Let’s talk about language

A few days ago, in relation to his anti-abortion stance, Todd Akin, the Missouri Senate hopeful, stated, “If it’s legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

The reactions came almost immediately, and from every angle.  It seems no one was staying silent on the issue, and several days after making the remarks, Akin is receiving requests to quit the race from all political parties (republican and tea party included).

I do not think it’s necessary for me to explain what is wrong with Akin’s irrevocably moronic assertion that the human body will prevent pregnancy in the case of rape. What I want to focus on is the language, more specifically the use of two words; “legitimate rape.”

Language is a powerful tool. We are a taught from a young age that our words can easily hurt, and I imagine that all of us, at one time or another, have experienced the sting of words being used against them or negatively around them.

With that said, often times, harmful language is used out of habit. I would argue that in this case, however, the choice of the word “legitimate” could not have been more strategic. Had Akin stated that a woman’s body shuts down when raped, this statement would just be wrong. But, Akin introduced the issue of “legitimate rape”.

Assuming that certain “kinds” of rape are not actually rape only re-victimizes those who have been sexually assaulted. To use the word “legitimate” also implies that certain lives are less valued than others, and asserts that the survivor who was assaulted did not actually endure any harm from their experience – that the harm they claim is fabricated.  

Let’s set the record straight here, asserting that an individual was sexually violated because of what that person chose to wear, how much they chose to drink, the situation they put themselves in, or even that they changed their mind about a sexual encounter is to violate that person’s right to choose when, how, and who touches their body.

If I take the issue of legitimate rape to its logical conclusion, then what does this imply for rape in conflict? Were the women who got pregnant as result of rape in wars such as those in Bosnia and the Congo not legitimately raped just because they got pregnant?

Sadly, this argument goes beyond Akin, even though it’s much easier to blame a single person than to consider that there is something bigger at stake that needs to be examined. This is about a mentality that actually devalues the lived experiences of individuals who have endured sexual assault to such an extent that politicians feel that they have the right to weigh in on what qualifies as legitimate rape. Akin’s statement sends a clear message of value: that those who are survivors of sexual assault and are pregnant by it are not valued enough to be supported or even recognized as survivors.

However, this is not simply about words, it is about the material implications of language; about what happens to policies, programs, and budgets that are established and monitored by those who might choose to use such language. For this reason, politicians and civil society alike need to consider the language they are using, every word matters, a single word (or in this case two) can send a very loud and clear message to society, and in turn, policy makers, about what is valued and what is not.

by Alex Anastasia, Center for Women’s Global Leadership, Rutgers University

For more information about rape in conflict and the links between violence against women and militarism please visit CWGL’s 16 Days Campaign website

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What does human rights have to do with it?

How often do you think about human rights?

Understanding the human rights perspective is critical to respecting and defending the rights of all people worldwide regardless of race, gender, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and identity. As individuals and communities, we (rights holders) have a responsibility to hold our governments (duty bearers) accountable to upholding human rights. Wherever you are and however you identify, your human rights are inalienable.

Although human rights have not been fully realized around the world there has been progress as a result of global social movements demanding justice and an end to impunity as well as the international human rights framework. The human rights framework is both a legally binding mechanism as well as an ethical lens for respecting each other’s humanity.

As an ethical lens, human rights has been intrinsically valued in all societies and has a long history dating back well before founding of the United Nations. We can read about human rights concepts in various religious texts, throughout the renaissance, and the age of enlightenment. Human rights are associated with international relations as well as domestic affairs.

Human rights are internationally agreed universal standards. These legal norms are articulated in United Nations treaties including, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The first point (Article 1) that the UDHR makes is that, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

Although the UDHR was written about six decades ago, its relevance is enduring. Many of the ideas address concerns and critical issues that people continue to face globally in in the 21st century. Issues regarding inhuman punishment (Art. 5), discrimination (Art. 7), property ownership (Art. 17), equal pay for equal work (Art. 23/2), and access to education (Art. 26/1) are pertinent matters in countries South and North of the equator. However, go to any country in the world and I am certain that you will find at least one article from the UDHR that has not been met. Which begs the question: since not one country has a clean human rights record, shouldn’t we think about human rights more often?

I use the royal “we” which includes not just you and me, but governments as well (which the last time I checked are made up of people). Bottom line is, international treaties are signed and ratified at the discretion of governments. Once a human rights treaty/convention is ratified by a United Nations Member State, the State has a legal obligation to apply the content to its national law, and government representatives have a responsibility to ensure that human rights are progressively realized.

More specifically, States have an obligation under international human rights law to respect, protect and fulfill human rights, including economic and social rights of people within their jurisdiction. This is particularly relevant given the current financial crisis. For example, when businesses (e.g., banks or corporations, etc.) threaten and/or erode basic human rights, such as the right to food or the right to water and sanitation, the government is obligated to step in to protect those rights.

So we think we know human rights, but when was the last time you thought about it? Did you think about it when you read about 46.2 million people living in poverty in the U.S.?  Or the lack of regulations governing the trade in arms and their impacts on women and children? What about the racial and ethnic discrimination that has caused numerous genocides globally? Do you ever consider the ways government expenditure or revenue impacts our human rights? How about the fact that around the world, one woman dies every 90 seconds from complications of pregnancy or childbirth?

Have you thought about human rights lately? Email me to let me know.

by Margot Baruch, Economic and Social Rights Program Coordinator, Center for Women’s Global Leadership, Rutgers University