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Blame the perpetrator not the victim, psychologists say

Mental Health

Sexual Harassment complaint form. [Courtesy]

When Moses Gatama Njoroge pushed Eunice Wangari Wakimbi off the 12th floor of the AMBank building in Nairobi's CBD on September 13, 2020, news of the unfortunate incident spread like wildfire on social media.

Eunice had traveled from Kiambu county to Nairobi's CBD for a date with Moses. 

When it was time for her to go back home, Moses resisted the idea, adamant about spending the night with Eunice, and an argument ensued, during which he pushed Eunice through the window of his office. 

Luckily Eunice landed on the 9th floor but suffered pelvic injuries, which cost her two months on a hospital bed.

But according to some sentiments on social media, Eunice's injuries, trauma, and near-death experience was to serve as a lesson to her and other young women. Instead of empathy for Eunice and anger against Njoroge, the sentiments seemed to lean more towards blaming the victim.

The difference between this case and other assault cases, according to these sentiments, was that Eunice had put herself in that situation and therefore she simply got what was coming to her. 

It didn't help that some radio presenters inadvertently fueled the victim-blaming fire by opening up a discussion on the topic, focusing on Eunice's choices. 

In March last year, 24-year-old Velvine Nungari Kinyanjui was brutally assaulted and raped and later succumbed to injuries while in hospital. 

While many were moved and deeply angered by the ordeal, a good number of people boldly blamed Velvine for what befell her. 

Velvine, they said, willingly went partying with, Joseph Kinyua Murimi, a married man. This kind of reasoning from the public, according to Nairobi-based psychologist Dr Miriam Kerubo, is flawed and is a serious case of victim blaming.

"One may then ask if Velvine was assaulted for willingly going out with a married man. Why wasn't the man assaulted as much for willingly cheating on his wife?" asks Dr Kerubo.

When the public passes judgement as to whether a victim deserves empathy, they do it by asking the victim questions whether directly on indirectly. Questions like, "But why did you go there? What were you wearing? Were you drunk? Are you sure it even happened? Oh my goodness, didn’t you know? Why didn’t you leave? Why didn’t you say no?" all fall in the category of victim-blaming. 

American psychologist William Ryan came up with the phrase "victim-blaming" in his 1971 book entitled "blaming the victim" and described it as "an ideology used to justify racism and social injustice against black people in the United States."

The term has evolved over the years to include victim-blaming in various circumstances such as victims of crime, rape, and murder, as was the case for Velvine Kinyanjui.

When Velvine’s story went viral, American Historian Brett Shadle got wind of it and shared his 2007 research paper, titled 'Rape in the Courts of Gusiiland, Kenya, the 1940s-1960s,' to show that victim-blaming was an “unafrican phenomenon.”

In the paper, Shadle researched African attitudes towards sexual violence and violation of women in pre-independence Kenya. 

The Historian reviewed rape court cases between 1940 and 1960 in Gusii land and highlighted how severely rape cases were dealt with in court. He noted the following:

"Court elders and magistrates treated rape as an offence against a woman as opposed to one against her male guardian. Perhaps most fascinating are cases where an accused man claimed to have had consensual sex with his accuser. Unlike their contemporaries in Western and Kenya's British-run courts, Gusii elders did not expect a woman to prove that she had not consented to sex. Instead, they demanded that the accused prove that she had consented." 

So what exactly determines whether people will feel compassion while others will ask why the victim put themselves in the way of danger? 

In examining the psychology of blame, experts identified several reasons for the phenomenon.

"One of the key factors that promote victim-blaming is a self-preservation tactic known as the just-world hypothesis," says Dr Kerubo. "It's based on the premise that people deserve what happens to them."

According to the expert, assigning responsibility to the victim is in part to avoid admitting that something just as terrible could happen to them -- even when they took the "appropriate" precautions to keep themselves "safe". 

"Having worked with a lot of assault victims and people around them, people find ways to blame victims so that they can continue feeling safe themselves," Dr Kerubo explains.

"I think it helps them feel like bad things will never happen to them. In their minds, they convince themselves that there was some reason that Eunice and Velvine were assaulted, and that will never happen to them because they must have been doing something wrong."

"Twenty-year-old girls go on dates and have lunch with friends every other day. That's how people meet new friends, potential spouses, and even business partners. Eunice did not do anything out of the ordinary, and yet, she was assaulted," says Dr Kerubo.

Focus on the victim's story and experience — even in a sympathetic way — increases the likelihood of victim-blaming. Conversely, focusing on the perpetrators of the crime and what they could have done differently reduces the reaction of victim-blaming. 

Victim blaming also lowers inhibition. According to Dr Kerubo, victim-blaming allows would-be perpetrators of sexual assault to suppress their brain's natural inhibitions that are meant to prevent people from behaving poorly towards others.

Instead, they develop reasons to prepare the groundwork to invalidate a victim. "All these are excuses meant to justify the acts of violence. It is equal to stealing a vehicle and asking why the owner had a car and yet the thief did not," explains Dr Kerubo.

"Finally, people victim blame so as not to face the fact that the next sexual abuser could be your brother, father, or any ordinary person near you," she says. 

"We want to believe that for a normal person to rape, the victim must have somehow contributed to their behavior. The truth is, normal people sometimes do bad things, and bad things sometimes happen to good people. So it's time to blame the rapists and treat them as they deserve," Dr Kerubo says. 

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