The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence run from Nov. 25 (the United Nation’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women) until today, Dec. 10.
I was a child, nine years old, when a little girl my age was found dead in a dumpster down the street from where I lived in Toronto. The neighbourhood and the local parks — and all the men walking down the street — suddenly felt dangerous to me and my friends at that moment.
On Dec. 6, 1989, I was 15 years old when 14 women engineers were shot and killed at the Ecole Polytechnique in what is now known as the Montreal Massacre. It had never occurred to me, before then, that women were at risk of violence if they chose careers in science.
On Dec, 6, 2008, I was a medical student at the University of Ottawa. I stood at the podium of a commemorative speaker’s panel discussing violence against women, with my older son at my side and my toddler on my hip. Although the panel was a success, I also recall that when all the public speeches were over, I spent hours in tears, privately grieving.
Fast forward to Dec. 6, 2020. Prime ministers, heads of organizations and other Canadians have spent the past 30 years commemorating the names of the 14 women killed in Montreal. Tribute after yearly tribute, images of roses, colleagues and friends calling upon each other to quietly remember.
Maybe it is because I have established a more public voice during the COVID-19 pandemic as a feminist community advocate, or maybe it is my age and stage in life, but this year I responded with fury. Every time I saw the names listed on social media, I responded, “We are too often encouraged to ‘quietly contemplate’ – especially as women – rather than to loudly proclaim. This isn’t enough, we need to roar: This is gender-based violence, this is misogyny!”
I am tired of quiet contemplation. I am 46 years old. I have written two books about women and health care, and women and mental health. I have spoken about trauma-informed care, and told victims there is no shame in talking about childhood trauma. I have never, however, talked about myself.
It was 1974. My father beat my mother when I was an infant and a preschooler. My mother told me that my father pulled out fists of hair from her scalp. I do not remember that, but I have no reason to question it.
After my parents separated, I still spent every other weekend with my father. That was the custody arrangement and I had no voice as a child. I recall very clearly how relieved I felt when he stopped showing up to get me and my siblings. At the time, I thought he had simply forgotten; later, I learned he was addicted to cocaine.
Not that I felt any safer with my mother. She hit me, but not my brothers. My teachers did not know. My friends’ parents did not know. It never dawned on me that someone could have intervened. Nor did it dawn on me that mothers hurting their daughters was another form of gender-based violence. By my parents’ example, my older brother grew increasingly violent himself. As a teenager, I sought refuge with friends when I could; at 16, I was kicked out of my home.
Years later, in my 20s, I confronted my mother about my childhood. I recounted to her that a sibling had sexually molested me. She dismissed me, told me “that is what brothers do to sisters.”
Those were my formative life lessons about the dangers of being a girl.
One day of national remorse is not enough. Sixteen days of activism, globally, are not enough.
None of this is “news.” We know that many Indigenous women and girls experience violence every day. We know that women of colour are faced with sexism as well as racism. We know that violence against women and girls is a public health crisis.
How many seniors who died in long-term care during the current pandemic were women? How many nurses, personal support workers and caregivers are dying around the world right now from COVID-19, because we failed as a society to protect them?
That is institutionalized, gender-based violence. How many women dare to publicly say that we won’t be patronized? We are policed for our tone when we speak loudly. We are told that we aren’t educated enough, aren’t good enough scientists, aren’t experts. We are punished if we stand up for ourselves. It is dangerous to make waves, and we know it.
We are encouraged, as women (and as professionals), to be self-critical, to engage in self-surveillance. That, too, is a form of gender-based violence. We look at ourselves in mirrors and we are socialized to be unhappy with our bodies. That is another form of violence that we unwittingly instil in our daughters from the moment they are born. We are injured by these images, these values, these societal affronts that bombard us, daily.
All of the above is the truth, my lived experiences, and the experiences of women whose stories may never be told. Yet when Dec. 6 is over, when the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence draw to a close, the violence will fade from the news.
We have quietly remembered, grieved. Now, we need to be loud. One day of national remorse is not enough. Sixteen days of activism, globally, are not enough. Women and girls are suffering and dying. We are fed up with the politicization of our human rights and our reproductive rights. Fourteen women in Montreal were killed because of an act of misogyny by one man, but that violence reflects the reality for millions of women.
On their behalf, I roar: Call out institutionalized sexism. End violence, for real.
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