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Is violence against women really a women’s issue?

The role men play in violence against women, and how to address these systemic issues

A sign reading “Women’s Rights are Human Rights'' is held up at a Women’s March in Concord, N.H. on Jan. 21, 2017.
A sign reading “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” is held up at a Women’s March in Concord, N.H. on Jan. 21, 2017. Human rights include the right to live free from violence and discrimination, which women still actively fight for. // Photo courtesy of Marc Nozell via Flickr

By Torie Wold

Content warning: This article includes discussion of sensitive topics, such as violence against women, sexual assault and harassment.

Imagine walking late at night, the air is chill, the sky is dark and the mood is eerie. Comfort only lasts so long, as sounds of the night echo all around and shadows surround the path. Putting one foot in front of the other, a sense of urgency arises, accelerating each step.  

Even with a can of pepper spray in one hand and a phone in the other, anxiety ensues. Heart pumping fast and breathing heavy, a long journey lies ahead.

Women are all too familiar with the feelings of fear, vulnerability and caution, and they are often amplified in the presence of men. Sadly, feelings like these have still remained a large part of women’s daily routine, despite decades of activism and advocacy for women’s rights.

It is time for men to play a role in this activism and become a part of the solution, instead of the problem.

When addressing the issue of men’s violence against women, it is important to acknowledge that the feelings of fear women have about men are not unwarranted and should be taken seriously.

According to a 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 90% of perpetrators of sexual violence against women are men.

The U.N. released a statement defining violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”

In conversations about violence against women, more nuanced forms are often left out of the discussion. 

Examples of these nuanced forms can be anything from catcalling, to locker room talk, to the over-sexualization and objectification of women in the media. These all can play a role in the normalization of violence against women.

In recent weeks, women have been on high alert after a string of serious threats of violence against women has occurred in the Bellingham area.

On the morning of March 11, an alert was sent out by Western Washington University through their campus-wide messaging system, informing students of the attempted abduction that took place the prior evening on Samish Way. 

Around midnight, a female Western student was walking when a silver SUV approached her. The male driver attempted to force the student into the vehicle, but she was able to fend him off and seek shelter at a nearby friend’s house.

In a letter written to The Front, fourth-year business management major Anna Egolf expressed her sadness for women in the area. 

“This is more than frightening; it is alarming and paralyzing… because we know it could have just as easily been us,” Egolf wrote. “The dangers men bring to women in our society are very real, and the crimes against women are happening right down our streets, near our homes.”

Since the incident, female students have also taken to social media sites, like Twitter, to share and warn other women of similar experiences they have had recently. One highly-shared thread posted on March 14 included more than a dozen replies that included detailed accounts of different men stalking and harassing women on the streets of Bellingham.

“Bellingham is no different than any other location. At Western, we have this idea that we are this more progressive town, and I think that perception can be risky,” said Liz Stuart, sexual violence prevention coordinator at Western. “It can make us fool ourselves into thinking that it’s not here.”

These situations can happen anywhere, requiring women to stay on high alert at all times. Being constantly hyper-aware and prepared for situations of violence can be exhausting for women. This is why the narrative around the prevention of violence against women must shift to get men more involved.

Stephen Burrell, an assistant research professor at Durham University, said that men hold a lot of power and influence and that they are responsible for creating change in settings where they have this influence. By doing this, men will be able to have a positive impact in preventing violence and abuse against women, Burrell said. 

Women should not be responsible for solving an issue mainly perpetrated by men, that responsibility should fall on men themselves and the institutions they are a part of. It is important for men to educate themselves, but it’s not fair to put the responsibility solely on them. Schools, universities and places of work should teach men the importance of boundaries, consent and healthy relationships.

Second-year student, Bria Yusaf said she believes sexual violence prevention training should either be “widely available or even required for students on college campuses.” 

Currently, Western only offers in-person sexual violence prevention training to its student-athletes, although there is online training required for all students. As of fall 2020, all students are now required to fulfill three years of online training.  

“If they don’t learn these things in their younger years, they are going to need to learn it at some point, and college is a really good time for that,” Yusaf said. “This is happening all the time, everywhere to everyone, so there’s really no point in picking a few select people to be aware of these issues so prevalent in our society.”

There are a multitude of changes that men and institutions can make that would greatly impact the daily lives of women, but it all starts with education. Educating men on issues that they do not personally experience can give them a more empathetic mindset, which can be a powerful tool in preventing violence against women. 

“In terms of what men can do, the biggest thing is they should be listening to women,” Burrell said. “That means listening to women in our everyday lives and proactively seeking out women’s voices in the media and reflecting on your own life, that in itself can have a really important impact and help break down deep-rooted norms and expectations we have about gender.”  

Here is a list of resources to learn more about violence prevention:

RAINN – The nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization

VAWnet – Gender Based Violence Resource Library

UN Women – United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women

Torie Wold (she/her) is an opinions reporter for The Front. She is a second-year student, majoring in Visual Journalism. Her work focuses on creating an open space for students, faculty, and community members to be able to share their experiences and views on current news. You can contact her at toriewold.thefront@gmail.com.

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