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One Man "Changing the Cycle" of Violence Against Women

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ChangeMaker: Craig and Marc Kielburger, founders of Free The Children and Me to We, introduce us to not-so-ordinary Canadians who are making a difference.

In July's heat, Joachim Ostertag pedals nobly against the prevailing prairie wind. His butt hurts, his fingers are slightly numb, and he's doing something that most men don't do on road trips: asking for directions.

The 60-year-old from Owen Sound, Ont., knows exactly where he's biking--5,300-kilometres westward, from his hometown to Vancouver. The question he's asking of social workers, advocacy groups and random strangers along the way is: How can men "change the cycle" of violence against women?

After 23 years working with abusive men, "I don't have the answer," Ostertag readily admits. "Everybody knows about violence against women, but people don't know what to do about it."

Despite a steady decline over the past two decades, more than 173,000 cases of violent crime against women were reported to police in 2011, and Statistics Canada reports that still more than 600,000 Canadian women say they were victims of spousal violence over the past 12 months.

It's this persistence of the problem that fuels Ostertag's work as supervisor of the men's program at Bruce-Grey Child and Family Services in Owen Sound, where he and a female co-facilitator lead groups of men through the difficult process of personal change.

But there's more to the problem than just the incidents that escalate into violence. "There is a cult of masculinity in today's media," Ostertag says, that perpetuates exploitative female stereotypes and can encourage sexism and gender imbalance.

Unfortunately, Ostertag's program is funded only for those mandated to be there through the court system, the offenders--there is no money for education or prevention, including the roughly one quarter of "self-referred" members seeking support to be better husbands, boyfriends or fathers.

This is why Ostertag embarked on a one-man odyssey from the shores of Georgian Bay to the coast of the Pacific Ocean, with a mandate to open a nationwide conversation that gets all men involved in "changing the cycle."

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The journey begins with spontaneous conversations in small-town coffee shops, which Ostertag initiates despite his evident shyness. In one such cafe, he met a First Nations woman who described herself as one of Robert Pickton's victims. She had a large tattoo that read "Woman of Constant Suffering." She told Ostertag that police should tackle organized sex mafias that target vulnerable women in Canada's cities. And to men in general, her advice was simple and direct: Don't "treat us as things."

That may be easier said than done, since everywhere men look, Ostertag argues, they encounter bad examples. This is especially problematic for young, impressionable boys.

"It's a challenge to teach our children to have positive relationships and good sexual health when they are overwhelmed by other messages on TV, the Internet, and grocery aisles--images of women's bodies that make the women themselves invisible." He notes that brain development is significant before and during puberty, and that popular culture's images of women and sex have great influence at the same time young boys are forming their perspective of gender relationships.

Obviously, parents have a pivotal role to play. In addition to nurturing a strong relationship where children and parents can communicate openly, Ostertag recommends critically assessing gender roles within the family. Besides the link that sees children from violent homes replicating those relationships in adulthood, even less dramatically defined gender imbalances are passed on between generations.

"Rarely will children witness equality between father and mother. They pick up the patriarchy and they learn it," Ostertag says.

Many men struggle with the role of being a father, a husband or a boyfriend, but men are not equipped to deal with these stresses as women are. Women are far more likely to consult friends for advice about their challenges, whereas men rarely feel comfortable showing weakness or vulnerability, Ostertag argues.

He says that instead of men saying, 'I don't know how to talk with my partner when we have conflicts,' they often say, 'You should hear her nag, she never wants to have sex, what's a man supposed to do.'

Men need opportunities "to challenge themselves about the underlying attitudes that lead to such language," he says.

Ostertag sees firsthand through the men's program that, given a safe environment, men can share their relationship challenges and collectively come up with good ideas about how to resolve or cope with them.

Ending violence against women is less about changing behaviours than changing the underlying belief system that allows men--most of whom would agree that violence is wrong--to justify their actions.

"We try to unpeel the self-talk that makes a man act violently toward a woman. Where did you learn that this is okay? When the man looks critically at the social constructs that form his attitudes, he is more readily to question and change all of it."

Joachim Ostertag will arrive in Vancouver on August 10 for a bike rally to the Crab Park memorial stone for missing Aboriginal women. He will have engaged countless men in the beginnings of a conversation about being the change we wish to see. And that's the point.

"Just by talking about it, change will happen."

Craig and Marc Kielburger founded the international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.

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