Pervasive victim blaming in the media needs to end

The University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Professor Floretta Boonzaier said that media reports often deflect attention away from the perpetrator and focuses on the victim and her role in the incident instead – this kind of pervasive victim blaming will keep us from eradicating gender-based violence (GBV).

Victim blaming is such a normative and everyday part of our thinking about gender-based violence that it often goes unnoticed and unchallenged.

We rarely notice how media reports on sexual assault, rape or the murder of a woman or a girl focus on the woman or girl’s behaviour – who she was out with, what she was wearing, and a myriad of other choices she had made – suggesting she was to blame for what was done to her, deflecting attention away from the perpetrators of the violence.

In a country that has one of the highest rates of gender-based violence in the world and, with a rate of femicide five times the global average, continuing this kind of pervasive victim blaming will hinder us from eradicating gender-based violence in our society.

The term itself seems to have been emptied of its meaning. We talk about gender-based violence without talking about misogyny (contempt and hatred directed towards women), sexism, gender stereotypes and sexual entitlement – all important elements of the violence. And, with this, we fail to ask why the shame and stigma associated with this violence are borne by women and not men.

When reporting on forms of sexual and gender-based violence, like rape and intimate-partner violence, the story usually ends with a woman being killed. These events are reported as singular, individual, isolated events that appear to puzzle and cause outrage among readers: how could this happen?

But by performing such outrage, by creating a spectacle of violence against women in South Africa, we fail to acknowledge the everyday, systemic nature of misogyny, patriarchy and male entitlement in our country.

Deflect responsibility

But outrage and surprise do very little to tackle the deeply racist, sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic and anti-poor contexts that form the daily part of living in South Africa. They allow us to deflect responsibility and go back to the pretence of normality – letting ourselves and the everyday context of violence, in which we operate, off the hook.

The media plays a significant role in the construction of public belief and attitudes and is, therefore, a critical tool in shifting and shaping public consciousness about violence, patriarchy, misogyny and sexual entitlement.

In order to begin to shape and shift consciousness about violence on a large scale, I believe there are a few steps we must take.

Firstly, we need sustained media campaigns on gender-based violence – not only during women’s month or 16 days of activism or when a woman is brutally murdered, to sell newspapers. And when reporting on violence, it needs to be thematic reporting that includes detailed, contexualised, grounded stories on gender-based violence.

If we steer clear of episodic reporting, that merely elicits outrage, the types of violence usually silenced – for example, intimate partner violence or sexual harassment – will begin to feature in media narratives of violence.

In June of 2018, a woman I call Lee was interviewed about her life story at a women’s shelter in Cape Town. Lee narrated her story, talking about her husband’s abuse and violence as “an embarrassment”. She repeatedly referenced the embarrassment caused by her husband’s abuse and how this contributed to the shame she felt. Lee endured the violence on and off, throughout 15 years of marriage, before making her way to the women’s shelter.

An actual experience of violence

Lee’s story, and that of women like Lee, her actual experiences of violence and the story of her life, growing up in multiple contexts of violence and violation, will not make it into the South African media.

We will not hear about the systemic failures in Lee’s life: how, as a child, she was moved from one family member to the next. We will not be able to hear the story of how Lee was abused by her stepfather while growing up. We will not hear Lee’s story about her life with an abusive husband. We will not be able to question why it is that she carries the shame of that violence. We will not be given the opportunity to feel empathy towards Lee (and other women like her) and so to collectively yearn for the social changes that are necessary. We will not see Lee’s story reflected in media reports, unless she dies, brutally, at the hands of a man.

Therefore, we must hear the voices of victims in media reporting on violence because, without it, we cannot promote public understanding and shift consciousness about violence.

Shifting media narratives on gender-based violence will allow us, as a society, to begin to talk about the root causes of the high levels of sexual and gender-based violence in our country.

It will allow us to challenge the shame, stigma and blame for the violence that is usually allocated to women and girls.

These conversations may lead to greater awareness and changes to our normative ways of doing and being, which ultimately must shift the consciousness of our society.

Floretta Boonzaier is a Professor of Psychology and Co-Director of the Hub for Decolonial Feminist Psychologies in Africa at the University of Cape Town.

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