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Rutgers expert discusses gender-based violence in wake of Atlanta spa shootings

Rupa M. Khetarpal, assistant professor in the Rutgers School of Social Work and coordinator for the Violence Against Women Certificate Program, said that the ongoing issue of anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S. as well as gender-based violence played large roles in the recent Atlanta spa shootings.  – Photo by Rutgers.edu

Rupa M. Khetarpal, assistant professor in the Rutgers School of Social Work and coordinator for the Violence Against Women Certificate Program, discussed gender-based violence in the U.S. and its connection to the recent shootings that killed six Asian-American women in Atlanta.

“I think that just categorizing (the shooting) as a hate crime really doesn’t do enough justice to it,” she said. “If you look at the women who were murdered and the intersectional identities they come with, and what they represented, then one can really understand sort of the bigger … picture of gender-based violence and inequality.”

Khetarpal said there are multiple intersectional factors involved with the shooting, with one significant factor being its relation to the rise of anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S. She said there has been historical evidence of anti-Asian sentiment for a long time and these acts were a continuation of this ongoing issue.

She said that while racism and the "us versus them" ideology played prominent roles in this incident, the shooting also brings up the issue of the criminalization of sex work in the U.S., the misconceptions surrounding it and the disenfranchisement of individuals who are perceived to be sex workers.

“There is an (idea) that anybody who works in a massage parlor is probably engaged in sexual services, and even if they were, then they have been disapproved of those rights that folks have when they are engaging in a specific occupation to make a living,” Khetarpal said.

She said another element of the issue is the patriarchal structures that exist in general, which will continue to support these violent and unsafe situations for women.

“(Gender-based violence) is prevalent and pervasive and every time something like this happens, people talk about it and then it fades out,” Khetarpal said. “Then people forget and go back to their regular ways, and then again something like this happens, and then people talk about it.”

She said the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has also significantly increased both the frequency and severity of gender-based violence due to inaccessible hotlines and services, as well as individuals having less time to seek help given their abuser or children may be spending more time at home.

Overall, to create long-term and sustainable change to solve issues regarding gender-based violence, Khetarpal said education, early intervention and preventative work are crucial when working toward changing the culture.

“A big part of why things like this happen is because our children are learning this very early on in life,” she said. “This idea of gender and how one gender is superior than the other or one how one race is superior than others. Our children are learning this very early so the change has to happen in elementary school, and has to begin from there.”

One change that was recently made in the wake of the shooting was the House of Representatives’ vote to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which aims to protect victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, according to an article from CBS. 

“This Act allows us to expand services for victims,” she said. “It provides criminal justice response in appropriate ways to gender-based violence, it really provides money and funding for prevention work … (and) housing, all kinds of healthcare access for survivors (and) especially focuses on communities of color, which we have recognized are highly marginalized.”

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