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International Women's Day

Men are natural allies in the fight against sexism and abuse

Su-Mei Thompson says we need to reframe the issue as a men’s problem – as violence against women and other kinds of abuse harm more than the women – while encouraging all to take a stand

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 March, 2016, 3:29pm
UPDATED : Monday, 07 March, 2016, 3:30pm

This year’s Academy Awards were dogged by the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Several black members of the academy boycotted the event because all 20 acting nominees were white.

Given this, it was a welcome surprise to see US Vice-President Joe Biden introduce Lady Gaga and her theme song from The Hunting Ground, a candid documentary about campus rape in the US. Thanks to social media, millions of viewers across the world continue to watch the second most powerful man in the US lead the audience in a pledge to be active interlocutors – rather than passive bystanders – in cases of sexual assault.

READ MORE: Rape claim shines spotlight on sordid sex contest at elite US boarding school

Closer to home, in January, Lieutenant General David Morrison, the former chief of army for the Australian Defence Force, was named Australian of the Year for his efforts to stamp out sexism in the Australian military. The video of General Morrison speaking to the army after the 2013 scandal when officers used the military’s email system to disseminate pornographic material had gone viral. In it, the visibly angry army chief tells soldiers that anyone who thinks it is OK to behave in a way that demeans others should “get out”. He too, like Biden, chastises passive bystanders: “If you become aware of any individual degrading another, then show moral courage and take a stand.”

As it happens, Dr Jackson Katz, the architect of the bystander intervention approach and a leading anti-sexism educator, was in Hong Kong last week as a guest of The Women’s Foundation. In a series of presentations to corporate leaders, university administrators, NGOs and the Hong Kong police, Katz called for a bold reframing of violence against women. It is, he asserts, a men’s issue, given that 95 per cent of sexual violence cases are perpetrated by men. Putting an end to sexual violence has direct positive effects on boys and men.

We must broaden definitions of masculinity to establish that being a man isn’t about aggressive or violent behaviour towards women and other men

A child who witnesses his mother being beaten is a victim himself. Studies show that children in violent homes are more likely to be either perpetrators or victims of violence as adults.

We must also change the way we engage men in abuse prevention. In the past, prevention strategies included teaching women to cover their drinks in bars and to avoid walking alone at night while men were lectured on the legal consequences of committing gender-based violence, straightjacketing them as potential perpetrators of violence rather than as allies to eliminate it.

READ MORE: US intensifies pressure on UN to take action against peacekeepers who commit sexual abuse in conflict zones

For real change to occur, we need new cultural norms and definitions of manhood. Boys are not born violent or abusive. Violence against women is a learned behaviour that is reinforced by the media, peer pressure and the lack of strong male role models. We must change cultural norms and broaden definitions of masculinity in order to establish that being a man isn’t about aggressive or violent behaviour towards women and other men.

It is critical for men to assume greater responsibility for shifting the conversation about gender equality from the margins to the centre

The symbolism of having powerful male leaders as champions for change and the need to engage all men in bringing that change to pass is something we have always promoted. That’s why this week, we launched a new initiative: the TWF Male Allies – a group of male leaders from over 20 firms who are committed to driving institutional change and taking action to create a more level playing field.

It is critical for men to assume greater responsibility for shifting the conversation about gender equality from the margins to the centre. In General Morrison’s words: “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” This International Women’s Day, it’s time to raise our standards.

Su-Mei Thompson is CEO of The Women’s Foundation and a member of the Equal Opportunities Commission