Where I live in Virginia a member of the county board of supervisors was recently charged with the crime of "forcible sodomy," which carried a sentence of five years to life in prison. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of sexual battery and was sentenced to 30 days in jail plus probation, etc. He professed his innocence of the original charge.
But what is sexual battery if not forcible sex? The fine line drawn between 30 days and life may have less to do with the action being alleged than with the persuasiveness of the allegation, the prosecutor's confidence of winning a conviction, the schedule and budget of the court, the desire of the accuser or victim to participate in a trial, etc.
If the man was guilty, his penalty seems too light, the lack of a trial seems wrong, and some creative restorative justice seems in order. Little has been done to aid the victim or heal the community.
It is entirely possible that he was entirely innocent. People plead to 30-day sentences in our legal system to avoid a risk of life in prison (including the possibility of becoming a serial rape victim while in prison) all the time. Had the threat been five years rather than "five-years-to-life," an innocent man might have been more likely to risk a trial to declare his innocence.
If this man was innocent, his penalty is of course too great. Any penalty would be too great. And the lack of any charges against his false accuser would be a miscarriage of justice.
I have no way of knowing which direction our justice system misfired in this case. I know only that it compromised, choosing to lessen the harm done, but aware of necessarily doing harm. And I can think of many ways the system might be improved.
At the same time, I'm aware that there are systems in the world immeasurably worse. There is no system that imprisons people at the rate the United States does, including largely for nonviolent and victimless crimes. But there are epidemics of rape, of gang rape, of rape and torture, of rape and murder. There are epidemics of rape in societies in which no man can be punished in any way, but in which a woman known to have been raped is herself punished, along with her family, along with her children -- children who grow up seeing only one path to an existence of reduced shame and humiliation: the path of becoming a soldier in the war that produced the epidemic of rape. And there are echoes of all of this in our own society.
Such horrific situations are described in Ann Jones' book, War Is Not Over When It's Over: Women Speak Out from the Ruins of War. They lead her to an interesting conclusion:
"One stronghold of the battered women's movement -- in Maryland, if I remember rightly -- distributed T-shirts bearing the words WORLD PEACE BEGINS AT HOME. I believed it. Raise up children in peaceful homes free of violence, I thought, and they will make peace. But now, having spent the last many years in and around wars, I think the motto is painfully idealistic. The relationship it describes is reciprocal, but not fair. World peace may begin at home, but violence just as surely begins in war; and war does not end."
Jones documents the use of rape in war and its continuation after the announced end of wars, including its adoption by civilian men who did not participate in the war. The rapes that Jones describes are often viciously brutal and sometimes deadly. The physical injuries are severe and lasting, including the inability to sit or to walk, internal bleeding, miscarriages, and sexually transmitted diseases. And then there is the mental damage, the societal damage, and the economic damage.
Jones takes her readers to Cote d'Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burmese refugees in Thailand, and Iraqi refugees in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Liberia was founded by former U.S. slaves who, Jones writes, brought to Africa "a few of America's worst features: elitism, discrimination, forced labor, religiosity, and a penchant for violence."* Liberia's modern history has been no happier. The World Health Organization in 2005 estimated that 90 percent of Liberian women had suffered physical or sexual violence and 75 percent had been raped.
Following war in the DRC, teachers, pastors, and fathers took up the practice of rape. The same pattern was found in Liberia and Sierra Leone, where horrors unknown or rare before war (civilian rape, child rape, gang rape) became normal. In the DRC, Jones observed a vicious cycle. Husbands abandon raped wives, sometimes departing the village out of shame; so raped wives without visible injuries try to conceal the rape from their husbands. Women are afraid to go outside for wood or water or to work in their fields (much as female U.S. soldiers in Iraq were so afraid of male U.S. soldiers that they would not venture outside to the bathrooms at night). With no crops to sell, women have no money, and their children cannot go to school without money to pay for it. Girls are also afraid to go to school where they may be raped. With nothing left, women and girls turn to prostitution while men turn to the military. A local famine develops, and women are afraid to make the trip to a hospital when ill; so people begin to die from diarrhea, pneumonia, or malaria. A study found 5.4 million "excess deaths" in the DRC between 1998 and 2007, 2.1 million of them after the war "ended."
Good news in war reporting is not always accurate. In 2007 (and right up to this moment with no let-up in sight) USians heard of a successful "surge" in Iraq. Iraqis saw increased civilian death and displacement, increased sectarian segregation, and a surging population of refugees. That war created what the United Nations High Commission for Refugees calls "the most significant displacement in the Middle East" since the Nakba. Iraq now confronts a situation in which millions of its citizens have fled and a million of its women are widows:
"There is more than one way to lose a husband. Illness, accident, assassination, murder, warfare. Rape is another. Many women lose their husbands to rape. How many thousands of Iraqi women and girls have been raped is impossible to know; but rape is commonplace. Of 4,516 cases of sexual violence in Iraq reported to UNHCR in Jordan, women were the victims in 4,233 cases; and for each reported case, there are countless others."
Iraqi men lost their houses, their land, their status, and their self respect. As refugee families in neighboring nations, Iraqis rely on women to make a living. One way in which men try to reassert their authority is domestic violence.