A few weeks ago, I was at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where I was taking part in a panel discussion about what men and boys could do to promote women’s rights in Africa and its diaspora. I felt privileged to be invited along, yet also somewhat nervous: privileged because I had been invited by a group of people whom I deeply respected, but nervous because, as men and boys, we are not doing nearly enough. The discussion was very good, and good-humoured until the last – and the most memorable – question of all. A woman rose to her feet and, perhaps observing that a slight air of self-congratulation seemed to have settled over our all-male panel, she asked us: “Where is your anger?”
She was referring to our apparent lack of fury about violence against women; a phenomenon described by Margaret Chan, the Secretary-General of the World Health Organisation, as “a global health problem of epidemic proportions”. Chan made her remarks upon the launch last June of a United Nations report into this issue, which found that “more than a third of women worldwide are affected by physical or sexual violence, many at the hands of an intimate partner”.
More than a third. This is an overwhelming proportion, and is therefore a statistic that, in my view, cannot be repeated enough. If we are to regard violence against women as a global health problem, then it should be regarded and reported upon with the same urgency as AIDS, malaria or tuberculosis. Nothing less will do.
Because, again: more than a third. The other day, I posted a link on Facebook about a woman who had been physically assaulted by a stranger in the street, and who following this brutal event was now raising many thousands of pounds for a rape crisis centre in Oxford. Over the next few hours, I was horrified to learn just how common an experience this was for my female friends. Other than the grim theme of spurned men responding with force, I noticed something else: that this conversation, along with most others like it over the years, was one that I was conducting almost entirely with women. And there aren’t statistics on this kind of thing, but I think there’s a missing piece in this puzzle, which is that men generally don’t seem to talk to other men about violence against women.
Why is this? Well, maybe because the issue itself is an uncomfortable one. But why is it uncomfortable? I partly suspect this is because it would involve acknowledging that the problem is in our midst: that the abusers may be among our friends, may be within our family. The thought that I may have been close to someone who has used force against a woman is almost too numbing to contemplate.
But such squeamishness is of no use to anyone. Worse than that, it is detrimental. Men who are physically abusive towards women are not magically demarcated from other men. They are among us: proud, jealous, domineering, possessive, they very often are us.
What, then, should we do? Well, on a formal level, it would be great if we could study feminist theory in schools as carefully as we study the civil rights movement. This would remove feminism from the current intellectual ghetto which seems to suggest that it is only a subject that women should think or care about. That might help to lead to a world where casual sexism attracts as much distaste as casual racism.
Simply, and informally, it would also help if more of us were more willing to intervene wherever we see women being verbally harassed by other men as they go about their daily business. This is easier said than done: after all, the kind of man who is brazen enough to call a woman something filthy in the street is often capable of escalating things very swiftly, physically and dangerously against the fellow male who calls him out. Hell hath no fury like a man scorned.
Less dramatically, we as men can also talk more amongst ourselves about these issues: and, therefore, begin to pull up some of the roots of sexual entitlement that have led to violence on this scale. I believe that, with the aid of these discussions, we will one day find a cure for this epidemic.