Don’t be surprised if you see men sporting white ribbons on their lapels today.
Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and these men are part of the White Ribbon Campaign (WRC). The white ribbon on their lapel is a symbol of their “personal pledge never to commit, condone, nor remain silent about men’s violence against women.”
Each year, men are encouraged to wear white ribbons during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence that span from November 25 to December 10, International Human Rights Day.
The UN General Assembly has defined violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.”
Acts of violence against women are numerous and include rape, child marriage, incest, pornography, economically coerced sex, partner violence, forced prostitution, and forced suicide of widows.
Unfortunately, violence against women is a widespread problem, and men and boys are the main perpetrators.
According to a World Health Organization report, “at least one in five of the world’s female population has been physically or sexually abused by a man or men at some time in their life. Many, including pregnant women and young girls, are subject to severe, sustained or repeated attacks.”
The WRC was sparked by one such incident of violence against women in Canada, the Montreal Massacre. On December 6, 1989, 14 women were shot and murdered by a fellow student at a Canadian University because they were feminists.
The Montreal Massacre only highlighted a larger problem concerning gender-based violence in Canada where each year many women are murdered, mostly by their domestic partners.
In response, a group of concerned Canadian men came together with the recognition that men and boys, as the main perpetrators of violence against women, needed to take an active role in helping to eradicate it.
They launched the WRC in 1991 and, although it began as a national movement, it is now internationally recognized with chapters in over 25 countries. It is open to all men and boys to join and new chapters are welcome. It is also recognized and promoted by the United Nations Fund for Women (UNIFEM).
The WRC is currently the largest of several new initiatives promoting a greater role for men and boys in the movement to end gender-based violence.
While such initiatives are understood to be a necessary step in initiating change in attitudes and behavior, questions remain as to the way in which they will complement or collaborate effectively with women’s organizations also working on this issue.
Understanding accountability, taking responsibility
The WRC goes beyond merely wearing a white ribbon on one’s lapel.
In addition to helping men and boys recognize that their silence concerning men’s violence against women makes them accountable for such violence, the WRC also encourages them to take responsibility for gender-based violence by working to eliminate the underlying causes of male violence which includes definitions of masculinity and cultural norms and beliefs.
This allows men and boys to move beyond being part of the problem, and allows them to engage in prevention and education programs that make them part of the solution.
Traditionally, programs to end gender-based violence focused solely on empowering and educating women without addressing the role of men and boys, except as perpetrators of violence.
Since its launch in Canada, the campaign has expanded its programs to include education and awareness-raising programs throughout the year that seek to change behavior, attitudes, and generate debate. For example, the WRC Education and Action Kits are distributed to schools throughout the country. These kits were created specifically for students and teachers to introduce them to the complex issue of violence against women.
They also focus on raising funds for prevention programs and services for victims of gender-based violence. The WRC at the Canadian Women’s Foundation was created to fund violence against women programs throughout Canada and the Violence Prevention Fund focuses on programs for children and teens.
The WRC in other countries carry out similar activities and also include advocacy efforts geared towards changing laws and public policies that contribute to violence against women and ending impunity for men. The prosecution and conviction of men who beat or rape women and girls is still rare, despite the high number of assaults.
There are other men’s groups that are working to end violence against women. During the past decade, increasing attention has been placed on the role of men and boys in ending gender-based violence and the number of organizations with similar mandates to the WRC has grown.
During the UN General Assembly Special Session on Women in 2000, the UN Division to Advance Women held a panel on the role of men and boys in ending gender-based violence. Almost 500 people attended, illustrating the interest and need for further discussion of these initiatives.
Men’s collaboration with women’s organisations
For the most part, women’s organizations have welcomed men and boys to take an active role in ending gender-based violence against women. However, while understanding that there is a strong role that men’s initiatives such as the WRC can play in efforts concerning violence against women, there is also a fear that their activities will detract from the work of women’s organizations and programs that target women and girls.
One concern is that such men’s groups may co-opt the issue, further marginalizing and subordinating women who are already the victims. For example, the WRC has received a disproportionate amount of media attention compared to local women’s organization that have greater expertise and experience working on the issue.
More media attention also translates into more funding for programs that target men, rather than women. The competition for resources may leave organizations that seek to empower women or provide services for those who are victims of violence further strained.
Some also question the effectiveness of programs that target men and boys.
In an interview with the Digital Freedom Network, Pinar Ilkkaracan of Women for Women’s Human Rights/New Way stated that from her experience in working to eradicate gender-based violence in Turkey, investment in programs for men were not necessarily a good use of scarce resources and funds. “Programs such as these have not yielded any significant results,” she claimed.
Others fear that men’s movements have the potential to hide a more conservative message. For example, the Promise Keepers is a men’s organization that calls for men to take responsibility for their families and shows concern for gender-based violence.
While seemingly a positive message, the problem lies in the way in which men were told to take “responsibility” by some of the conference speakers. Rather than envisioning a family in which the husband and wife are equal partners, statements were made encouraging men to take control of the family, including their wives who were told to submit to their husbands.
It is exactly this lack of control in the home that makes women vulnerable to the gender-based violence.
For their part, WRC has addressed these fears by providing funding to programs that address women’s needs and have tried to work closely and collaborate with women’s organizations, while remaining a distinctly male organization.
The WRC has received support from women and women’s organization that understand the importance of including men and boys when working on this issue. Women have sometimes been responsible for initiating white ribbon campaigns in their communities, have donated funds to the campaign, and have even worn the white ribbon to show their solidarity with the movement.
It is clear that the role of men and boys will continue to expand efforts to end gender-based violence. A true partnership between women’s and men’s organizations can substantially strengthen the overall movement and take us one step closer to the goal of eliminating violence against women.
Digital Freedom Network, November 25, 2002
Copyright (c) 2002 Digital Freedom Network (http://dfn.org). All rights reserved. This article may be reproduced or redistributed for online not-for-profit use without prior written consent as long as DFN is recognized with this credit. For information about DFN’s permissions policy, see <http://dfn.org/about/permissions.htm>.