When I was about ten years old, my mother and I went shopping at Westgate Mall in search of a photo frame, a present my mom seemed to enjoy giving for a good five years thereafter … On this particular day, we went into a gift shop, the kind that has everything from card games, teddy bears to witty birthday cards on display. I pointed one frame out that I thought would do, but my mom shook her head and said that the photo she had – of the family taken on holiday – wouldn’t fit comfortably.
But rather than write it off completely, we decided to try it out.
And right she was, for it turned out the frame would only accommodate myself, my parents, and only one of my two brothers; my other brother was cropped out as if he wasn’t a part of the family. As such, the frame erased his existence and portrayed a fairly happy family of four, instead of five.
Framing child rape and sexual abuse
This incident briefly crossed my mind as I reflected on the two articles I read a few days ago. The first article I read in ‘The Chronicle‘ was entitled “Career Mums ‘Fuel Child Rape’”. In a previous blog entry, I had outlined the dangers of stories like this and the impact they have on our understanding of culpability and responsibility in matters of sexual violence. ‘The Chronicle’ article highlighted the thoughts of one Superintendent, Ethiua Muzvidziwa, who believed that working mothers are fuelling incidents of child rape because of their absence from the home where they can protect their child/ren and monitor their whereabouts.
It is important to note that a great deal of women are working in order to support their children, many of them without the help of a partner. In this instance, victim-blaming was extended from not only blaming the victim, but also blaming the female guardians of victims of rape. To blame a mother who working, especially in the current difficult economic circumstances, for the rape of the very child she is sometimes literally crossing oceans and rivers for, is cruel.
For that reason, I immediately wanted to smash to pieces the frame we’ve used in this country for so long to discuss issues of sexual violence and women.
Within this frame, as with the frame that cropped my brother out of an important family moment, a crucial fact that pervades the narrative of sexual assault was ommitted;
Rapists are responsible for rape.
That’s it. Not what the victim was wearing, not how she carried herself, not how much alcohol she consumed, and not that her parents were working away from home.
But this headline does more than simply blame working mothers for the sexual abuse their children experience. It further frames women as being tethered to domesticity and almost uncaring or reckless if seen pursuing professional careers or simply using their gifts and abilities to create wealth. And the problem here speaks to a much wider issue around the way women are perceived by the media. Women are often seen as the primary caregivers in families and that identity supersedes any other ‘hats’ women may wear in life. To be a mother, according to how this story is framed, is to be fully responsible for your child’s safety and experiences, even when someone else causes that child harm. It is indeed disheartening that as mentioned by Muzvidziwa, “Of the 83 rape cases reported in urban Gweru between March last year and February this year, 54 involved children”.
The second article I read was from Bulawayo24 and titled “Grade 5 Pupil ‘Trades Sex for Bread and Butter’”. This headline made me particularly angry as the very nature of the word ‘trade’ is the conscious and deliberate exchange of one product for another. We ‘trade’ things out of an agreement to receive something that we approve of in return. According to Section 65(1) part c and d of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, the age of consent for sex in Zimbabwe is 16 – six or seven years older than this girl must have been. This girl therefore did not engage in trade.
This girl was raped. And that is how the headline should have framed for this story.
The use of the word ‘trade’ rationalises this rape as a consensual act, further insinuating culpability on the part of the child. While the article itself did not shy away from the fact that the child was indeed raped, the way in which the incident was framed unfortunately encourages the reader to understand her rape within a paradoxical context of consent.
Where are the editors?
In a society where women are often vilified for reporting rape of sexual abuse, it is extremely irresponsible for the mainstream media to keep adding bricks to the walls and barriers that prevent women from speaking out against rape, and to promote the idea that women are to blame for the actions of the men that abuse them. To simply give the ‘facts’ of a story by quoting a public figure but offering no analysis of their erroneous and regressive ideas and comments is not responsible journalism in my view.
What is disheartening time and again is how entire teams of writers, sub-editors and editors do not feel the need to frame sensitive issues such as rape and assault in ways that are responsible.
Journalistic frames crop out particular sides or views, and keep the rest in an airtight space on display for all to see. Between 2013 and the first quarter of 2014, there was a 14% increase in sexual abuse of children with 946 child rapes having been recorded, according to Childline. Of these, 62% of perpetrators were relatives or family friends.
But these statistics are only derived from cases that have actually been reported.
The media plays a big role in shedding light on this abuse, condemning it and framing the discussion around it. As such, the media needs to fully understand that it is constantly creating frames that often assign blame, lead to shame and ultimately to the silencing of rape victims and the rationalisation of rape and rapists’ actions. For who wants to report such a heinous crime and have it trivialised in this way?
Headlines are pivotal in framing our opinions and perspectives on issues. They are the first thing that determines whether or not you will read an article to the end, or skip to the next section. As such, we must be aware of our wording, our sources and our analysis of content so as not to continue dishing out the constitutive violence of society structures and procedures that blame victims and women in general for rape.
The main photograph is taken from www.womenundersiegeproject.org