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Columbia University’s Well-Intended Advice

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Last week Columbia University’s Campus Safety Office sent out an email notification to everyone on its mailing lists describing the sexual assault of a university affiliate by a taxi driver. According to the notification, at around 4:00 AM, the driver pulled over to the side of a street near campus and assaulted the affiliate. Near the end of the email, the author wrote “When using car services, always use ‘licensed for hire’ vehicles and note the hack [sic] license number. Call ahead to your final destination and have someone waiting for you when you arrive. If you start to feel unsafe, exit the vehicle at the next inhabited, well-lit area.”

This advice was well intended. One should always patronize licensed taxi vehicles. One should always note the license plate number of any vehicle in which one travels. One should always let a friend know one’s location. One should always try to avoid dangerous situations.

But that isn’t always possible. Many taxis have self-locking doors that the driver controls, making emergency exits impossible. Many people don’t feel comfortable constantly updating friends with their whereabouts. It isn’t always possible to predict when terrible things will happen, nor is it possible to take every precaution to keep these things from happening. And it isn’t ethical to expect girls and women to go through their lives terrified about crimes and catastrophes hiding in their futures.

A few weeks ago, on April 14th, more than 270 female Nigerian secondary school students were kidnapped from their beds at the Government Girls Secondary School in the town of Chibok by fighters from Boko Haram, an Islamist militant group. This group has also been held responsible for violence in the area that has left hundreds dead in recent months. Proclaiming that “Western education is sin,” the militants herded the students like cattle into the backs of trucks while their school was set on fire. Most likely, Boko Haram will end up selling these girls into sexual slavery in order to fund the purchase of more weapons to continue being, as the mother of one of the victims put it, “merciless people that take delight in killing and destruction”.

There wasn’t anything these girls could have done to prevent their abduction. They couldn’t have chosen to sleep in a different location the night they were taken, they couldn’t have chosen to be less of a target, and they couldn’t have chosen not to pursue a “western education”. In the eyes of the Nigerian government, however, these girls’ kidnapping was very much their fault. For days after the crime took place, no attempts were made to verify the number of girls that were taken, no search parties were deployed, and no explanation was offered to the families the girls left behind. Since then, Nigeria’s information minister, Labaran Maku, has stated that attempts to rescue the girls are unnecessary or unwise, rebranding their sexual slavery as “marriages”. This logic suggest that sexual violence is an unavoidable condition that politicians and other authority figures can hide through creative PR techniques. Through this paradigm, politicians and school officials alike give themselves permission to approach serious and emotionally-charged issues from a fundamentally flawed perspective.

No matter how many well-intentioned warnings are issued, telling women to be careful isn’t an effective way to prevent gender-motivated crime. Neither is it an adequate response to those crimes. Responding to campus sexual assault by expecting female students to change their behavior to prevent further rapes absolves their attackers from any kind of culpability for their actions, as does the Nigerian government’s implication that the kidnapped Chibokan girls should make the best of their situation.

In fact, approaching the problem of sexual assault from this standpoint only confuses the issue further. Instead of using valuable time and resources on establishing that sexual assault and sexual violence do indeed take place and on determining what girls and women do to fall victim (as per the measures suggested by President Obama’s Campus Sexual Assault Task Force, which include student surveys and the establishment of support websites for survivors, such as notalone.gov), institutions such as Columbia University and governments across the globe should direct their resources elsewhere.

On a very basic level, if programs are implemented to teach potential aggressors not to act on their urges, and if institutional changes are put in place to altogether avoid situations in which girls and women can be harmed, then societies would likely see a very marked decrease in gender-motivated violence. Measures such as mandatory training, more frequent employee check-ins, and better education seem like a small price to pay for such significant returns.

Zoe Danner is a freshman at Columbia University.

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