Nicholas D. Kristof: Rape, sex trafficking not just India’s problem

01/16/2013 5:11 PM

01/16/2013 5:11 PM

In India, a 23-year-old student takes a bus home from a movie and is gang-raped and assaulted so viciously that she dies two weeks later.

In Liberia, in West Africa, an aid group called More Than Me rescues a 10-year-old orphan who has been trading oral sex for clean water to survive.

In Steubenville, Ohio, high school football players are accused of repeatedly raping an unconscious 16-year-old girl who was either drunk or rendered helpless by a date-rape drug and was apparently lugged like a sack of potatoes from party to party.

And in Washington, D.C., our members of Congress show their concern for sexual violence by failing to renew the Violence Against Women Act, a landmark law first passed in 1994 that has now expired.

Gender violence is one of the world’s most common human rights abuses. Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined. The World Health Organization has found that domestic and sexual violence affects 30 to 60 percent of women in most countries.

In some places, rape is endemic: In South Africa, a survey found that 37 percent of men reported that they had raped a woman. In others, rape is institutionalized as sex trafficking. Everywhere, rape often puts the victim on trial: In one poll, 68 percent of Indian judges said that “provocative attire” amounts to “an invitation to rape.”

Americans watched the events after the Delhi gang rape with a whiff of condescension at the barbarity there, but domestic violence and sex trafficking remain a vast problem across the United States.

One obstacle is that violence against women tends to be invisible and thus not a priority. In Delhi, of 635 rape cases reported in the first 11 months of last year, only one ended in conviction. That creates an incentive for rapists to continue to rape, but in any case that reported number of rapes is delusional. They don’t include the systematized rape of sex trafficking.

The United States could help change the way the world confronts these issues. On a remote crossing of the Nepal-India border, I once met an Indian police officer who said that he was stationed there to look for terrorists and pirated movies, because India wanted to show that it was serious about U.S. concerns regarding terrorism and intellectual property. Meanwhile, that officer ignored the steady flow of teenage Nepali girls crossing in front of him on their way to Indian brothels, because modern slavery was not perceived as an American priority.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has done a superb job trying to put these issues on the global agenda, and I hope President Obama and, if confirmed, Secretary of State John Kerry will continue her efforts.

But Congress has been pathetic.

Not only did it fail to renew the Violence Against Women Act, but it also has stalled on the global version, the International Violence Against Women Act, which would name and shame foreign countries that tolerate gender violence. Congress even failed to renew the landmark legislation against human trafficking, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

Let’s hope that India makes such violence a national priority. And maybe the rest of the world, especially our backward Congress, will appreciate that the problem isn’t just India’s but also our own.

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