On Friday 6 November, the 3rd International Conference on Women’s Shelters ended with a strong plea to end one of the hardest violations of human rights: violence against women and children. The conference was organised by the Dutch Foundation of Women's Shelters at the request of the Global Network of Women’s Shelters (GNWS). More than a thousand delegates from across the globe gathered in The Hague to share experiences, increase awareness, and exchange effective approaches for improving safety and support to survivors, and ultimately, ending violence against women and children.
Courageous and ground-breaking work
Four days of intense work followed -- of inspiration and sharing, of being confronted with the deep wounds of violated women transformed into power to overcome the impact of (sexual) violence. We listened to Emma Murphy, a 26-year-old mother and blogger from Ireland, who had posted her story of violence on Youtube and Facebook. She got almost nine million viewers, which demonstrates the great power of social media to amplify the voices of individual women speaking out and breaking the silence. And to Linor Abargil, former Miss World from Israel who was raped and became an activist, and is encouraging other women to speak out. Tears were shed, emotions felt.
The scale, the wide range of forms of violence occurring in all places of the world -- used as weapons of war, in global trafficking, on the Internet (I can’t wait for the day I can ejaculate in your face, shared Ashley Judd who is receiving these kind of mails almost daily), the violence at home, during childhood, adulthood - it became almost too much to digest. You realise, once again, how sick the world is, and how shameful the silence around and acceptance of violence is. How can this be?
Many speakers presented courageous and ground-breaking work supporting women and children. Dr. Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynaecologist who deals with the consequences of rape for women and girls through surgery in East of Congo, delivered an emotional plea to end the cruel war against women considered the most worthless in society. The presence of the Dutch Queen Maxima and the Crown princess Mary of Denmark gave the conference the profile it merited and lent it a sense of urgency. “Connect & Act” was the theme. Many women and the few men present felt energized and encouraged to continue their work. Violence against women must and will stop!
Where are the men and what is their role?
We, members of MenEngage, left the conference inspired but also sobered by the realization of how much more has to be done in order to stop violence against women. We were honoured to be invited to address root causes of violence and glad to see the level of interest in our workshop ‘Engaging men: Collaboration between women’s and men’s organisations’. It gave us the opportunity to share our experiences -- as well as the sense of importance of recognizing men as equal partners in building a future without violence against women. For that we need to enhance our work with men and boys and engage more men.
But we also left with a sense of uneasiness. Why did so few men attend the conference while most of the violence is perpetrated by men enacting false notions of manhood, power and control? The problem is largely about men, and the need to be willing to fundamentally transform underlying, deeply entrenched values among boys and men and in our societies. A so called gender transformative approach is needed, together with girls and women. We fear that as long VAW continues to be presented as a predominantly women’s problem, it will not end!
The Australian Minister for Women, Michaelia Cash, brought up the importance of working with boys and men. Princess Mary addressed it very strongly, giving examples of twinning projects between Brothers for Life in Cape Town with Dialogue Against VAW in Denmark. Her words were well appreciated. Unfortunately, her plea for addressing gender inequality by engaging boys and men in prevention of violence is not well reflected in the Call for Action which emerged from the conference. The responsibility of engaging boys and men must not reside as a burden solely on the shoulders of women’s shelters – it is the responsibility of men, of partners and member-organizations of the MenEngage Alliance, and of policy makers. We are therefore extra grateful for the fact that GNWS invited us. We are determined to continue working together with women’s organizations and support, with our actions, the global shift towards gender equality.
Transforming violent masculinities into positive and healthy ones
It is encouraging to note that international campaigns and movements to engage men are growing, such as the White Ribbon Campaign, MenEngage, MenCare etc. In November 2014 more than 1200 women and men came together for the 2nd MenEngage Global Symposium in New Delhi, to strategize on a gender transformative agenda. MenEngage is a relatively new but growing global alliance, born out of the ground-breaking work of the women’s movement. Accountability to women and seriously listening to the claims of women’s rights activists are crucial pillars of its work, which enable us to address the real fear that men will take over (again!), and the fear of losing vital funding. MenEngage and other gender justice movements and organisations cannot show enough compassion and deep respect for the women who had the power to survive their violent past. It is inspiring and hopeful at the same time, to see women’s organisations taking up the courage to focus also on men, not only as perpetrators but as part of the solution. These developments need to accelerate.
Quick-wins don’t exist. However, we can hopefully end violence against women and children faster if we do more seriously engage the other side of the gender-coin. This requires unpacking deeply-rooted, destructive and violent notions of masculinity and transforming them into positive and healthy expressions based on respect for women‘s rights and gender justice. The result? Improved wellbeing and health of women, children, men and the society as a whole.
We can and should move forward – together! Let’s open up for intensified dialogue, exchange, and the construction of strategic partnerships, including joint funding strategies. Let’s apply a full gender perspective, with the realisation that we need each other. This will require facing and overcoming internal gender tensions, building respect, trust, and knowing where each of us is coming from. If the International Conference on Women’s Shelters showed us anything, it’s that there is enough courage and determination to go around.
Let’s Connect and Act!
Rachel Ploem - Rutgers, the Netherlands
Vidar Vetterfalk - Men for Gender Equality, Sweden
Marina Pisklakova – Parker - Centre Anna, Russia
Jens van Tricht - Emancipator, the Netherlands