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Gender violence across the Americas: Two cities, one problem

If alcohol and men is a formula for violence, prevention campaigns should focus on preventing alcohol abuse among men.

Last Modified: 25 Mar 2013 10:19
Maria Amelia Viteri

Dr Maria Amelia Viteri is a cultural anthropologist working in academic activism, migration, gender and sexualities.
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"There can be no 'promising future' for any young men in a society that believes women are there to be violated, used and thrown away as a toy," writes author [AP]

Two cities, one in North America and the other in the Andes, have recently been scarred by similar events. Two young girls - one 16 years old, the other 20 - had their fates decided by groups of young men. Two groups of young male students between 17 and 23 years old, separated by thousands of miles, but found guilty of similar heinous crimes.

These two geographies and these people are not only connected by the sexual abuse, rape and assault perpetrated against Karina in Quito, Ecuador and the West Virginia girl who was the victim of the Steubenville, Ohio rape case, but also by the way their communities responded. 

In both cases, the girls were partying and the perpetrators were not complete strangers.  The West Virginia girl survived to tell the story, sadly Karina did not. Karina was brutally assassinated in the woods, first strangled then hit in the head several times with a rock, her lifeless body thrown into a ravine.

Initial police investigation of the case found that before killing Karina, one of the young men, David Pinas, asked his friend and fellow perpetrator, "Do you want to see how you kill a whore?"

Both cases attracted massive responses from the media as well as through blogs and social networks. In the US, most of the press focused on the boys' ruined futures:  the boys were promising students according to CNN, NBC News lamented the loss of the boys' promising football careers.

In Ecuador, the press was less sympathetic with the young boys, but did highlight Karina's part-time job as a model. In Ecuador, being a model is associated with being overly-sexualised and easily accessible for men. By emphasising Karina "the model" coupled with her alcohol and possible drug intake, journalists were already creating an image of her: the slut.

Shifting the blame

There was an immediate response in both countries focusing not on the girls' ruined future - the West Virginia girl's life will never be the same and Karina's life was cut short - but on the idea that both girls lacked "decency" according to traditional and moralist standards. 

 US teen football players found guilty of rape

The blame shifted away from the perpetrators and toward the victims: the girls were drunk, (if) they stayed at home they would have not been raped/killed, if they were partying and drinking they knew what they would get.

One of the Ohio boys' Twitter messages referred to the West Virginia girl as that "sloppy drunk bitch".

In Ecuador, the focus on girls' need to "make (guys) respect them" went so far as to raise suspicions of Karina's friend, Cecilia, who has been questioned for not protecting her friend. She had been dropped off by Karina's killers before they took Karina into the woods to sexually abuse, torture and kill her.   

What about the drunken boys in Steubenville and Quito? Their alcohol intake (and drug consumption in the case of Quito) is used as a justification for violence. In this particular case, gender violence translated into psychological, physical, sexual and emotional violence.

If alcohol and men is a formula for violence, why don't prevention campaigns focus on preventing alcohol abuse among men instead of portraying women who drink, dress "provocatively" and hence are "asking for trouble"?

In addition, US law prohibits alcohol consumption by people under the age of 21 years old. Nevertheless, the Ohio boys' drinking was naturalised as part of Steubenville's culture where "Big Red" high school football players are revered and have the freedom to do as they please. 

The focus shifted to the girls' excessive drinking and even to the clothes they were wearing. This naturalisation of gender violence is made more visible by the actions of the school's head football coach, Reno Saccoccia, who neither did notify the police nor discipline any of the players despite being told by them about the assault (which he was obligated to do by law).

As a feminist and queer anthropologist born and raised in Quito who has lived, studied and worked in the US, with dual citizenship, a US husband and a 13-year-old US-Ecuadorian daughter, I am aware that these two locales are very different in many ways.

I will point out some of those differences to help paint the picture: Quito has nearly 2 million people whereas Steubenville has 18,000. Quito currently has a stronger economy and better job opportunities than Steubenville. Both cities speak different languages and have very different historical pasts.

Nevertheless, by inserting the local into the global I want to highlight how these two cities are linked by a common thread: young men who thought they would be able to get away with sexual abuse.

In Karina's case, the young middle-class male students thought they could get away with a murder because she was a model and in their minds "just a slut". The core thread between the two cases is the general responses that penalise the girls' actions.

The existing structural violence wherein gender violence is played out is made evident by these two girls being considered guilty of creating a situation where they would be raped, while the perpetrators are depicted as the victims of circumstance.

Karina was an orphan who lived with one of her brothers at the time of her assault and murder. She had been looking for a job. Many comments have focused on how she was disjointed because she didn't have a traditional family. But what about her attackers?

Alcohol and violence

Who should be blamed for their actions? The fact that Manuel, David and Jose went home after the killing and one of them posted on Facebook "que chuchaqui" (Spanish slang for "What a hangover!") after the night they killed a girl they knew, says volumes about how untouchable they felt. 

"There was an immediate response in both countries focusing not on the girls' ruined future, but on the idea that both girls lacked 'decency' according to traditional and moralist standards."

Why would they care if they had just killed what they deemed "a bitch"? In fact, in their minds they were doing a favour to society, getting rid of this type of girls who denied the sexual advances of David Pinas. Karina's case is a femicide, which refers to the (avoidable otherwise) killing of a woman (or girl) based on being a woman (or perceived as one).

These cases, along with the brutality of gang rapes perpetrated against a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in New Delhi, India, and 17-year-old Anene Booysen in the Western Cape in South Africa speak of the need to work with societal imaginaries and cultural change.

Although legislation helps, it is not enough. It has not significantly prevented or reduced sexual abuse and violence against women. Women face all sorts of gender violence inside their homes as well. 

In order to change how society perceives men and women's roles, we need to work together, men and women - academics, artists, activists, policymakers and the general public - in order to change ideas about what it means to be a boy and a man in these changing societies.

Equating being a boy or a man with being a perpetrator of abuse hurts families, communities, cities, countries and the world. 

In both Quito and Steubenville, men and women alike have spoken against the young girls' drinking and passing out as they fell prey to these young men who are perceived as uncontrollable predators rather than as human beings who are capable of thinking about their actions and acting accordingly. 

Why is it that in both societies, after decades of fighting against gender violence and for women's rights, our young men feel the need to show how "manly" they are by taking part as direct perpetrators as well as passive observers joking on social networks about these horrendous acts?

Alcohol intake (or drug consumption) can't be held responsible for this and there can be no "promising future" for any young men in a society that believes women are there to be violated, used and thrown away as a toy.

The Ohio case is aggravated by child pornography and at least a hundred of young people (mostly boys) who shared the West Virginia girl's pictures and tweeted and commented but never stopped the rape. Karina's case in Quito is aggravated by torture and premeditated femicide.

As I painfully finish writing this piece, two teenage girls were charged with threatening the victim in the Steubenville, Ohio rape case via Twitter and Facebook.  Obviously, solidarity between girls and women needs to be developed and fostered in a different way as our societies change and as we witness the powerful role of social media in bringing attention to gender violence as well as reifying it. 

Dr Maria Amelia Viteri is a cultural anthropologist working in academic activism, migration, gender and sexualities.

Follow her on Twitter: @mariamev

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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