On a cold December day in 2012, the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, a 23-year-old student riding a bus in New Delhi, India, shocked people and sparked worldwide outrage. In India, the day after her murder, people took to the streets in unprecedented numbers to protest against violence targeted at women, braving a ferocious government crackdown with water canons and baton charges.
Inspired by the courage and determination of the protesters, award-winning director and Plan ambassador Leslee Udwin made India's Daughter, a powerful documentary recounting the rape-murder and the protests afterwards. India banned the film this year, sparking more controversy and protests, but last week, Plan International co-hosted the U.S. premiere of Udwin's documentary.
Violence against girls and women is an issue everywhere, not only in India. We've read about other high-profile attacks in the past year -- mass abductions of school girls in Nigeria, women murdered in El Salvador and Brazil, and rape and assault accusations directed at celebrities in Canada and the U.S. These events are rooted in sexist and discriminatory systems in societies around the world.
As the documentary and so many studies show, extreme violence is at the far end of a continuum that's based on social norms and attitudes that women are subordinate to men. At one end of the continuum are brutal acts of violence; one out of every three women worldwide experiences sexual violence during her life. At the other end are rigid role divisions between males and females and discrimination in access to food, schooling and health care. More generally, the divisions are rationalized by specious arguments regarding women being bestowed with kindness, care and other "natural" qualities, and therefore, rationalizing the role divisions as also "natural." Men and women hold these views across countries, classes, castes, religions, educational backgrounds and income levels.
The disturbing thing is that if a woman doesn't hold or believe these views, then another set of norms kick in -- a continuum of mild-to-extreme punishments. From youth to old age, girls and women face verbal abuse, harassment and threats to keep them "in line." Too many men and women allow this continuum to become normalized; too many people see violence against woman as something that just exists, as something we can't do anything about. Unfortunately, it takes a brutal act of violence at the far end of the spectrum -- like the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh -- to make people take notice of the violence. Such acts stir up debates about women's safety, but more often than not, people fail to connect it to the daily discrimination, constraints and denial of opportunities for women and girls.
As filmmaker Leslee Udwin put it, "The rapists are not the disease -- they are symptoms. Gender inequality is the primary tumour, and rape, trafficking, child marriage, female foeticide, honour killings and so on, are the metastases. If we wish to tackle this issue effectively, we must address these attitudes and the mindset they inform."
Canada isn't immune to these mindsets. Here, nearly 25 per cent of girls and 15 per cent of boys have been victims of sexual abuse before their sixteenth birthday. "Safety is such a basic human right that is often taken away from girls," a 17-year-old girl from Newfoundland recently told a Plan staff member. "I want to walk my dog by myself, go shopping or take the bus, any basic activity, but I'm constantly on edge." And, across Canada, authorities have finally acknowledged the horrific situation of some 1,200 missing or murdered Aboriginal women. In fact, a UN committee found Canada in grave violation of rights under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
Photo: Plan / Omur Black
But what can we do to fight violence and discrimination against women and girls in our daily lives? I'm convinced that a good way to make headway is to look at our own spheres of influence -- to look at what's going on in our own communities and workplaces. We need to acknowledge and talk with our friends, families, neighbors and colleagues, breaking the silences that shroud violence against women and girls and spreading the idea that any discrimination, abuse and harassment aren't normal or okay and cannot be rationalized. In particular, it's heartening to see girls the world over taking courageous steps to claim their rights and boys attempting to redefine the idea of masculinity -- reform it away from aggressive, dominant stereotypes into more sensitive, respectful and supportive attitudes and actions that benefit both boys and girls.
At another level, these boys and girls need support from families and communities, because standing up for yourself and others takes courage. Traditional and religious leaders have a role to play, too. And government leaders need to fulfill their commitments to human rights conventions. For example, the UN Secretary General has called on all Member States, including Canada, to commit to developing national action plans to end violence against women and children.
In the 2011 Speech from the Throne, the Government of Canada committed to addressing the problem of violence against women and girls, but still hasn't created a national action plan to do so. A key focus of the plan should be the prevention of violence before it occurs; including sufficient support to those programs that seek to transform attitudes and promote healthy relationships between men and women, girls and boys. Many people are taking action by writing a letter to their Member of Parliament, calling for a national action plan.
The recent news from Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne was also inspiring. She announced a new $41-million, three-year action plan to stop sexual violence and harassment, including a new law forcing colleges and universities to step up efforts to tackle the problems and a new advertising blitz to raise awareness and encourage bystanders to intervene.
And you, as an individual, can join Plan and the 150 other Canadian women's organizations in a new campaign, Up for Debate, that calls on federal leaders to commit to a nationally broadcast debate on the issues that matter to women during the 2015 election campaign.
Let's ensure that the legacy of Jyoti Singh and millions of other girls is a world free from everyday harassment and discrimination, and free from brutal violence. Let's ensure that their legacies involve empowering girls and women and building support from boys and men -- and thus thriving together.
Nidhi Bansal is the Senior Gender Equality Advisor at Plan International Canada.
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