We have just acknowledged Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October and in November we have Elimination of Violence Against Women Day. These events, along with awareness and prevention activities, always bring up questions for me. As Director of Counseling at the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center at U.Va., I have heard too many women speak about their experiences of violence. In fact we often have a waiting list for services as we cannot accommodate all of the requests from students and staff who want help with this issue.
The first question that always comes to mind: How can this behavior be prevented, the physical, emotional and verbal violence that is happening in our culture, mostly to women? This violence impacts everyone, even those who are not victims, because it shatters assumptions about living in a safe world and being able to trust each other. It can cause reactions such as blaming the victims, parents, or media because it is hard to understand what causes this. It can cause reactions of denial in efforts to pretend it does not happen. One of the experiences I have had numerous times when I give talks on Grounds is someone asks; Why do we need a Women’s Center at UVA? Depending on the audience, I give several different answers but the fact that I continue to get this question speaks to the issue of not wanting to recognize what is happening in our culture to women. When we come out of denial, our reactions may be anger and fear and a range of emotions that are hard to accept. It is easy to feel overwhelmed or discouraged and believe nothing can be done.
So to prevent relationship violence, what needs to happen? At the heart of the answer for me is the issue of values and how these are taught to each generation. When a child is raised in a community where there is violence this impacts the development of values. Research on children tells us time and again that they behave based on what they have seen and experienced more than on what they have been told. A child, who sees a parent looking at pornography or hears neighbors yelling obscenities at each other, is impacted. Children who are abused often continue this pattern in their relationships as they age – either as a victim or a perpetrator.
It can be painful to look at our own behaviors and to take responsibility for what we have modeled. I want to be clear that this is not about blaming. This is about responsibility for creating a community of non-violence and for all adults to take seriously the role of modeling and communication in all of our roles, not just as parents. It requires an assessment of personal values and how those are evidenced in day to day interactions with everyone. One place to start is to consider what would be different if we had a community that supported non-violence, respect and acceptance.
One answer is that everyone would feel safe to be wherever they wanted to be at any time of day or night. This might invoke laughter as a response but it is one of the values that has fueled activities such as Take Back The Night. We can accept a value system that says it is okay for communities to be unsafe and we all need to be afraid and cautious, or we can challenge that value system. This also challenges all the messages that go out to women on how to watch for danger signs and not to travel alone, etc. Where are the messages to the perpetrators saying their violent behavior will not be tolerated?
When there is any type of violence it is taken seriously and dealt with in a way that communicates that this is not acceptable. And this is not about the criminal justice system responding. This would be a social justice response that says these are not the norms we accept. This would mean looking at other issues such as economics where violence to women and girls is connected to income such as trafficking and prostitution.
And then there is the question related to our own personal behavior. If I want to create a culture of non-violence how do I need to change? Showing compassion to others, even when I disagree with what they are doing, is a challenge but it is something worth working on if it helps to decrease the anger and fear that fuels violent reactions in others.
Everyone has a choice in how we respond to gender violence. We are all impacted by gender violence and even though there is the option to do nothing, hopefully more of us will start acting in ways that create an environment where violence is not tolerated. I invite you to think of ways to acknowledge Elimination of Violence Against Women Day as a step towards changing our culture.