16 Days of Activism: Breaking the Myths about Sexual Violence

by Barbora Holicka

Today, the 25th of November, marks the International Day for Elimination of Violence against Women. It is also the first day of a 16 days long worldwide campaign against gender-based violence which ends on December the 10th, on the Human Rights Day. Activist organisations all over the world will take the opportunity to run awareness raising campaigns and facilitate debates on current challenges and solutions for prevention and elimination of gender-based violence.

Currently, one in three women worldwide are estimated to experience this form of violence at least once in their lifetime. Yet, the problem has been long surrounded by a culture of silence and impunity. The truth is that we do not really have any statistics on this crime that would appropriately reflect the reality. It is estimated that due to various socio-political circumstances such as the prevalent culture of victim-blaming, majority of cases still go unreported. This silence has led to a creation of a large number of misconceptions that penetrate the society at all levels. Mainstream media have often spread the misguided beliefs further. The myths about sexual violence harm mainly the survivors, pushing them further into silence and causing inappropriate channelling of resources that are meant to help them. 


Adult women can’t get raped. They are big and can fight back, they can say no, you see?

— Male ministry official, Liberia


We take this opportunity to name few of these myths with a hope to contribute to breaking the taboo surrounding this problem. Talking about sexual violence might not be comfortable but without talking about it we can never really understand it, and without that the path to ending it will remain closed.



Myth: Sex is the primary motivation for rape.

Fact: Power, anger, dominance and control are the main factors.

Research suggests that various factors including power, anger as well as sexuality operate in different proportion in every rape case. WHO reports that main risk factors for being a perpetrator include low education, exposure to child maltreatment or witnessing violence in the family, harmful use of alcohol, attitudes accepting of violence and gender inequality. Number of studies show that particularly in situations of conflict rape has been used strategically in genocidal campaigns with an aim to ensure implicit obedience and silence and cause as much harm as possible to victim’s body and mind. In these instances sexuality seems to play very little or no role. Furthermore, possible excuses that the rapists can employ based on the mentality of seeing rape as solely sexually motivated act, such as provocative clothing or careless behaviour on the side of the survivor, can contribute to the culture of victim blaming and self-blaming.


Myth: Rape is perpetrated by a stranger.

Fact: Majority of rapes perpetrated by a known assailant.

Globally on average, 30% of women who have been in a relationship report that they have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence by their partner from 15% of women in Japan to 71% of women in Ethiopia. This reality increases likelihood of the survivor deciding not to report the crime to the authorities. Apart from humiliation experienced as a result of lack of training available to public servants the survivor is also faced with weak legislature in many countries that does not criminalise marital rape. More often than not the perpetrator is a family member, friend or comes from the same neighbourhood or community. In these instances threats, social pressure and cultural tradition play a role in silencing the survivor, exacerbating the already severe psychological harm caused by the experience. The disregard and silence surrounding rape committed by known assailants contributes to perpetrating the myth about unknown criminals.


Myth: Rape involves a great deal of physical force.

Fact: Rather than physical force most perpetrators would resort to psychological coercion. 

It is untrue that if someone does not fight of their perpetrator the act is then not considered a rape. Even verbal pressure or talking someone into sexual activity falls in the category of coercion. Being too afraid to defend oneself does not translate into a consent. Actually, most survivors report that they were in the state of shock, surprised and afraid of receiving serious injuries or of being killed and so offered little resistance to the attack. They are simply too terrified to do the most rational thing or even be able to decide how to defend themselves. In hostile regions there is a likelihood of the perpetrators using threats not only against the victim but also their family to coerce sex. Threats are often used not only to force but also to silence the survivor especially where the perpetrator is known to them and the likelihood of the survivor being able to positively identify their attackers would be very high. 


Myth: Rape is an inevitable part of any conflict.

Fact: Rape is often used strategically as a weapon of war and should be treated as such. In warzones it thrives on persistent impunity and lack of interest.

There is a culture of impunity surrounding almost all situations in which rape was committed in conflict regions. Perpetrators have little or no consequences to fear, justice enforcement and reporting systems are weak or non-existent. Even in situations where rape is committed by intervening forces and organizations investigations are scarce and the institutions in question reluctant to cooperate in finding and persecuting the individuals responsible. Rape still isn’t widely recognized as a weapon of war and other than in cases where it is discussed selectively, serving as a political narrative, it hardly gets on the agenda. As a result of the silence and selectivity resources are often missing where they are needed most. Survivors as well as human rights activists are not sufficiently listened to which contributes towards the general lack of interest and denial of an issue that is spread globally and today affects one in three women, a statistic that rises considerably when we look at hostile regions. 


Many thanks to Dr Robin Reesal and Dr Helen Ewing for their expert contribution.