On Thursday February 12, the Center for the Study of Gender Conflict hosted four guest speakers to discuss the various legal responses to sexual violence. Each speaker outlined current trends within both a domestic and international framework, providing key insights into how different sectors approach this often mishandled issue.
Charlene “Charlie” Whitman-Barr, an Associate Attorney Advisor for AEquitas: The Prosecutors’ Resource on Violence Against Women, presented first noting that across the United States laws around sexual assault vary drastically. More important than the laws, however, are they ways in which these cases are prosecuted. She explained the presence of an implementation gap in which the most progressive laws may fail to achieve justice while prosecutors in states with even the most challenging statutes can still bring charges in sexual assault cases, with training on good practices. AEquitas’ research helps prosecutors better understand not only how to prosecute cases, but how to best assist victims to prevent their re-victimization that is all too common during sexual assault investigations and trials.
Ph.D. candidate Carline Sarkis discussed international responses to sexual violence using the Rome Statute to explore the possibility of reparations for victims. She raised several critical questions that should be taken into consideration, primarily are reparations sensitive to victims’ needs? She further challenged the audience to consider the stigma associated with sexual assault in many cultures and how this affects women’s ability to collect reparations: if a woman is unable to come forward as a victim of sexual assault then she is also unable to receive reparations. Despite these limitations, she viewed this step as a positive one for the potential it carries to increase women’s agency across the globe by declaring that victims are deserving of global justice thereby fostering a desire to know one’s rights.
Professor of Anthropology at George Mason University Susan F. Hirsch also challenged the audience to be critical, but hopeful of international responses to sexual assault. While declaring rape a “crime against humanity” is a necessary step for global justice, it also holds the potential for serious unintended consequences. She described a new emerging continuum of rape as a result of international law with date rape on one end of the spectrum and war and its perception of being “real” rape on the other. This hierarchy of rape defeats efforts to stamp out impunity towards sexual assault within both the domestic and international spheres. International law for gender based violence also creates the potential for it to be wielded as a political tool carrying harmful effects not only to victims, but advocates seeking the legitimate prosecution of these crimes.
Attorney Susan L. Burke spoke last on her work with victims of sexual assault in the United States military. After learning of the gross mishandling of one woman’s military sexual assault case, she soon discovered that there were hundreds of other women out there who had experienced the same injustice. She stated boldly that the military justice system that prosecutes sexual assault cases in this country is broken. The current model allows coercive relationships to control justice as victims are required to report to their commanding officer rather than a third party as is standard within the civilian model. Making prosecution even more difficult is the rampant culture of retaliation that is embedded within all sectors of the military. Although pessimistic about the current situation, she encouraged audience members to reach out to their representatives and demand a change within the unified code of military justice.
Each speaker challenged the audience to think critically about current methods of prosecuting sexual assault. Even steps that may seem positive, such as the international recognition of rape as a crime against humanity, must be deconstructed to ensure that the victim’s needs are a priority. The panel left the audience to consider their own role in dismantling and changing broken systems that fail to achieve substantial justice for victims of sexual assault.