A challenge to men
Stabroek News
November 29, 2003

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Violence against women is perhaps the most shameful human rights violation. And it is perhaps the most pervasive. It knows no boundaries of geography, culture, or wealth. As long as it continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development, and peace. - UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan

In Guyana, 'International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women' was commemorated on Tuesday, November 25 with little fanfare. A press release issued by the Women's Affairs Bureau said that a "walk" was planned for 3:00 pm that day and it would culminate with a rally at which Minister of Labour, Human Services and Social Security would give the feature address. The timing of this activity would have excluded many women who would have liked to be part of the observance, but who at 3:00 pm on a Tuesday would have been at work or picking up their children from school. An opportunity to reach women on a subject that is of vital importance to them was missed.

However, Minister in that same ministry, Bibi Shadick, has done the next best thing. In her statement for the day, which was released to the media, she issued a challenge to men to approach gender violence as a men's issue, since it cuts across socio-economic, racial and ethnic divisions and involves men of all ages. The minister cited statistics which revealed that for this year up to November 15, 15 men had brutally murdered their wives or partners; and up to the end of October, 354 women had approached Help and Shelter, a non-governmental organisation, directly for advice on matters relating to domestic violence and rape. While it must be noted that men and children also suffer as a result of domestic abuse, women are the major sufferers. And in most cases, children's suffering is in direct relation to their mothers'.

Men are the main perpetrators of violence against women, which according to the UN General Assembly's Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, includes, but is not limited to, physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family or general community, including battery, sexual abuse of female children in the household, marital rape, non-spousal violence and violence related to exploitation; sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere; forced prostitution; and physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated or condoned by the state.

Policy makers around the world have taken on board the fact that unless gender violence is seriously addressed, there would be little progress in any other area. To this end, the World Bank hosted a workshop from the 19th to the 20th of this month, to examine gender equality and the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). The workshop was jointly sponsored by the UN Interagency Network of Women and Gender Equality, the OECD/DAC Network on Gender Equality, and the Multilateral Development Bank Working Group on Gender. It sought to identify activities, processes and tools that could be used generally to address gender issues, promote and encourage greater accountability for gender equality in MDG implementation strategies.

The workshop report is to be widely circulated in the hope that it would be used. However, it is widely known that reports, even those that contain the most damning evidence, do not engender change. Attitude adjustment and behaviour modification are necessary, but these only come about if and when there is a realization that the status quo is flawed. In her challenge to men, Minister Shadick urges them to have the courage to look inward, and question their own attitudes: "Please do not be defensive or try to rationalise when something you do or say ends up hurting someone else, especially those closest to you. I implore you to try hard to understand how your own attitudes and actions might inadvertently perpetuate sexism and violence, then please work toward changing them."

There may be many men who are striving for elimination of violence against women today, but they are not visible. Guyana's most vocal male advocate is Vidyaratha Kissoon of Help and Shelter, who sometimes seems like a voice crying in the wilderness. One hopes that as he continues to campaign, other men will join him. And perhaps the minister's challenge and Kissoon's work will move more men, as well as traditional male-dominated clubs like Lions and Rotary to undertake such projects.