Violence against women: From This isn’t supposed to happen to Never again

Twenty-three years ago December 6 I walked into my home at the end of a school day and found my mother in the living room staring at our crappy RCA television. There was a live report showing ambulances parked near a building with sirens flashing in the dark. Fat, wet snowflakes blurred the TV screen. My mother didn’t turn to say hello; her eyes stared at the images unfolding, her left hand placed flat on her chest.

“There was a shooting at the École Polytechnique,” she whispered.
The rest of the evening was a blur. We barely spoke, absorbing the images of police officers and paramedics unused to dealing with this level of tragedy, the somber commentary of the newscasters and reporters telling us that, once the last bullet was shot, a lone gunman killed fourteen women. This isn’t supposed to happen here, I thought over and over in my head.
Anne-Marie Edward. Photo courtesy of the Edward family.
When the names and photos of the victims were released in the local paper, my heart sunk further as I recognized Anne-Marie Edward’s smiling face. We had a friendly rivalry in a calculus class we’d taken together the previous year in college. She was sweet, always smiling, and solved some math problems a fair bit faster than me. After graduating from college, I went to one university while she went to the Polytechnique to be an engineering student. Now all that she was, and the lives of 13 other women, were wiped out.
As the anniversary of the massacre is marked December 6, my thoughts once again wander to what happened, what could have been had this never taken place, and what fulfilling lives the victims would have had. A tragedy like this shifted my thinking from This isn’t supposed to happen here to This can never happen again.
Unfortunately, violence against women is still pervasive and knows no boundaries, and it is inextricably tied to violence using firearms. Anne-Marie’s mother, Suzanne Laplante-Edward, in an articleurging for stricter gun-control laws in Canada, points out that “Studies have shown that rates of homicide in domestic-violence situations increase significantly when there is a firearm in the home. Rifles and shotguns are the guns most likely to be used in domestic violence. Women’s groups have repeatedly said that strong controls on guns are needed to enforce court orders, and ensure vulnerable women’s and children’s safety.”
At issue of course is a lot more than gun control. Violence against women in its many forms – physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, financial, spiritual – must be tackled by tightening guns laws, enabling girls and women to understand and claim their rights, providing girls and women with resources and support to live in safety and dignity, and educating boys and men about equality, respect, and kindness. Many forms of violence against women remain hidden, unreported, hushed aside as a family matter not to be discussed. Efforts like the current 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign aim at raising awareness of this issue, but 16 days isn’t enough, it has to be 365.
December 6 is Canada’s National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women. As we remember the victims of violence against women, the “action” part of this day cannot be neglected. Given the prevalence of violence against women, everyone – and I really mean everyone – knows someone who has been a victim. Sign a petition, read more about the issue, support a women’s group, talk to your friends about it, do something. This stuff is everybody’s business, and it’s got to go away.
To learn more:

The extraordinary life of an ordinary mother

If there were space on my mother’s tombstone, I would have wanted to see this epitaph: “Courageous woman who indefatigably raised two children on her own and gave them all the love they ever needed, always made sure they were happy and healthy and got every chance in life available to them. Tenaciously pushed them to continue their education, doggedly encouraged them to do their best in everything, gently told them to pursue their dreams, and forever worried about them every single day.” Had she been asked to put her own epitaph, she might have chosen: “She did the best she could.”


She was doubtful but proud, modest but eager to brag about her sons’ accomplishments. To raise my brother and I alone after our father’s untimely demise took strength of character I can only hope to emulate. Her husband died, I almost died a few months after, both my brother and I were hospitalized, she was diagnosed with cancer and survived nearly a quarter century after that, and above all, she alone raised my brother and I in a loving home.

She was unwittingly thrust into a situation following my father’s death where time to mourn was pushed aside by the immediate necessity to take care of her children. For me, to hear the word “mother” evokes powerful feelings of strength and courage, of bravery in the face of adversity, of protection and care, and the unflinching ability to force me to eat lima beans at least once a week.


As she lay dying in the hospital bed four years ago, the nurse who cared for her came to speak with me. My brother and I had been with our mother every day since her diagnosis with brain cancer. At that point it was nearing forty days, my mother no longer recognized us, she could no longer move on her own, and the strength I knew and depended on my entire life was all but gone. The nurse said to me, “There aren’t many children who come and stay with their parents every day like this.” She was right: almost all the patients in the ward were elderly and near death, and the halls were absent from visitors. I looked at the nurse and stated the obvious: “It’s what my mother would do for me.” In my mind, I could sense my mother waving an accusatory finger at me if I did otherwise: “You’d better take care of me, Buster Boy, because I took care of you for all these years.” My mother showed me that care, love and responsibility for family was never a choice; it’s just what you did.


Like most mothers, her life was an ordinary one filled with joys and hardships. However the choices she made and the courage and dignity she embodied were nothing short of extraordinary. I had none of my mother’s extraordinary strength as she died in front of my brother and I. But whatever she taught me kicked in at some point. With every passing Mother’s Day absent of her voice, I grow more content, more fulfilled, more thankful for the extraordinary life an ordinary mother gave me.

My mother often expressed her doubts as a capable parent. Growing up, I may have questioned some of her decisions, notably the habitual presence of lima beans on the dinner plate, but overall I accepted how my mother brought me up because, as she explicitly pointed out several times a year, “If you don’t like the way I run things, Buster Boy, you can walk out the door.” She would not have let that happen, but it never, ever got to that point anyhow.

Stop beating your sisters

I met a young woman two days ago in Amman. Just married last week, half my age, a pleasant smile and a discernible shyness when it came to speaking English with me. She seemed happy. Her brothers regularly beat her. They wanted her to marry someone of their choosing, and she didn’t. She had the opportunity to pursue her university studies, but they prevented her from doing so.

In the absence of a father, with the mother powerless and reluctantly siding with her sons, there seems to be no escaping the violence for this young woman. Her village north of Amman is steeped in tradition according to a mutual friend I spoke to afterwards. Part of this tradition means, regrettably, that the men in a family feel they must exercise their power over women by beating them.

Violence against women in its many forms – physical, sexual, psychological, and economic, is “a universal phenomenon.” Beating a woman is a tradition that has no place in any society. It’s senseless, vicious and leaves scars that run far deeper than any bruise. Unfortunately, in Jordan and elsewhere, such practices are prevalent but taboo. This is simply not acceptable. Rashida Manjoo, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, visited Jordan late last year and highlighted the issues of sexual harassment and sexual violence. In a press release she noted that while many of the people she spoke to during her visit said that these were not problems in Jordan, “it is necessary to acknowledge that sexual violence and sexual harassment occur both within and outside the family in every society.”

She continued: “The fact that certain subjects might be considered taboo within a society that largely describes itself as traditional, conservative, patriarchal and tribal might explain women’s silence with regard to these manifestations of violence.”

The young woman I met is silent – such silence won’t help her, and it won’t help all the other women and girls who are victims of violence in Jordan. But her fear at speaking out is understandable. The reprisals from her brothers can be even more severe. Our mutual friend told me that there are organizations that help women who are victims of violence, but in his words, “that is not enough. The mindset of the men has to change as well. Even if the woman is empowered to become more assertive, she will still face men who will challenge her. Education has to take place for the men in order for these traditions to change.” I couldn’t agree more.