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What others say: Countering rape, violence against women

FILE - In this Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013 file photo, Indian women carry signs as they march to mourn the death of a gang rape victim in New Delhi, India. For decades, women have had little choice but to walk away when groped in a crowded bus or train, or to
FILE - In this Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013 file photo, Indian women carry signs as they march to mourn the death of a gang rape victim in New Delhi, India. For decades, women have had little choice but to walk away when groped in a crowded bus or train, or to simply cringe as someone tosses an obscene comment their way. Even if they haven't experienced explicit sexual abuse themselves, they live with the fear that it could happen to them or a loved one. The gang rape and beating of a 23-year-old university student on a moving bus in India's capital has taken sexual violence - a subject long hidden in the shadows of Indian society - and thrust it into the light. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin, File)
Associated Press

Twenty-one years ago, Grinnell College student Tammy Zywicki, then 21, was driving back to school in Iowa from her home in New Jersey when her car broke down on an Illinois highway. Her body was found in Missouri nine days later.

At the time it seemed a freak coincidence that a predator happened to be driving by just when the young woman developed car troubles. It doesn't seem so odd now. At times, in fact, it feels as if there's a sexual predator lurking around every corner.

In the small Iowa town of Dayton last month, 15-year-old Kathlynn Shepard and 12-year-old Dezi Hughes were kidnapped walking home from school. Convicted kidnapper Michael Klunder lured them into his truck with offers of lawn-mowing jobs. Dezi escaped. Klunder, who was sentenced in 1992 to 41 years, had been released after 19 for good behavior. He killed himself before Kathlynn's body turned up in a river June 7.

Ten months earlier, in another small Iowa town, a pair of 10 and 8 year old cousins disappeared while riding their bicycles. Their bodies were later found, too.

In Cleveland, Ohio, Ariel Castro allegedly held three women for years in a basement, raping, punching and starving them. Rapes in the military could run as high as 19,000 in just the last year, according to the secretary of defense. Add in Jerry Sandusky and a rash of college rapes around the country and sexual assault seems ubiquitous.

So when women gather, and the talk turns to violence, though statistics suggest rape is on the decline, the sense of outrage is almost eclipsed by one of defeat. Nearly five decades after the women's movement began raising awareness about crimes of male power and control, they continue.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the annual rate of sexual assault fell 58 percent from 1995 to 2010 -- from 5 victimizations per 1,000 females age 12 or older to 2.1. Some of the highest rates between 2005 and 2010 were in rural areas. Yet to hear some men of authority talk, the same old victim-blaming goes on.

Former U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., spew misinformation about "legitimate rape" not causing pregnancy or "the hormone level created by nature" being responsible for military sexual assaults. Syndicated columnist Thomas Sowell reduces the problem to conflicting accounts of "he said-she said" and having women in the armed forces, writing, "The real question is whether either sex functions as well with the other sex around. ... Nobody needs to be distracted in life and death situations."

These men apparently think that men aren't capable of controlling their impulses around women -- or at least that they shouldn't be blamed if they don't.

To Bonnie Campbell, who headed the Justice Department's Violence Against Women Office during the Clinton administration, this all feels like a backlash. Even if the right laws are in place, she says, when it comes to culture, "it doesn't seem like it's changed."

Campbell is puzzled by the sexual assaults on college campuses - even after heavy doses of awareness training and legal requirements for colleges to make public their rape statistics. Her federal office worked to reform the criminal justice system, train law enforcement officers and fund states' victim assistance programs. Yet even now, when rapes are reported, too often the victims are blamed and nothing happens to the perpetrators, she says. After rape exams became standardized at hospitals, rape kits with perpetrators' DNA languished for years, unprocessed.

There is more help for survivors and more men are fighting violence, says Beth Barnhill, director of the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault. But "there's still way too much wink-and-nod about objectifying women."

The Iowa cases have led to calls for toughening already tough sentences available under the law. But Barnhill warns against toughening already tough laws to the point where women won't press charges.

Changing mindsets is a long-term process. We all need to be actively engaged in ensuring that laws are enforced, but equally in educating our children from early on that men and women are equal and must be treated that way. Ultimately, we can best honor the victims of these horrendous cases by shaming and shunning anyone who degrades women or glorifies harming them.

Contact Rekha Basu, a Des Moines Register columnist, at rbasu@dmreg.com.