Orange The World: stop violence against women now!

Today we reflect on the fact that almost 1 in 3 women has been a victim of abuse in her life. It is the ‘International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women’. We also start today with 16 days of activism, concluding on December 10th, 2021 – the day on which the International Day of Human Rights is commemorated. All over the world, iconic buildings and venues turn orange to advocate for a nonviolent future. Be sure to look out for these orange lights and remember the meaning!

I don’t have to draw a picture, but we all know that the news has been downright depressing lately. It doesn’t seem to stop: drug-facilitated sexual assault in the nightlife, little to no legal consequences for perpetrators, a rise in domestic violence, and so on. It is a known fact that during difficult times and (inter)national crises, significantly more cases of violence against women are reported. For example, a new report by United Nations Women, with data from 13 countries, shows that 2 in 3 women reported that they know a woman who has experienced some form of violence during the current pandemic. While less than 10% of the victims take the step to report to the police. On top of that, an average of 137 women are murdered by a family member worldwide every day. Yes, you read it right, EVERY DAY!

The GeneDoe project

Rapists leave unique microbial traces at the crime scene. These can be detected even longer than human DNA. A study by human rights organization Amnesty International shows that one in five women in Belgium say they have ever been raped. Many victims do not report it, because of the trauma they have suffered or out of fear of the stigma that still hangs around sexual violence. If they do eventually choose report, it often happens too late, so that all physical evidence, such as traces of human DNA, has disappeared. Together with the forensic DNA lab of the UZ Antwerpen and the UZ Leuven, PhD researcher Sarah Ahannach (UAntwerpen) wants to find out whether microbiome analyses can complement the existing evidence of sexual violence. That’s why, in addition to vaginal samples, she invited the participants of the Isala project to also collect saliva samples and swabs of the skin around their mouth, sternum and nipples, and on the inside of their thighs. “Just as we leave a unique DNA trace on everything we touch, so do our microorganisms,” she says. ‘We have also discovered that vaginal, saliva and skin samples have a completely different bacterial composition. And that microbial DNA remains fairly stable for up to eight months, so it is more resistant to time and temperature than human DNA and can be detected for longer. So perhaps a rapist leaves a unique microbial fingerprint on the victim and at the crime scene, which can tell forensic investigators more about what exactly happened.’

Recently we appeared in EOS (February, 2021) with our Isala and  GeneDoe  research  (text above). Read more about our
set-up and first results on the Isala blog page.

As you already know by now, with Isala’s daughter project, GeneDoe, we are investigating the addition of the microbial fingerprinting as biological trace evidence in sexual violence cases (see box). And for good reason! The United Nations published this year that an estimated 1 in 7 women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner or husband in the past 12 months (13 percent of women aged 15-49). And these numbers do not yet reflect the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Putting an end to gender-based violence is not easy, to say the least. How can we get started? UN Women is already helping us: believing victims, adopting comprehensive and inclusive approaches that address the causes, transforming harmful social norms, empowering women and girls! Furthermore, we need to focus even more on essential services such as the police, justice, health and social sectors, and obtain sufficient funding for the women’s rights agenda.

Which actions are we supporting with Isala this year?

  • We are working with the University of Antwerp to colour our Middelheim campus orange; highlight our GeneDoe research, in addition to two other interesting studies on sexual violence; and communicate about notification channels for students and staff.
  • We also work with our Department of Bioscience Engineering and help distribute mandarin oranges to students and staff to increase the attention of sexually transgressive behavior in academia.
  • And we are raising awareness for 16 days on our social media accounts (Instagram & Twitter).

Would you like to read more about how the microbiome can assist forensics with a focus on sexual violence cases and femicide? Then take a look at our review article, recently published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Where can you go if you have been a victim of sexual violence? Even if you doubt!

  • You can go to around the clock if you have questions about sexual violence
  • You can call the emergency number 106 free of charge and anonymously, day and night
  • You can call, chat or email with a professional employee via 1712
  • Minors can chat with a professional staff member via NuPraatIkErover

You can make an appointment at a Care Center after Sexual Violence for medical and psychological care, forensic investigation, complaint and follow-up care.