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:

Still searching for the gender “Ah-ha” moment: Reflections on the Busan High Level Forum, one year later

I was recently in Gaza and I asked primary school teachers whether or not girls and boys were treated equally in their communities. The answer was a resounding yes. I then asked: “Do boys and girls do the same amount of work at home?” No, they stated: girls did all the housework and boys played for the most part. As the discussion continued, it was apparent that some teachers started questioning their own notions of gender equality for the first time. It was their gender “Ah-ha” moment that enabled them to question gender roles and go beyond associating gender equality with numerical equivalence of boys and girls.
The 2011 Busan Outcome Document has a component on “gender commitments.” Paragraph 20 highlights the importance of “recognizing gender equality and women’s empowerment” to achieve development results. Broadly speaking, the commitments focus on using sex-disaggregated data to inform policies, integrating targets for gender equality in accountability mechanisms, and addressing gender equality and women’s empowerment “in all aspects of our development efforts.” This is laudable, but the reality for most organizations working in development makes these commitments unattainable aspirations.
I say this because, in the year since the Busan High Level Forum, I have seen little evidence of organizations improving the way they address gender equality and women’s empowerment. I’ve spoken to people from donor organizations, NGOs, civil society organizations (CSOs), governments, and international NGOs. With the exception of development organizations with a rich experience in ensuring gender equality and women’s empowerment, gender is still frequently inserted into development projects as an add-on with little or no thought. Sadly, whenever I provide feedback on development projects that have no gender perspective, typical responses continue to be “It doesn’t matter, we’ll add ‘with a gender perspective’ at the end of our goal and the donor will be happy,” or “Half the people affected by the project are women, so we have gender equality.” It has never been that simple.
Two women and two men! Gender equality? Sorry, not that easy.
These responses point to a challenge highlighted by the Open Forum for CSO Development Effectiveness. In its Gender Equality and Development Effectiveness report from July 2011, the Open Forum listed a number of challenges CSOs face when putting gender equality into practice. Among the challenges is a patriarchal culture present in both the working environments of development organizations and the societies in which they operate. If people don’t believe in gender equality to begin with, how will the Busan gender commitments ever become a reality?
Apart from the patriarchal culture, I think there is an overwhelming misunderstanding of what gender equality means. To believe in and ensure gender equality I think one needs to be open to the reality that inequality exists and gender equality can bring about positive change.
I’d venture to say that the typical development worker has yet to experience their gender “Ah-ha” moment. As such it’s even unlikelier that they’ll be in a position to “address gender equality and women’s empowerment” in all aspects of their work without education, guidance and support on how to do this. This can best happen when gender equality and women’s empowerment are grounded in a normative human rights framework that recognizes women as rights holders. This isn’t stated strongly in the Busan Outcome Document, and it’s why the proposed Busan Joint Action Plan for Gender Equality and Development was not endorsed by women’s organizations.
I’d love to be proven wrong, but my sense is that the Busan gender commitments won’t amount to substantive change anytime soon. 

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.