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Kathryn Marshall Headshot

Don't Call Them "Women's" Issues

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Today is International Women's Day -- a day that aims to make women's issues front and center around the world. It's an important day to mark, although the use of the term "women's issues" has often irked me because so many of these concerns aren't solely women's issues; they're society's issues.

In order to achieve real change, women-focused policies and issues can't be segregated or lumped together where they so often end up marginalized on the sidelines of mainstream policy agendas. It's time we start taking a different approach from the traditional way of looking at issues affecting women.

Violence against women is one of those issues. Calling it a "women's issue" marginalizes it because it's an issue all of society needs to be concerned with.

It's a serious problem that despite so many efforts still remains prevalent in most places around the globe. For years, women's organizations, activists and feminists have done an excellent job shedding light on this problem and bringing much needed awareness to it. But violence still remains a daily reality for so many women.

Canada's theme for this year's International Women's Day caught my attention: Working Together: Engaging Men to End Violence against Women. It's a different approach to addressing violence against women -- focus on the men and boys and bring them into the conversation. It's a concept that has been pioneered by groups like the male-led White Ribbon campaign who work to end violence against women. This year Canada brings this strategy to the international stage, with Status of Women Minister Rona Ambrose leading a delegation to the UN this past week and chairing sessions on engaging men and boys in ending violence against women.

It's a strategy Ambrose has been promoting for a while. In 2011 she announced support for BC's "Be More than a Bystander Campaign", a program that teams the BC Lions with EVA BC (Ending Violence Association of British Columbia) to send football players into schools to teach boys the importance of respectful relationships with girls and standing up to disrespectful behavior when they see it happen.

Ambrose's strategy is to broaden the conversation to include men and boys, not just women. She says it can't just be about women talking to women about helping women; we need to invite men into the conversation as well and let them know we need and want their help.

Some feminists may not be on board with this approach, but to do anything else is naïve. It goes without saying that men are a critical part of the solution to ending violence against women. So why don't we engage them more on this issue?

I've had the opportunity to participate in several "Take Back the Night" events against sexual violence, at one of which I was honoured to have been the keynote speaker. While men are invited to participate at these events by walking on the sidewalk next to the women to show their support, it was mostly women in attendance.

It is problematic, because it's not enough to simply extend the invitation to men to be involved as supportive figures in the movement to end violence, men actually need to be taking leadership roles and be active participants too. This is the thinking that underpins the government's new approach to working to end violence against women.

Unlike other issues that the women's movement has successfully mobilized around, such as pay equity and reproductive rights, violence against women cannot be solved by legislation or lobbying. There's no straightforward solution, which governments can enact with the right amount of political will.

As we know, in many cases domestic and sexual violence crimes are less likely to be reported. The perpetrator is often someone the victims knows or is in a relationship with. This has made tackling it much harder, because discussing it is often seen as a taboo in a way that other crimes are not. This is true in both developed countries and around the world. Lots of effort has been put into encouraging women to report violence and providing resources like shelters to help them escape from it. But one of the ways to break down the taboo is to broaden the conversation and get both men and women involved.

I've always believed that government should take actions based on getting results, not theories or blind ideologies. So, I am personally glad to see Rona Ambrose leading the charge with this unconventional approach. Some women's advocates may turn up their noses at this being treated as something broader than a "women's issue," but as far as I am concerned it's the most effective way to get results.

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