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IWD, Nameless and Faceless Victims

Is hiding the identities of gender based violence victims doing more harm than good?

On the 6th of January 2007, 21-year-old Kemilat Muhusin and her sister were attacked with sulphuric acid by a man, after she rejected his romantic advances. The acid landed on Kemilat’s face and chest, burning most of the skin on her face including her eyelids, and one inch of her hairline. It was in March that Kemilat’s story appeared in the media; after she and her family decided to go public in an effort to seek financial assistance to cover her high medical cost.
Truth is, I was aghast when I saw the images of Kemilat’s sulphuric acid burnt face and chest, last month in the papers. I felt strongly that she was a victim of exploitation by the press who only wanted to sell more newspaper copies and make greater profit. I believed had she been able to see the extent of her burns she would never have agreed to have images of her exposed by the media.
However, looking deeper, her story brings to the fore pertinent questions that the media and gender rights activists need to reflect on when tackling reports of victims of violence.
The media has the huge role of informing the public and this role comes with a huge responsibility. So when the media reports violence and covers victims, ethical decisions have to be made and crucial questions have to be asked. Is the victim being exploited for a good story? Is he/she too traumatized to think clearly? Is the victim aware of the consequences of revealing his/her identity? Are we going to re-victimize the family and the victim? Is the purpose of given this kind of story to sensationalise it and sell more copies? Are we serving the greater good?
Victims of violence are too often vulnerable and easily exploited by the media. They often lose their human face and instead become a story that is used to boost adverting and copy sales. Therefore the media often has to censor itself to minimize further harm to victims of violence by withholding their names and faces.
According to the US based Society of Professional Journalist (SJP) code of ethics, minimizing harm to sources who are sometimes victims of violence is connected to the values of humaneness: fairness, compassion, empathy, kindness, respect. It is the responsibility of the media hence to treat these sources with decency and to allow them their dignity even in the worst of circumstances. Minimizing harm is connected to a concern for the consequences of the media’s actions when they cover victims of violence.
But sometimes this rule hides the carnage that goes on in our society and consigns the victims and their circumstances to becoming statistics instead of real people who have gone through a gross injustice. When a victim is nameless and faceless it makes very little impact to the reader/viewer. The victim becomes another statistic, quickly forgotten by society and we move on with our lives. In the end the victim and family are left to fight their battles of survival alone.
From Kemilat’s experience, without a doubt a picture can speak a thousand words and it has indeed change the views on violence against women in the Ethiopia.
In her case, breaking the rules has personalised and nationalised her experience making it our problem too. It has brought into sharp focus the raising cases and severity of violence against women and the impunity with which this kind of crimes are treated. When we the readers saw Kemilat’s injuries the rising problem of violence against women in Ethiopia became real.
The fight against gender based violence will not be conquered if the victims continue to be voiceless, faceless and nameless. Society needs to let them speak out, be named and have their images etched into our memories. Society needs to know that these victims are real, they hurt and they need justice to prevail. I believe had Kemilat remained faceless and nameless in the media reports, she most likely wouldn’t be remembered today. She would be another number, forgotten.
Nonetheless this is not to say that all gender based violence victims should be exposed as Kemilat’s case was. The media has to censor itself and use sound judgement when deciding what to air or publish. Reports on gender based violence should not be sensationalised and misused for monetary gain. These reports are of vulnerable people and all measures should be put in place to avoid re-victimizing, putting the victim’s safety and health at risk. They should be used like in Kemilat’s case to elicit positive change from the government and the society.
Kemilat Muhusin’s story is no longer one of a faceless and nameless victim. It is one of triumph against great odds. The moment she granted the media permission to reveal her identity she became a fighter. Her great courage is a win for the fight against gender based violence in Ethiopia.
The question that begs however is how many more women like her have been and will continue to be forgotten because they were faceless and nameless reports in the media?

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