UN Elimination of Violence Against Women Day: What does it signify?

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It's Nov. 25th.

While I'm glad that the UN declared this day the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, in 1999, I'm not really sure what this day is supposed to signify.

Raising awareness?

At least one out of every three women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime -- with the abuser usually someone known to her, often her intimate partner or lover. Statistically, this person is male.

"Women's activists have marked 25 November as a day against violence since 1981. The date commemorates the brutal assassination of the three Mirabal sisters, political activists in the Dominican Republic, in 1960 on orders of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo (1930-1961).

Governments, international organizations and NGOs are invited to organize activities on the day to raise public awareness of the problem. The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women also launches the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence, which runs through 10 December, Human Rights Day."

From the World Health Organization's website.

It's always important to make global connections about issues like these, since violence against women is sanctioned at the personal level, institutional levels, societal levels and systemic levels.

In Canada and around the world.

It's also very important to not use global connections about an issue like this to reinforce racist and xenophobic tropes about men "in those other countries" being "more violent" with their intimate female partners.

Solutions are to be found at the local levels, where women have always worked to support each other and to keep each other as safe as possible. From the informal networks of staying at a friend's place to getting help leaving, to seeking out the authorities for protection (which is rarely effective), to legal separation, divorce and laying charges. And many strategies in-between.

Unlike other issues, this one has been at a stalemate in the mainstream, and even in progressive communities. In Canada, for the almost 40 years of the shelter movement, formerly the "battered women's" movement, the issue has stalled, and is stuck. Stuck because of the "intimate partner" part of the violence.

"Stranger danger" is term I first read in the book The Story of Jane Doe: A Book About Rape. Sure, mainstream society can understand that. A culture of fear has been created for women about potentially being attacked by a stranger. And while those fears are real, women are attacked by strangers, the most likely abuser will be someone who knows her and who she cares about and loves.

But even with stranger danger all the advice goes to the women:

• Don't walk alone at night;

• Don't walk down unlit streets;

• Don't wear clothing that might be perceived as sexy;

• Don't stay out late;

• You know the rest.

The easiest "advice" to potential rapists is never given:

• Don't rape or attack women

Simple.

But aside from stranger danger, there isn't even the smallest attempt to understand why male partners who are aggressive, controlling and/or violent, are that way, and are allowed to continue to do so after at least one generation of feminist thought working its way into the mainstream.
The best I can come up with is this. Yes, they are the same levels I just talked about.

Personal

What is the personal? It's what most people see. "Bad men hit women" "Bad men have anger issues." "She deserved it." Whether onside with feminists or not onside, the message is the same. Individuals do things, sometimes it's his fault, sometimes it's her fault.

This is thought of as a huge unknowable mystery, who knows the inner workings of a relationship? And it's simply the wrong way to go when trying to understand what's going on.

It's not that easy.

To take apart the first assumption, these are not "bad men" or "monsters" or "evil people" who do this. Abusers don't fit a racial or class stereotype, and abuse isn't always physical. And the most prevalent stereotype of them all, "anger issues" needs to be taken down again and again, and this is how:

Abusers don't have anger issues. Abusers don't haul off and punch their boss, or a stranger walking down the street, or at someone if they're irritated standing in line somewhere. Why? Because it's not about anger being "out of control." It's about a connection with someone who, over time, has had her spirit crushed so that the abuse is integrated into all the other behaviours, some of which might even be "positive". The cycle of violence, yes?

Institutional

Individual acts of violence towards intimate partners is supported by institutions such as the media, to use just one example. I won't link to sites that promote violent video games or violent television shows, which all serve to normalize women's bodies as passive, and sites on which violence is normalized. How women's bodies are depicted in video games and on television are as objects of sexual desire as well as physical attack and murder. While men's bodies are also attacked and murdered, there is a way the violence is sexualized and feminized when it's aimed at women. These games and shows have far-reaching influence, if not for outright violence, certainly for general lack of care, lack of empathy and distancing from women's humanity.

No, every person who watches such games or shows doesn't become an abuser, but with violence against women normalized in the media, it knits into the fabric of the woman-hating culture that is North America.

Another way that institutions minimize violence against women is the (in)justice system. From the police to the courts there is an ongoing reality that because of the prior relationship, or her sexual history, or what she was wearing that this all has a bearing on both her "innocence" as well as his behaviour. In no other crime (let's look at petty snatch-and-grab robbery as an example) is the so-called "victim" of the crime put under this kind of scrutiny. Violence against women is, according to our society, not in any way as "important" as crimes of stealing money or property. That's just wrong.

Systemic

This understanding goes a level deeper and with a higher level of analysis about the values and culture of Canadian society that allow and even encourage violence against women to continue. Systemic violence is about how violence against women is explained in a myriad of ways, none of which hold the abuser personally responsible (except sometimes in rare, extreme cases), most of which hold the woman responsible, and rarely if ever take a larger look at the society in which this violence, and the attitude towards violence against women, takes place.

Looking at advertising, conviction rates, how women are portrayed (women of colour, Aboriginal women, white women) with a critical and feminist lens, tells us that in a woman-hating society, violence will be "justified" in some way or other. And this is not okay.

......

This day is to remember that violence against women is not okay, and that all of us need to work to understand how it affects us. In Canada, feminists, workers in the shelter and anti-violence against women movement, advocates, and men need to work together, on many fronts, to change the worlds in which we live. I know we can do it.

May Lui is a long-time anti-oppression activist and educator, Toronto resident, writer, and moderator of babble, the progressive discussion board on rabble.ca.

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