Friday, 15 February 2013

A Tough Week to be Female

I'm not sure if what I'm going to write is really appropriate for my doesn't have an awful lot to do with writing, or children's literature. Well, maybe it does, I don't know.

But on the week that saw a hefty global turnout for One Billion Rising, recent news events, both in the UK and across the world, have highlighted how timely this event was, and demonstrated the importance of this organisation's efforts to end violence against women.

We've seen, in the past few months, horrific accounts of  fatal sexual assaults against two young women, one in Delhi, the other in a village near Cape Town. Here in the UK we've learned about the attacks on girls and young women by celebrities, as well as the grooming and abuse experienced by young music students. What is clear in these UK cases (the Saville attacks, and the abuse at the Chetham's School of Music) is that this abuse leaves emotional scars that last for decades. It's only as middle aged women that the victims felt strong enough to report what happened to them when they were younger.

Yesterday came the news that Reeva Steenkamp in South Africa was apparently shot dead by the athlete Oscar Pistorius. The mainstream media has focused almost exclusively on the alleged killer's "fall from grace" and shown pictures of his tearful court appearance, as if this tragedy was primarily about him, not the innocent victim. Tony Parsons, on Twitter, at least mentioned "the girl", and implied that it was a tragedy for Pistorius' many admirers as much as it was for her. Yeah. Poor "us."

And then, on ITV's This Morning programme, people were asked to consider whether women who got drunk or flirted "deserved to be attacked." The programme makers were rightly condemned for their ludicrous (and allegedly "controversial") question, but I find it amazing that allegedly intelligent people could think, let alone speak, such monstrous bullshit.

However, in incident after incident, crime after crime, there is an attempt to blame women for failing to live up to some standard that makes their attackers or killers less than totally culpable. I don't know whether or not Pistorius did, in fact, mistake Reeva Steenkamp for an intruder, but the initial reaction from mainstream and social media seemed to be a knee-jerk desire to make this tragic killing somehow justifiable. It's as if sportsmen were temporarily deemed incapable of harming or killing their partners. Seems like a weird amnesia, until you consider how many crimes committed by professional sportsmen are quickly glossed over and forgotten.

OK, so does any of this have to writing for young adults?

If we want to write truthfully about the lives of teenagers, we can't ignore the traumas they sometimes face, and sexual abuse and assault (as well as other types of "domestic" abuse) are very real, and far too prevalent. This doesn't mean that we have to write novels that deal explicitly with rape (though several YA contemporary novels do--Jenny Downham's "You Against Me"  is unflinching in its treatment of sexual assualt and of the effect that it has on two young couples and their families.) But I think that those of us who write for this age group need to be aware of both the prevalence of sexual assault and abuse within relationships, and the social stigma that keeps young women from seeking justice, or even help.

The statistics on abuse are mind-numbingly terrifying, and don't seem to be improving even though women's social status continues to rise. The NUS reports that 1 in 7 female university students in Britain have been the victim of sexual violence or assault, and in 60% of cases, the perpetrator was a fellow student. Only 4% of the victims reported the crime to their institutions; only 10% reported it to the police. Their reasons for not reporting are familiar--feelings of shame or embarrassment, and the fear that they would be blamed or held responsible.

Time and time again, young people feel they will not be listened to. Time and time again they fear being blamed for the crimes that have been committed against them. This happens now, and it happened years ago, as we've seen with the Saville and Cheltam's cases. And if we look at the NUS statistics, it's clear that many young men are still internalising this attitude. How many of  these male students considered themselves abusers?  Of course, most female students aren't abused, and the vast majority of male students (or men, for that matter!) aren't abusers, but attitudes seem frustratingly ingrained. It seems we just can't shake the old hypocrisies and double-standards.

Breaking down these psychological and social barriers to justice and sexual equality may not be the job of writers.  But it is our job to keep the tangled, troubling experiences of young people forefront in our mind. It's our job to tell the truth, and not be afraid to tackle subjects that some (OK, all) gatekeepers might (OK, will) squawk at.

Young people have a right to be heard--and believed. It's our job as writers to let them know that we're listening.

Symbol of the White Ribbon Campaign. An organisation  of men working to end violence towards women. 


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