Sexual violence; will the tragedies of history ever stop repeating?

I was little more than 13 years old when I learned of the horrors of the Bosnian War, too young to truly comprehend the damage war inflicts on a society. There was something about the violence against the women in Bosnia that captivated my interest; likely a mixture of shock and confusion. At such a young age, I had no comprehension of how one human being could have such little regard for the life and welfare of another. I was yet to learn that by removing women from their positions as the bedrocks of family and social life, you could destroy an entire country, a society, a culture. 

Using the bodies of women as weapons against their own society is not a new concept, with systematic rape used as a primary tool of war to weaken the integrity of an opposing group throughout modern history. It has intersected through geological, racial and religious divides, inflicting its horror during the rapes of Nanjing in 1937, the battle for Bangladeshi independence in 1971 and the Rwanda conflict in 1994, binding women through history with shared experiences of violence.

While these may seem extreme examples of sexual violence, this violence occurs on a spectrum. Whether women experience sexual violence in the workplace, with an intimate partner, or during wartime, all experiences of sexual assault are valid, and each share commonality in that the woman does not have the ability to consent.

Little has changed for women since I was 13. History, as is often said, repeats itself. The sexual violence experienced by Chinese women in 1937 mirrors in its carnage the mass sexual assault experienced by Yazidi women in Iraq as recently as last year. Women in Honduras are at this very moment fleeing to the American border, desperate to escape the everyday threat of rape that has taken over their hometowns.

Sexual violence is still endemic, not only around the world but here in Australia.

Statistics that tell us that one in five Australian women have reported sexual violence before the age of 15, with Aboriginal women experiencing sexual violence at three times the rate of non-Aboriginal women.

Access to true representative data in Australia is hindered by the fact that only 10-30% of Australian women report their experiences of sexual violence.  If our statistics still lack at least 70% of sexual violence reports, do we really understand the true nature of sexual violence in Australia?

Australian women continue to experience discrimination due to our gender, with that discrimination often intersecting with the additional barriers of ability, race, sexuality, religion or body size. Women’s legal and bodily autonomy is still being colonised by the patriarchy. In many states, including my state of South Australia, abortion still remains in the criminal code and sex work is yet to be decriminalised.  Although niche policy concerns to some, the illegality and contentious history of these two issues illustrate that society is yet to value women’s autonomy and the authority of our consent.

The disregard for consent and autonomy during conflict still echoes loudly through the halls of our university dorms, on the streets of our cities and in the suburban homes of intimate partners around Australia. As a nation and a global community, we must reckon with the history that informs our attitudes towards women. Whether residing in the east or west, sexual violence must no longer be a constant of women’s experience. In order to disrupt this pattern of sexual violence, we must prioritise the right to consent.

Meaghan King works for YWCA Australia in Adelaide. She has a Bachelors degree in American Studies and Political Studies and an Honours degree in International Relations. When she’s not penning feminist rants, Meaghan enjoys feeling productive by half reading books, watching Escape to the Country and purchasing overpriced bouquets of flowers.  

YWCA Australia wishes to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we work, live and play and pay our respects to Elders past and present. We recognise First Nations people as the custodians of the lands, seas and skies, with more than 60,000 years of wisdom, connection and relationship in caring for Country.

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