based violence can help challenge attitudes that foster sexual attacks. Helping journalists learn personal skills to safely navigate sexual aggression can help prevent them from becoming victims themselves.

“We see that journalists have a very important role in raising awareness, and we are also aware that journalists have been attacked covering conflicts, both international and local journalists,” Savitri Bisnath, Associate Director of the Rutgers University Center for Women’s Global Leadership, told CPJ.

Next week begins the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence program organized by Bisnath and her colleagues at the Rutgers women’s leadership center.

Starting Nov. 25, which marks International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and ending on December 10, International Human Rights Day, the campaign is being supported by Amnesty International, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the U.S. Agency for International Development, among many other groups. The campaign will be active on Facebook and Twitter.

Gender-based violence is a worldwide concern. About one in four men admit to raping a woman, according to just one large study released by the British medical journal Lancet in September 2013. About one in 10 admitted raping a woman who was not their partner. The study was limited to six Asian nations: Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea.

“It’s clear violence against women is far more widespread in the general population than we thought,” Rachel Jewkes of South Africa’s Media Research Council, which carried out the research on behalf of United Nations agencies, told The Associated Press. Perhaps even worse, more than 70 percent of the men surveyed who admitted to having forced a woman to have sex said they did it out of a sense of “sexual entitlement.”

Societal and cultural attitudes sometimes tolerate, and may encourage, sexual attacks, according to researchers.

“The media are a powerful tool in fighting GBV [gender-based violence] because they not only report on society but help shape public opinion and perceptions,” notes Gender Links, a Johannesburg-based group that will be training journalists how to cover sexual violence throughout Southern Africa as part of the campaign.

Groups focused on gender-based violence often train journalists to be mindful of the way they describe sexual attacks and how they portray the alleged perpetrators and victims.

“The language we use around rape, sexual assault, goes a long way to perpetuate mythologies,” Soraya Chemaly, a U.S.-based feminist, activist and writer for the, told CPJ. “It can lead to ‘reverse criminalization,’ where the women who are victims end up being blamed for the attacks.” Focusing on how a woman, or even an 11-year-old girl in one recent case in Texas, dresses, added Chemaly, can lead people to blame the victims instead of the perpetrators.

Sexual violence is hardly limited to developing nations. In the United States, within just the U.S. armed forces, there were 3,553 official complaints of sexual assault, or nearly 10 a day, over the past fiscal year. The complaints represent a 46 percent increase from the prior year, and include reports from unwanted touching to penetration.

Nor are women the only victims. Take the U.S. military. Its surveys of active duty personnel indicate that 26,000 U.S. service members were sexually assaulted in 2012, and over half of them were men.

Similarly, CPJ’s 2011 report on sexual violence and journalists worldwide by Lauren Wolfe, now with the Women Under Siege Project, found that “though women constitute the large majority of victims overall, male journalists have also been victimized, most often while in captivity or detention.” Experts say sexual violence against men around the world may be even more underreported than against women.

The term “gender-based violence” originally referred to domestic assaults, but has since been broadened to include many kinds of sexual violence, including attacks against transgender individuals and by men against men.

“Male-on-male sexual violence is an act of power and control,” says Bisnath. “There is an increasing awareness that gender-based violence is not only something that happens in the home, it also happens in our public spaces.”

Training to prevent sexual assaults in communities like the U.S. military focuses on either raising awareness to change the culture from within, or adopting a posture of zero tolerance for any sexual aggression or violence. In national communities like India, the challenge can be even harder.

“The cultural elements in our country” require “gender-” and “media-sensitization,” Urmila Chanam, a columnist in northeastern India for the English daily newspaper Sangai Express and contributor to the World Pulse women’s activist network, told CPJ. Even sexual assault victims who do report cases often hide behind their clothing if any media is present. “It should be the rapists,” said Chanam, who are “wearing a veil in front of the media.”

Training journalists themselves how to avoid being targeted for sexual assault requires a different approach, one focused not on the society or culture but on the individual reporter. This is a relatively new field, one complementing the more traditional hostile environment training long available to journalists. The training involves using situation awareness to avoid becoming a target, adopting the demeanor and tone of voice to project confidence, and learning simple but effective physical techniques to deescalate and escape altercations.

But whether one is training journalists how to influence society, or how they can protect themselves, the two approaches still share a common thread.

“The only person responsible for a rape is the rapist,” said Sara Salam, a self-defense instructor and former rape crisis counselor who works with my firm training journalists to protect against sexual assault.

One goal of the campaign is to help compel governments to bring the perpetrators of gender-based violence to justice.

“We want to pressure governments to stop the impunity for incidents of sexual assault or gender-based violence,” Bisnath told CPJ.