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Who Does The Night Belong To?

An Opinion Piece by Dayna Berghan
National Women's Rights Officer
New Zealand University Students' Association.

Every year women and children across New Zealand march in solidarity, making it clear that violence in all its manifestations is an issue of power and control, domination and exploitation that will not be tolerated. The annual Reclaim the Night (RTN) arose out of the second wave women's movement.

It began in Britain in 1977 as a response to a public announcement that women should stay at home at night if they wanted to be safe. This angered women and they organised the first march calling for safety from sexual violence in the home and on the streets. Each subsequent RTN march has been organised as a political protest against the prevalence of violence against women and children in society. Whilst it has maintained its original roots, different organising collectives each year generate strategies to bring an end to this violence.

It has been almost thirty years since the first RTN march took place. Has anything changed? Statistics regarding rape and sexual abuse are always problematic. Many survivors do not report their abuse to the police or to sexual abuse agencies, many do not tell anyone. In our society there is a stigma attached to anyone who comes forward with information about being abused or raped. Many survivors are made to feel it is their fault, 'why were you out in the street?' Because of this, prevalence statistics can only be estimated. Most sources estimate that one in four women will experience some form of sexual abuse or rape in their lifetime. The statistics that I have access to are provided by the National Office of Rape Crisis and Related Groups of Aotearoa and released in April 1997. 90% of those that contacted Rape Crisis to report abuse were female. Of those that contacted Rape Crisis 70% identified as NZ Pakeha/European and just under 30% were Maori. Survivor's own homes were the most commonly reported location of abuse (70%), the offenders homes (29.4%), followed by public places, such as car parks or beaches (8.7%). The vast majority of survivors (92.6%) knew the offender(s) when the rape or sexual abuse began. Think back to your upbringing. Weren't you told not to talk to strangers?

Think about many of the media articles and briefs that you see everyday. Isn't the scenario the same time after time - woman, raped in car park at night by unknown assailant? Don't these statistics tell you something different?

RTN aims to makes links between oppression and violence, broadening our understanding of the ways it operates in our everyday lives; at work; the wider community and in a global context. In this sense, the inextricable links with race, class, sexuality, culture and ability as they interrelate with violence must be explored. Without this exploration, violence will continue to manifest itself in our everyday lives. Just last week the Justice Select Committee heard oral submissions on the Prostitution Law Reform Bill. The leader of the Christian Heritage Party and the leader of the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards, both men, opposed any legalisation of prostitution. Their actions damned the women in prostitution and opposed any protection of human rights should the women refuse a client and then come to harm. How can these two groups sanction violence against women?

Violence must be understood as a reflection of the way society as a whole operates. It is linked to power and its unequal distribution within society. It limits women's choices; control over our own bodies and lives.

Be it physical, sexual or psychological, financial or dowry-related, the trafficking of women and forced sterilisation, homophobia, the racist attacks on indigenous peoples, misogynist population control programmes that shift environmental responsibility onto "Third World" women and their wombs or militarism as it relates to the abuses of human rights. These examples are all part of a system where certain groups benefit from the oppression and exploitation of others. A system that reinforces our limitations rather than our liberation.

Thus RTN is about bringing different feminist politics into a dialogue about solidarity, struggle and resistance. In this vision, we are seeking an on-going struggle that people from various political persuasions can engage in, one linked with a broader transformation of society.

Men are not allowed to participate in RTN marches. While it is not fair to say that all men commit acts of sexual assault and rape all men should be aware of how common sexual violence is and that it is often viewed as an expression of masculinity. Think about the games suitable for boys compared to those suitable for girls. Think of pornography - who is that selling to - whose gaze is the camera from? By having women and children only marching in RTN it is a reaction to the common myth that women need men as protectors from other strange men. The statistics tell a different story.

However there are other avenues for men to get involved if they wish to support women. The "Thursdays in Black" Campaign that is run by many of the University Students' Association in New Zealand. By buying a Tee shirt for $5 more than what it cost to produce and wearing it on Thursdays you are making a stand against rape and violence in our community. The money raised goes to grass roots organisations that help survivors of rape and violence in the local community. The national relaunch of Thursdays in Black is Thursday May 17 2001. As for RTN marches you will have to get in touch with your local campus Women's Rights Officer or speak to your local Women's Collective. Be aware and be active and be part of a safe community.

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