Abuse by coercion

Often times when the subject of sexual abuse comes up, the narrative of a physically forceful abuser comes up, or use of other elements to incapacitate the victim apart from physical force such as drugs or intense and extreme forms of entrapment situations such as those involving trafficking and kidnapping. These scenarios certainly are rampant in our society, and over and above them is another tool that abusers in the country commonly use, which is coercion.

Coercion occurs when the abuser uses trust and manipulation to shift the victim’s perception of the abuse as it occurs, or to mentally keep the victim under the stronghold of the abuser to maintain or prolong the abuse. Coercion is the type of abuse that often takes place with trusted individuals, commonly older family members resulting in childhood abuse, trusted professionals in a field of physical health [doctors, traditional healers, or partners [boyfriend/ husband]. I speak of this type of abuse because its not what is commonly associated with the conceptual image of abuse, and oftentimes offenders are able to escape because the extent of their actions may be socially accepted as being ‘normal’.

Like in any other instance where an individual has been taken advantage of, there is an overwhelming sense of self-blame and shame in this type of abuse it is common that these arise from having been tricked under the guise of some lie sold by the abuser, like one has been scammed even though they didn’t know better and were manipulated, it is an attack on one’s mind leading to an attack on the physical as well. Womenshealth.gov provides the following definition of sexual coercion; “Sexual coercion is unwanted sexual activity that happens when you are pressured, tricked, threatened, or forced in a nonphysical way.” Essentially, anyone who tries to make you feel pressured and uncomfortable after you’ve already said ‘no’ may be trying to coerce you.

Patriarchal ideologies which have been engraved in several spheres of our society, have unfortunately made coercion appear to be normal especially in relationships built on trust. The paper, “Wifely submission and filial obedience: patriarchal subjugation of women and children and strategies of resistance in selected literary text set in Africa,” by Pillay, Kimméra Sherrilyn, captures this well through an analysis of very relatable African literature. The author of this paper shows how women and children have been subjugated such that there appears to be a heierachichal existence wherein men are at the top, and despite this being shown as being unacceptable, with methods such as affirmative action to create some sort of balance, the social practice has not been fully changed.

There still exists a great deal of social groups that have a persistent practice of women being identified as servers of men. The narratives that if he has done something it is because something in him was provoked by her behaviour. It works as a tool for manipulation for the abuser while the abused is trapped by self-blame. This is not to say men don’t face this type of abuse, but to point out that there are narratives in place that maintain the victimization of women and girls, and that they are so deeply rooted that they often appear to be normal.

Fortunately the Namibian legal system and feminist movement thus far has helped to bring some attention to this by criminalizing coercion. It is now a matter of making sure the general public also identifies this behaviour as criminal rather than it being regarded as a normal disappointment.

Section 2 of the Combating Rape Act provides that sex obtained under coercive circumstances constitutes rape and Section 2 (2) of the same act lists the following instances of coercion that the legal system in Namibia has identified and protects against so far;

(2) For the purposes of subsection (1) “coercive circumstances” includes, but is not limited to –

(a) the application of physical force to the complainant or to a person other than the complainant;

(b) threats (whether verbally or through conduct) of the application of physical force to the complainant or to a person other than the complainant;

(c) threats (whether verbally or through conduct) to cause harm (other than bodily harm) to the complainant or to a person other than the complainant under circumstances where it is not reasonable for the complainant to disregard the threats;

(d) circumstances where the complainant is under the age of fourteen years and the perpetrator is more than three years older than the complainant;

(e) circumstances where the complainant is unlawfully detained;

(f) circumstances where the complainant is affected by –

(i) physical disability or helplessness, mental incapacity or other inability (whether permanent or temporary); or

(ii) intoxicating liquor or any drug or other substance which mentally incapacitates the complainant; or

(iii) sleep, to such an extent that the complainant is rendered incapable of understanding the nature of the sexual act or is deprived of the opportunity to communicate unwillingness to submit to or to commit the sexual act;

(g) circumstances where the complainant submits to or commits the sexual act by reason of having been induced (whether verbally or through conduct) by the perpetrator, or by some other person to the knowledge of the perpetrator, to believe that the perpetrator or the person with whom the sexual act is being committed, is some other person;

(h) circumstances where as a result of the fraudulent misrepresentation of some fact by, or any fraudulent conduct on the part of, the perpetrator, or by or on the part of some other person to the knowledge of the perpetrator, the complainant is unaware that a sexual act is being committed with him or her;

(i) circumstances where the presence of more than one person is used to intimidate the complainant.

While the criminal nature of some of these is obvious, such as threats of physical harm. Others have often resulted in victim blaming, wherein they just ‘should have known better,’ rather than predatory actions by a criminal. The Namibian context is changing and the self-teaching of these forms of abuse is important in order for them not to be perpetuated. Although badgering is not necessarily included on this list, the law does protect individuals from harassment. The feminist movement is making strides at ridding the sense of entitlement that has often resulted in abuse by coercion, and this gradual process needs to reach communities where patriarchal rule is heavily dominant as abuse continues to happen while victims, are kept silent through the psychological control that comes with this form of abuse.

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