Thursday, April 5, 2012

Stop Sexual Assault and Violence

American women and men in astronomy are generally safe against personal violence. However, sexual harassment, assault and other forms of misconduct are a continuing problem for men and women, especially against women. Moreover, our sisters elsewhere are subject to state-sponsored, gender-based violence and discrimination that must not be forgotten. It is fitting that April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Universities are not immune to allegations of sexual abuse, including but not restricted to recent high profile cases involving sports coaches and teams. Is this a taboo subject in the astronomical community? I hope not, and was pleased to see that the Yale Women's Faculty Forum, currently led by astronomer Priya Natarajan, was able to increase awareness of and effect change in policies concerning sexual misconduct at Yale. Other universities would benefit from the example of institutional change accomplished by the Yale women described at Change Magazine.

Gender-based assault and violence takes a different and more sinister form in countries whose laws and policies do not give women equal rights. In Iranian courts women are counted as half the worth of men: if a man and a woman receive equal injuries in an automobile accident, the woman receives half the compensation of the man. The testimony of two women in court equals that of one man. Yet women are the majority of law students in Iran. I learned these facts yesterday from Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Shirin Ebadi, who gave a lecture at my university on "Women's Rights in Iran and the Islamic World." She promotes democracy and nonviolence as the necessary force for social change. Dictatorships do not last long, but cultures do.

The U.S. academic culture does not tolerate sexual abuse but there are still victims. The culture promotes equality but there is still inequality. How should we respond? With courage and perseverance, like the examples cited above.

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