November 25 is the United Nation’s International Day for Elimination of Violence against Women.
Special days and weeks can help us to realise the importance of things we take for granted. World Oceans Day is a good example. Other special days, however draw attention to needs apparently so obvious we wonder if the day is really necessary. Imagine, for example, a Day for Breathing.
At first sight, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women might seem to fall into this category. Who could ever doubt that violence against women should be eliminated?
The day is sadly necessary, however, because violence against women is so frequent and destructive. Some such violence – far too much – takes the form of random assaults in which women suffer sexual and physical abuse at the hands of people whom they have never met. But most violence against women consists of actions by men against women with whom they have some relationship.
This suggests that violence against women is also a men’s problem. Men are responsible for most of the problems with violence that women face. If society is to address it, it must first of all ensure that domestic violence against women is effectively prevented, and that when it does happen women receive support when they leave violent partners.
They have often been financially dependent on men who treat them violently, and the effects of violence on their self-confidence and self-worth may make the prospect of leaving abusive relationships seem insuperable.
Strong laws and agencies to support women are essential to address the effects of the violence that they suffer. At the same time, however, we must address its cause, asking what makes men violent towards women and what might help men build relationships based in love and not in coercive power.
Men who have acted violently against wives and partners need sustained help if they are to change. They need to reflect on the ways in which anger and frustration find expression in violence and to develop better ways of dealing with their anger.
This reflection may be difficult because it touches the way they see their manhood. If they have identified their masculinity with power and physical domination, the impulse to lash out in the face of frustration can be deeply rooted.
They may also need to reflect on how they see themselves in their relationship to women. To form mature and equal adult relationships demands a degree of self-knowledge and a high respect for the other person as an equal human being with their own longings and convictions and their own personal centre that can never be completely known and shared with any other person. It demands a high respect for difference as well as for what is shared.
To form mature relationships is a long and testing process for young people who are still forming their own personal identity. They need the support of adults who model good relationships in their own lives. These may be lacking to young people who from early childhood have seen and suffered violence in their homes. Families and children both need sustained support.
Some aspects of youth culture, too, promote violence. Many young men form their ideas of relationships with women from violent pornography which represent men impressing women by treating them brutally and contemptuously. In this world, tenderness, kindness and respect for difference are seen as weakness.
The path to eliminating violence against women will be a long one with many turnings.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.