In the early hours of March 13, 1964 an American woman named Kitty Genovese was sexually assaulted and eventually stabbed to death outside her apartment. Surprisingly, 38 witnesses saw/heard the attack while it lasted and did not move in to help her or call the police.
The incident prompted inquires into what became known as the bystander effect or ‘Genovese Syndrome’ the term that psychological researchers use to describe the public’s unwillingness to step in and help people in distress.
Fast-forward to 3rd May 2017, an eyewitness (Mrs Mathews) shared on social media how some male final year students of Ireti Grammar School, South West Ikoyi targeted and sexually assaulted the female students of Falomo Senior High School.
According to Mrs Mathews, the boys had overpowered and surrounded some girls and were being hailed as they attempted to gang rape them in the public glare and just like the Kitty Genovese case.
None of the adults that were present deemed it fit to come to the rescue of the helpless schoolgirls and even more damning is the eyewitness account of how some security officers present were passively supporting the act by recording the incident and cheering on, instead of intervening.
The most interesting part of this public case of sexual abuse is the trivialization of the incident by the police in Lagos. Mrs Mathews had reported the case to the state police only to be followed by whispers of ‘it is not rape’ but a ‘normal occurrence’ that has been happening among secondary school students each time they finish their final year exams. This singular statement reveals that our law enforcement agents are among the perpetuators of rape culture.
The victims of the Falomo ‘normal occurrence’ were left to fend for themselves. The girls narrated that they had to double their underwear and hide in nearby shops immediately after school to avoid being raped. All of this while security officers and the community meant to speak out for them looked the other way.
Those unfortunate to have been raped by the boys would likely not disclose the incident to their parents or guardians for fear of being either blamed or punished for ‘allowing’ to be violated. While the abuse itself is traumatic enough, lack of support is more traumatising because it compounds the devastation.
Silencing and isolating the victims ensures that the perpetrators are able to continue and get away with it. The so called ‘tradition’ creates a perilous and distorted reality that communicates to our children, ourselves and even the perpetrators that we don’t take these crimes seriously and in some case we even condone it.
The desensitization along with the already existing gender stereotypes and discrimination, sustains the myths and misconceptions that lead people to trivialize rape and other gender based violence.
We can argue that this is not so much about our security agents alone despite their well documented inadequacies but also, it is about the patriarchal society that we have created; where the perpetuation of a culture of rape and other forms of gender based violence in which the dominance and sexual objectification of women is unfortunately seen as the norm.
It is about our patriarchal society that we have created, where we made it easier to blame girls and women for not being smart enough not to be raped. It is also about the society of ours that regards the male child as superior to the girl child and it is about a society that taught its men that a woman’s No is Yes amongst others.
It is this type of society that has allowed for the male, like the boys Mrs Mathews witnessed assaulting girls, to demand for the body of a woman like it belongs to them and they have a right to it.
It’s worthy to note that there is a relationship between prevailing social attitudes and social change; as it is well established by researchers that traditional gender-role attitudes lead to a greater acceptance of gender based violence.
As such when we agree that there is recognition of violence against women and children in our society that means an overall tolerance of violence exist as well. Whether we choose to admit it or not, rape and other gender based violence are becoming a problem.
While we all do agree that violence against girls is a huge problem facing our society, we as collective individuals in the society are not actually doing enough to stop such crime from happening again, notwithstanding our desire for change.
The fact that we depend on the government to take action is a huge problem itself; because so far they have failed to provide appropriate deterrent methods to halt gender based violence, we must begin to deal with it like most countries are trying to do.
The ‘bystander approach’ has been used in parts of the world to prevent sexual violence, it is a promising approach that encourages the community to take ownership of sexual violence and other gender based violence as a problem and speak up when they witness such incidents.
This approach helps in reducing victim blaming, because it includes everyone in the community as such the problem is seen as a community problem not just the victims’.
It also gives the community an opportunity to foster social change. We cannot continue to be bystanders while such incidents go on, recognizing the wrongness of the behaviour is important but doing something to counteract the insidiousness of the bystander effect remains difficult.
Again, when we know something we gain power over it, the more we are aware the more power we gain. Thus, first, we need to recognize the bystander effect at every moment and secondly we need to teach ourselves and others to lose the fear of standing out.