Can we end rape?

It seems impossible, and yet many activists are urging us to imagine a world without rape and sexualized violence. Now. Today. 2013.

February 14 marks One Billion Rising, the fifteenth anniversary of V-Day, which urges “ONE BILLION women and those who love them to WALK OUT, DANCE, RISE UP, and DEMAND an end to this violence.” In a similar vein, Women Under Siege director Lauren Wolfe issued a call to action in a recent OpEd: “Let’s declare 2013 The Year to End Rape.” Women Under Siege is having its own anniversary: February 8 marks the first year of this project, which was launched by the Women’s Media Center and has been documenting rape and sexualized violence in conflicts around the world. For example, Women Under Siege is using crowd sourcing to document and map the violence in Syria. One year ago, Wolfe and Steinem explained the goals of this project as follows:

Naming sexualized violence as a weapon of war makes it visible—and once visible, prosecutable. What happened to men in the past was political, but what happened to women was cultural. The political was public and could be changed; the other was private—even sacred—and could not or even should not be changed.

Making clear that sexualized violence is political and public breaks down that wall. It acknowledges that sexualized violence does not need to happen. When masculinity is no longer defined by the possession and domination of women, when femininity is no longer about the absence of sexual experience or being owned, then we will have begun.

Women Under Siege strives to name and analyze sexualized violence in several conflicts, including those in Burma, Mexico, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. As Wolfe and Steinem argue, “we must understand how sexualized violence is being used. We must understand in order to stop it.” Their analysis not only spans the globe but also looks back at history to include the Holocaust, based on research from the 2010 book Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust, edited by Sonja M. Hedgepeth and Rochelle G. Saidel.

The essays in Hedgepeth and Saidel’s book reframe the Holocaust to include a range of violent acts perpetrated against Jewish women. I haven’t read their book, but I have read At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power, Danielle McGuire’s remarkable account that places sexual violence towards black women—and their resistance—at its center. McGuire’s focus on sexual violence in the Jim Crow South requires us to shift how we understand the entire civil rights movement. By the end, we’re left with a very different story.

The groundbreaking research undertaken by McGuire, Hedgepeth and Saidel, and Women Under Siege allow us to ask some powerful questions. Did sexual violence in the Jim Crow South manifest similar or different patterns than those in conflicts in Libya, Sierra Leone, or Bangladesh? What might we learn from a comparative analysis of different kinds of conflict situations and the sexualized violence that accompanies them? How might we then use this information to prevent more human beings from being raped and killed?

What’s inspiring about Women Under Siege is that they’re asking us not just to look at awful things that are happening, but to understand precisely what’s going on in different contexts—and to refuse to accept any of it as natural or inevitable.

If we refuse to accept the violence, then maybe 2013 can become the year when we end rape.