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Women Need Leaders to End Sexual Assault and Harassment

03/20/2015 01:27 EDT | Updated 05/20/2015 05:59 EDT
Mike Marsland via Getty Images
LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 01: Emma Watson attends the British Fashion Awards at London Coliseum on December 1, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Mike Marsland/WireImage)

Premier Wynne, in Ontario, announced new measures recently to end sexual violence and harassment, using strong words to describe the purpose as being to end "the culture of misogyny" which is "deep-rooted in society." Misogyny goes beyond exercise of power and control to hatred of women and girls.

Despite whether power or hatred or both are the root causes, her measures demonstrate courageous leadership and are a positive step along with early sex education that will focus on respect for each gender. Boys and girls need to learn early that while each is different, they are equally valued in our society. If children are not taught this by their parents, at least they will have an opportunity to learn in the school system.

British Columbia, under the leadership of Premier Clark, announced a strategy to end violence against women and Nova Scotia is considering new measures to fight sexual assault and harassment. A combination of leadership, education, awareness, penalties and consequences are needed to make change. Some university campuses in the U.S. and Canada have been guilty of attempting to cover-up or minimize incidents to avoid reputational damage. Premier Wynne's measures also speak to universities and colleges who need to wrestle as have U of Ottawa, Dalhousie and St. Mary's with sexual assaults and other bad behaviours directed toward women.

These measures are a bold step in the right direction.

Leadership is welcome and needed. Recently we have seen so many examples of disrespect and disregard for women as equals manifested in our society, whether in the halls of parliament through harassment or in the locker rooms and educational institutions. How can we have equality in this kind of environment?

Watching the news I was struck yet again by the number of news items about the bad behaviours of sports team members and coaches towards women. In the past week or so a former elite coach in Quebec was charged with sexually assaulting members of the women's team he coached.

Both the Canadian Forces, where statistics show that 1 in every 13 women has been the victim of a sexual assault, and the RCMP have been plagued with high-profile allegations and investigations about sexual assault against women primarily. Two Liberal MPs ended their battle to stay in their federal caucus after a report was completed respecting allegations of inappropriate behaviour on their part.

While crime rates have been declining, aggravated sexual assaults and assaults against children have been rising. We also know that only a small percentage of sexual assaults are reported to the police for fear of not being believed, embarrassment, fear of the perpetrator and avoiding having to be subject to cross-examination on the witness stand which often might feel like being assaulted yet again.

Although statistically there may not be an increase in some forms of sexual assault, the issue has become more visible. In even the recent past, elite sports teams seemed to cover up or smooth over bad behaviour or blame the victims, but today with social media and greater awareness incidents are coming to light and attempts to cover them up are being condemned. Men in these organizations can and are taking leadership to make this behaviour unacceptable and model a respectful approach to women and girls.

Sexual assault against women, which we know is about power and control is a by product of a society which continues to sexualize and stereotype women and girls instead of seeing women as equals in all aspects of our lives. For centuries women were, in many societies, considered subordinate to men and lacking in rights. Recent decades have show cased the efforts to change that culture and view of women. Women have equal legal rights to men, yet still do not have the same access to power being underrepresented in positions of leadership and decision-making.

Some men seem to continue to cling to the vestiges of societies that regarded men as having control over women. Even if society has granted rights, sexual assault enables some men to have an illusion of control. Male locker rooms and male dominated cultures have perpetuated the disrespect for women and girls by using words such as Broads, c**t, slut and on and on to describe women.

Girls have often been socialized to be "nice" and even today that being too smart or strong will scare away the boys at a time in their young lives when peer acceptance is so important, thus inhibiting their ability to speak up about bad behaviour in schools and on sports fields. Media, social media and advertising sexualisation and objectification of girls and women through provocative imagery further enhances the idea for boys and even for girls themselves that they are sexual objects and body image is so important.

Certainly stereotypes about women and men's roles in society, differing religious and cultural perspectives of women, lack of awareness, lack of likelihood of getting caught when engaging in bad behaviour and (I would add old definitions of power) contribute and make it difficult to change attitudes and culture.

If power is seen as control over others, then one can see how some men might see themselves having power over women or fearing if women have power. We can choose an alternative interpretation by seeing power as the ability to make a positive difference and use it by resolving to condemn bad behaviour and disrespect toward women.

We do know, as actor Emma Watson said in her UN speech, that men need to be part of the movement for women's equality and ending sexual assaults and harassment. Strong men and women exercising leadership together can demonstrate the power of what is possible and lead the way in creating environments of respect which are foundational for equality. Kathleen Wynne's leadership initiative is an opportunity to create real change which should be echoed by all leaders in this country. Justin Trudeau's immediate action against two of his caucus members, upon hearing of allegations of inappropriate behaviour, similarly demonstrate the kind of leadership that is necessary to create respect and a climate for equality to thrive.

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