Awareness of gender violence shouldn't follow the calendar
By Kristi Rendahl
Kristi Rendahl is the organizational development adviser for a project of The Center for Victims of Torture in St. Paul.
Let me be clear from the outset: This message is not just for women. If ever there were something that women should hear, it would be this. But they're not the only intended audience.
As we speak, a campaign called the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence is taking place across the globe. The campaign begins each year on Nov. 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and ends on December 10, United Nations Human Rights Day.
That paragraph contains a lot of words to say what we know or should know already: Women are human beings like anyone else, and deserve to be treated with dignity like anyone else.
It's too much for the mind to comprehend, really. We are inundated with images of violence day in, day out, and now the world wants us to focus on violence against women in particular, and for 16 straight days? That's 4 percent of our year!
I write this while in Bosnia and Herzegovina for my work with the Center for Victims of Torture. Sexual violence toward women was commonplace during the Balkan War from 1992 to 1995. Tens of thousands of women were held in rape camps, where they were subjected to systematic and repeated rape, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy and other crimes of sexual violence. I say this not to shock the reader, but because it's true.
It's also true that most of the attackers have gone unpunished to this day.
Ask the father, brother, son, uncle or husband of a rape survivor what he thinks about violence against women. In some cases, the response may be rage toward the perpetrator. In others, the response is isolation of the victim. In yet others, absolute silence. But in each and every case, men are affected too. What happens to any of us affects all of us.
When I talk with people about war and torture trauma in places like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sierra Leone or Sri Lanka, their faces start to look fatigued. I can hardly blame them, since I wear the same expression at times myself. In a world of genocides and torture, a person can't help but feel a little overwhelmed. It's uncomfortable and unsettling.
But what I'd rather see is someone who feels empowered to make a difference in the world. I don't mean that in a cliche "donate to my organization" kind of way. I don't mean that you need to commit yourself to a 9-to-5 job addressing the issue. I mean that people really can make a difference in their daily lives.
Have you ever wondered how it is that these things can happen in the first place? Our minds don't often wander to the middle ground between rigid order and utter chaos. There is some ground past the middle of that spectrum, I believe, that is a slippery slope where abuses are inadvertently nurtured because they are ignored or too easily dismissed. We're simply unable to accept the notion that such an awful part of human nature could rear its head in our backyard.
Far be it from me to create a new day of recognition or month of observance, but I do envision a time when we spend not 16 days of the year as activists against gender violence, but 365. Living activism, I would call it. And to get there, we must all love our sisters — our mothers, daughters, nieces, granddaughters and girlfriends — as well as our brothers with complete and utter abandon. And we must reject violence in any form, whenever we see it, whoever the victim. Only then will we see the world we all know is possible.