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In tackling sexual violence, let’s take a landscape view and not a portrait

Sexual assault is being treated with more seriousness than ever before. But this was not always the case. A few years ago, when I told people that I work as a social worker, providing support services to women who face sexual assault in Singapore, I would meet with confused faces. “But that doesn’t happen over here. Are you sure?”

In a landscape view, sexual violence cannot be the responsibility of a few, says the author.

In a landscape view, sexual violence cannot be the responsibility of a few, says the author.

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Sexual assault is being treated with more seriousness than ever before.

But this was not always the case. A few years ago, when I told people that I work as a social worker, providing support services to women who face sexual assault in Singapore, I would meet with confused faces. “But that doesn’t happen over here. Are you sure?”

Once, I told a cab driver about my job. He angrily responded that he would stop the car on the highway and ask me to get out if I spread the false notion that even one case of sexual assault has ever happened in Singapore.

When the team at the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) started a helpline in 2011 for women who had faced sexual assault, we also thought to ourselves: “We are not going to get that many calls.”

Within six months of the pilot, Aware had given support to around 40 cases, or one case every three days. Fast forward to 2020: Aware supports close to 800 cases a year or about three cases a day.

Today, I quote these numbers whenever I am greeted with disbelief about the prevalence of sexual violence in Singapore. But then I grapple with another set of follow-up questions: “Why do these victims go to unsafe places alone, meet this person in a hotel, or stay out at night?”

I remember the same cab driver looking at my knee-length skirt and commenting in his rage: “It’s because of what you girls wear, that this happens.”

Stories portrayed in the media today also tend to focus on what the survivor did or did not do to warrant an unfortunate event like sexual assault. When we look at perpetrators, we often see them as individuals with a mental illness, or as someone sexually deprived. It’s human nature to want to make sense of a senseless act of violence.

But by doing so, we perpetuate sexual assault myths.

We tell our daughters not to wear certain clothes, instead of telling our sons not to objectify women.

Institutions and organisations end up focusing on encouraging victims to find newer ways to protect themselves, or on making punishments harsher in the name of deterrence.

The issue with this narrow view of focusing only on the victim and/or perpetrator is that we remove responsibility from everyone else.

It’s a bit like blurring the background behind the subject in portrait photography.

By using a wide-angle lens to see the expanse of the landscape surrounding the subjects — institutions that directly or indirectly condone sexual violence, and a society that excuses these acts of violence — we get a more holistic perspective.

And if we accept shared responsibility, we will be able to end sexual violence sooner than later.

Singapore has only just begun to see sexual violence from a landscape view and we have a long way to go.

Last year, a university student took voyeuristic videos of another student while she was showering.

From a portrait perspective, we could argue that the survivor could have been more vigilant about her surroundings, or that the perpetrator needed help and perhaps harsher punishment.

But when the survivor spoke up about her experience, it highlighted the landscape of campus sexual assault.

It emphasised the responsibility of educational institutions to provide a safe environment for students, which led to the review of campus policies, and the establishment of the first-ever Victim Care Unit in a local university.

When the #metoo movement erupted in 2017, survivors took to social media to share their experiences of sexual assault.

While Singapore did not see as much an outcry as other countries, Aware’s Sexual Assault Care Centre saw a 79 per cent jump in the number of cases reported, around the time #metoo went viral.

And the caseload has remained high since.

Portrait analysis would not allow us to see beyond an increase in individuals reaching out for help.

But a landscape analysis would show that when many people openly speak about sexual violence, other survivors are encouraged to reach out for support. This view gave birth to Aware’s public education campaign Aim For Zero, to promote zero tolerance to sexual violence in Singapore.

For many decades, husbands who committed marital rape had immunity embedded within the law. It took many survivors sharing their stories and a handful of organisations taking up their cause to change the law.

The Government listened to these stories and, in 2020, repealed marital rape immunity.

The Ministry of Home Affairs has also taken many steps towards training police officers to handle cases of sexual violence with more sensitivity.

But in a landscape view, sexual violence cannot be the responsibility of a few.

One survivor, one organisation, and one government body cannot overcome it alone. The pressure that survivors face to “speak up” is unfathomable.

We need more dedicated sexual assault crisis centres – for children, men, women, families, and survivors from vulnerable populations.

Creating specialised service arms, more research, and more training for professionals to understand various aspects of sexual violence (such as technology-facilitated sexual violence, sex trafficking, sexual abuse by a helping professional) is the need of the hour.

And we need more funding for social service agencies to support these efforts.

We need social workers to look at sexual violence not just from a micro perspective but also macro perspective.

We need to ask ourselves why families we are working with are more likely to disclose other forms of family violence than sexual violence.

We need the media to be curious and publish broader, more expansive stories about sexual assault, whether or not these cases go all the way to court.

They can look deeper into under-explored topics, such as the prevalence of sexual violence among people with disabilities.

We need all employers to review their policies and build a zero-tolerance culture to make workplaces safe for their employees.

We need medical professionals to see sexual violence as more than a law and order issue. Given the impact of sexual violence on mental and physical health, sexual violence is a public health concern.

One case is too many. But many cases also share a theme — that sexual violence is a reality in Singapore.

Let’s start by moving away from the portrait mode and looking at the issue from a landscape mode.

So that next time I tell someone what I do, I hope to be met with a different question: “What can I do to end sexual violence in Singapore?”

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Anisha Joseph is the Head of Sexual Assault Care Centre and Women’s Care Centre at Aware.  A social worker by qualification, over the last six years, she has seen more than 3,000 cases of sexual assault at the centre. This piece first appeared in The Birthday Book (2020), a collection of 55 essays on the theme “Seeing Clearly”. TODAY will be publishing other essays from the book.

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