Taking Action to Eliminate Violence Against Women
December 6, 1989. A date that has unfortunately gone down in history. Our history. Including mine. Hard to believe that 25 years ago, I was a law student at the University of Ottawa, and it was the day before an exam in public international law (obviously, I don’t remember the date or subject of any of my other exams). It wasn’t until I listened to the news on Radio-Canada the next morning that I learned of the horror. I must tell you that for the previous four years, I had been a student at the Université de Montréal and, more importantly, I was living in residence there. I had dinner very regularly at the École polytechnique cafeteria, because the food there was surprisingly good, varied and, above all, inexpensive. Over those years, I also got to know some of the Polytechnique’s regular students pretty well. Hearing that such a massacre had occurred was beyond comprehension. But hearing that it was in Montréal, in a location that I knew so well, I was absolutely stunned. But that was nothing compared with the shock of finding out that no matter what the murderer was called, he spinelessly killed a number of women, young women studying in a field heavily dominated by men.
Needless to say, the halls outside the exam room were filled with a combination of tears and angry words. We wondered if we should ask for the exam to postponed, because no one was able to concentrate. The only thing that seemed important was to console our female colleagues and reassure them as best we could.
Many things changed following that shattering event. First, the incident cruelly made it clear that the much sought-after equality of the sexes had not been achieved. Because that person had targeted women. Just women. He made victims of a whole society. But the fact remains that he deliberately and knowingly targeted women. For a young man who grew up believing, wrongly, that the quest for equality between men and women was more or less on the right track, well, let’s just say it was not so much a cold shower as an icy one. I think it was then that I realized I had an obligation not only to be more sympathetic to the more than legitimate aspirations of more than half the world’s population but also to ensure that my actions were consistent with the fact that I had become a feminist. In fact, I still find it hard to believe that people refuse to consider themselves feminists, especially in 2014, here in Canada.
Some years ago, I met the mother of a girl who is now our daughter’s best friend at school. The woman is a civil engineer by profession. Considering her age, late thirties, I cannot help thinking that she must be a member of the cohorts of young women who went into engineering in the years following the tragedy. And it feels good to think that.
Quite recently, I had the privilege of giving the opening address at the “États Généraux 2014*”, organized by Action ontarienne contre la violence faite aux femmes* (AOcVF), on the theme of the current status of sexual assault, spousal violence and the development of French-language services in Ontario. The goals of the conference were to foster coordination, prepare the next generation, inform the ministries of the sector’s needs and the Franco-Ontarian community’s recommendations, and establish a work plan for the next few years. We should acknowledge that their timing, even though the event requires extraordinary preparations, is outstanding, as the event coincided with the national discussion that recently resumed in a hurry (with a capital H).
It is often said that the best legal arguments are the ones you make afterwards, and the same is true for some speeches: after you sit down and listen to others, you feel as if you’ve missed a great opportunity. I think that my speech focused too much on my day-to-day work and failed to emphasize the special opportunity for participants, mostly women but also a few men, to make concrete, practical suggestions on the directions that governments and community organizations should take over the next 10 years to further curb the afflictions of sexual assault and violence against women.
Because these evils still exist and are definitely with us. The organizers commissioned researchers Marie-Luce Garceau and Ghislaine Sirois to produce a report entitled “Éliminer la violence faite aux femmes en Ontario français : une tâche ardue*” [eliminating violence against women in French Ontario: an arduous task]. This first part of this superb study, for anyone who is the least bit interested in the subject, contains a review of the 2004 estates general. The second part of the study provides a comprehensive picture of the areas of intervention and the improvement and evolution of French-language services in every region and describes the means introduced to improve the quality of those services. The third part provides a clear explanation, supported by statistics, of sexual assault and its barriers, the entire question of spousal violence and its barriers, and a range of common issues. The study ends with recommendations for further discussion and some possible solutions.
We are now in the midst of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, which runs from November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, to December 10, International Human Rights Day. To quote Julie Béchard, president of AOcVF, “We have to think about the actions that we can take individually and collectively to eliminate violence against women.”
Today I am the father of a young girl. Naturally, like every parent in the world, I want her to be happy and healthy and, especially, to be free in her choices. All of her choices. To be able to choose how she in turn will make a difference for the people she loves, for her community, for her region and for her country. But to be free to make her choices in complete safety, she must be on an equal footing with the male gender within our society.
I understand today that I have to do much more than just say I’m a feminist. Words have to be followed by actions, every day and collectively, as Ms. Béchard pointed out. I have to be an engaged feminist, as a man, as a father and as an individual living in society.
I would like to congratulate all those women who work day after day, often with very few resources, yet find a way to help the many women who are victims of spousal violence and sexual assault. Thank you for making such a crucial difference in the lives of all those women and their children. On another note, I know – or at least I hope – that all fathers of young girls think as I do now. So I would also like to encourage all fathers of young boys to ask themselves how they can make sure that their children are sufficiently aware of the importance that must be attached to the issues associated with gender equality. Perhaps someday, together, we will succeed in curbing all that spousal violence and sexual assault.
*Website in French only