03/21/2013 12:26 EDT | Updated 03/21/2013 12:26 EDT

Violence Against Women Does Not Discriminate

Within the last year tragedies of violence against women and girls have made headlines. Violence against women exists in places not only where the laws oppress us but also where they are supposed to protect us. It exists in the richest communities of the world and the poorest.

Indians sing devotional songs during a gathering to mourn the death of a 23-year old rape victim in New Delhi, India, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013. Passers-by refused to stop to help a naked, bleeding gang-rape victim after she was dumped from a bus onto a New Delhi street, and police delayed taking her to a hospital for 30 minutes, the woman's male companion said in an interview. It was his first public account of the gruesome attack that killed the 23-year-old student and prompted demands for reform of a law enforcement culture seen as lax in crimes against women. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

Within the last year tragedies of violence against women and girls have made headlines.

They included the attempted murder of 15-year-old, Malalai Yousafzai, last October, shot in the head, on her way home from school in Pakistan; the gang rape and torture, last December, that led to the death of a 23 year old female physiotherapy intern in Delhi, India; the gang rape of a female Swiss tourist, three days ago also in that country; numerous complaints of sexual assaults against female protesters, in Egypt last month; statistics, released last summer, estimating the sexual assault of one in three female members of the US military; and the repeated, recorded sexual assault of a barely conscious 16-year-old Steubenville girl that took place last summer.

Here in Canada 74 per cent of women are likely to have known a woman or girl who has suffered physical or sexual abuse.

Violence against women and girls does not discriminate.

It exists in places not only where the laws oppress us but also where they are supposed to protect us. It exists in the richest communities of the world and the poorest. And though women in poverty and war zones are most vulnerable (aboriginal women in Canada are five to seven times more likely to suffer from violence than their non-indigenous sisters), women are not inherently safe anywhere, regardless of race, faith, education, class or location.

Though often, everywhere, we are warned to "stay safe."

In societies the world over, where victims are often blamed, precautions are numerous.

It is a backward prescription out of touch with reality. Can we all avoid travel after dark? Is it safer to be covered than to reveal skin? Must women be forced to travel in packs?


And because we are not the source of the problem, staying home and shutting up is not the solution.

In fact, the people who need to be locked up are not women.

Quite the contrary, the people who need to be removed from public spaces are those men, found throughout the world, who for whatever reason are unable to stop asserting what they believe is their God-given right to dominate and subjugate women.

It is not.

Women have the right to be safe at all times -- even and particularly if they are unable to defend themselves and happen to be unconscious. (Should a 16-year-old girl who is unconscious, due to alcohol intake, have fewer rights than if she was unconscious for any other reason? No.)

The issue is not "safety" and the burden is not upon women to avoid assault.

The issue is "violence" and the burden is on society to eliminate it so women and girls are safe and free.

How do we do this?

Firstly we pass laws and policies to end violence against women such as the recent UN Accord on Women and encourage others to do so at all levels of government and internationally.

This means we must not regard an assault as a minor incident.

A man must know that by assaulting a woman, he is not only altering her life, but also his own and damaging the community.

A woman must know that the assault will be taken seriously and that if she speaks up, justice will be served and her community will stand by her, as it would if she were a man.

Secondly we eliminate misogyny from all our cultures.

We must raise awareness so people as individuals make a conscious effort to work to omit it from their languages, faiths, practices, institutions and to abandon the patriarchal notions that allow it to flourish.

Patriarchy doesn't simply tell us to stay home and shut up -- patriarchy lets us know our status well in advance of this. And patriarchy cuts across cultures.

Patriarchy creates not only cultures which dictate whether a woman may work or attend school, it also manufactures cultures in which the beauty of youth is respected more than the wisdom of age and in which violence in politics, media and sport is glorified.

Patriarchy creates not only cultures which ban a woman's voice, but also cultures in which misogyny is humorous, in which the language that describes a woman's genitals doubles for the most offensive slurs and in which women who are open about their sexuality are called "sluts" while those who rise to positions of authority are referred to as "bitches."

Patriarchy creates not only cultures that make honor killings legal, but also cultures in which the loss of a young man's future (while he faces the legal penalty for an awful crime he committed after a fair trial) is mourned more woefully than the plight of his victim.

Patriarchy creates cultures in which qualities considered feminine are inferior and regarded as having no place inside the mind and soul of a "normal" man. It is the reason that homophobia exists and makes the world unsafe not only for women but also for gay men.

As a global society, all our cultures must change. We must make a conscious collective effort to remind ourselves of the inherent dignity of all women.

Or what kind of world are we creating for our daughters?

And our sons?

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