International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

This post comes a day too late – this really should have been posted Nov 25, which is the official day.

A few years ago I was approached rather aggressively by a volunteer at a hospital, who was pushing a white ribbon on me. “Where’s your ribbon?” he demanded. It was on my other coat, I replied, which was actually true. He then insisted that I take another one, implying that I should be ashamed as a man not to show solidarity with others working to eliminate violence against women.

This incident left a lingering bad memory – I’m still of the opinion that participation in a cause that comes under the threat of shame or humiliation isn’t really valid participation – but a few years later I’ve come to see the relevance of the white ribbon, and I think I also know why I was reluctant to put it on. Violence in general, and specifically against women, is scary and horrifying. It is easier not to think about it, maybe because it occurs too often, and the perpetrators are not so easily identified as someone “other” than us (not only soldiers, criminals, gangsters, but ordinary people). Even one woman affected by violence is too much, though, because violence against women and how we choose to handle it are choices and therefore violence can be prevented and changed. As physicians, we all know someone who has been affected, and the mental and emotional impact can be profound.

Too often we do not call it what it is; a rape is not called a rape – it is labelled something else, like a “sexual assault”, which is not incorrect but also is much more vague a term. We may talk about criminal harassment as “unwanted attention”, which might be accurate but doesn’t convey the sense that it is also damaging, illegal, and morally wrong. Maybe as men we have pursued someone a bit too much so we are reluctant to see ourselves as potentially being abusers, or we fear causing offense by using a word with shameful connotations – so we use euphemisms.

How can a person be treated for an illness if the illness is never named and identified? It is uncomfortable, certainly, to tell someone they have cancer. But we would never think to leave the diagnosis unnamed, and just give them chemotherapy anyway. I have noticed the temptation in myself, however, to treat depression and PTSD that are consequences of violence and gloss over the cause. Minimizing the violence sends a message, overtly or covertly, that what happened was somehow OK, and I don’t think that’s helpful for the individual or for our society. I could be doing better with this, and the white ribbon is a good reminder.

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