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Working to end violence against women: White Ribbon director asks “Where are the men?”

As executive director of the White Ribbon Campaign – an organization of men dedicated to ending violence against women and girls – Todd Minerson usually keeps a low profile on the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. It’s the anniversary of the appalling events now known as the Montreal Massacre: on December 6, 1989, a gunman entered École Polytechnique in Montreal, separated the women from the men, and then shot and killed 14 women, claiming that feminists had ruined his life.

“It’s not a day when men need to be in the spotlight,” Minerson said. “There are 364 other days when we need to step up our efforts and be more visible on this issue.”

But this year, Minerson accepted an invitation to speak at Women’s College Hospital’s annual December 6 commemorative ceremony. He gave the keynote address following a candlelight memorial for the 14 women who died at École Polytechnique, and all of the women lost to violence in 2013.

“It was really a tremendous honour to be invited to speak and it was a humbling sign that I think our work as White Ribbon – and our work on trying to engage men and boys in preventing violence against women and girls – really resonates, and that there’s a place for us in this conversation now and a need for us to be here,” he said.

Since White Ribbon was founded 23 years ago, it has encouraged men to make an individual commitment by taking a pledge.

“It’s a pledge to never commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women and girls,” Minerson said. “The first one is kind of easy. The second one a little harder. And the third one is where we find most men have a lot of challenges: remaining silent on this particular issue.”

In his talk about working to end violence against women, the question that Minerson discussed was, where are the men?

He acknowledged that it’s a complicated question, but it’s one that White Ribbon works to explore.

“Where exactly in the world are the men on this issue?” he asked. “Where is the outrage from men when we talk about statistics, like one in three women is going to be experiencing physical or sexual violence in her lifetime? Where are men when we’re supposed to be calling out our colleagues who are making sexist remarks, making comments or maybe committing violence? Who are doing things like victim blaming and slut shaming – that not only is terrible and traumatic for women, but also paints us, as men, as being a short skirt or a few too many drinks away from being a rapist.”

Minerson presented survey results about men’s understanding of violence against women, noting that the results contained both good and bad news: while progress has certainly been made, there is still a lot of work to do. One of the most important tasks is teaching boys and young men about “more than just sports and school and hard work.”

By asking grade-school boys about their thoughts on manhood, and what it means to be a man, White Ribbon is examining underlying attitudes about masculinity, and how some of those attitudes may be harmful. Even in grade school, boys described manhood with words like “unemotive,” “dominant” and “tough.”

“This is fascinating for us to think about where some of these root causes are coming from, where some of these pressures that eventually turn adult men to make inappropriate choices like choosing violence in their lives and in their relationships,” Minerson said.

He added that studying these root causes did not provide an excuse for violence, which is always a choice for which people need to be accountable. Working to understand the sources of violence may provide opportunities to prevent it.

“There’s a growing evidence base that tells us what works. We are able to measure now the impact and the effect that we can have in doing prevention work with men and boys,” Minerson said.

He said the equation for success in that prevention work was a simple one.

“We have to work for gender equality and transform these harmful ideas around masculinity. In the first part, let’s make no mistake that violence against women is the tragic traumatic end of the spectrum of gender inequality,” he said, adding that research has linked better attitudes about gender equality with lower likelihood of violence.

“If you know any men who say they want to do something about this, then the first thing they can do is jump on the equality train and work for gender equality,” he said. “If we get further along that path, we’re going to have less violence. It’s inevitable.”

Minerson concluded with six words that he uses to remember December 6: never forget, take action, be hopeful.

“Never forget – which we’re doing here today,” he said. “Take action – which I hope all of you will think about. And be hopeful, because I think all of us can make a difference.”

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  • Women's College Hospital