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Violence against women: a social disease with an identifiable cause

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REUTERS/John Gress
While Ariel Castro kidnapped three girls, enslaved, raped and assaulted them for 10 years in Cleveland, he is not the “aberrant” monster we would like to believe.

As the news from Cleveland, Ohio, and the sexual assaults in the military continue to horrify us, I have the nagging sense that we are profoundly and dangerously naïve to be shocked at the brutality that went on in the Seymour Avenue home in Cleveland and on our nation’s military bases. 

Cheryl Thomas
Cheryl Thomas

While Ariel Castro kidnapped three girls, enslaved, raped and assaulted them for 10 years in Cleveland, he is not the “aberrant” monster we would like to believe. Thinking he’s uncommon may bring a measure of comfort because his acts would then be considered rare and those victimized few in numbers.

No one should be comforted, however. Castro is not an anomaly. Nor are the members of the military who prey upon their female colleagues. Rather, they are part of a greater whole, a continuum of tragic acts of violence against women happening every day in every corner of the United States and in every part of the world.

This continuum will only end when we name it and recognize and accept its cause: Too many men still cling to a need to control women, and they violate and abuse women and girls — their bodies and their lives — to accomplish the control.

Local, national, worldwide

Hardly a day passes without headlines of another woman or girl murdered or kidnapped by her husband or boyfriend, forced into sex trafficking, or sexually assaulted. In Minnesota, 13 women have been slaughtered in acts of domestic violence so far this year. Think of the tragedies of Danielle Jelinek and Kira Trevino, whose bodies, missing for weeks, were recently found. Another woman, Mandy Matula, has not yet been located. Then there’s 16-year-old Anna Hurd, stabbed to death in March by her boyfriend in a Maplewood park, and the three little Schaffhausen girls whose throats were slit by their father in their Hudson, Wis., home, a place where they should have been safest.

As horrendous headlines fill the local news, we hear of a student in India gang raped and murdered with a pipe forced into her body; two little girls raped in New Delhi and Punjab; a girl shot in the head in Pakistan because she wants to go to school; women in Egypt raped and sexually harassed because they joined in demonstrations for democracy; and women in Saudi Arabia fighting for the legal right to defend themselves from assaults by their husbands.

Within the past month, there was a sex trafficking ring busted in St. Paul and a man in New York accused of enslaving women and girls and running a sex trafficking ring out of his West Harlem apartment.

The stories are endless, an epidemic. We profess our horror, but are seemingly complacent to read the gory facts day after day. We appear unwilling to diagnose and cure the disease.

Focus on attitudes, behavior

Until we accept that many men remain intractable in their goal to dominate women through violence, these types of headlines will continue to confront us. We must focus on these attitudes and behavior. We must be strong in creating accountability for violent acts through laws and their implementation. We must be willing to reject the social messages and institutions that support views about women that lead to this violence.

We must also reject public actions that diminish women and trivialize violence, such as the NRA’s recent use of a large-breasted female mannequin, called “The Ex,” which  "bleeds" when shot for target practice, at its recent convention.

The Advocates for Human Rights, a nonprofit organization based in the Twin Cities, has worked with governments and organizations throughout the United States and around the globe to put a stop to violence against women. We have made progress in changing norms that directly and indirectly endorse the subjugation of women. 

While it may be easy to forget, given the news we hear every day, Minnesota leads the United States and the world with decades of efforts to end violence against women and girls. Minnesota has some of the strongest laws anywhere. And it is true, as Chuck Derry of the Gender Violence Institute in Clearwater, Minn., who works with men to address attitudes that lead to violence, states: “It is a minority of men who are doing the abuse.” 

Derry goes on to say that abusers rely on the majority of men to either remain silent in the face of these atrocities or to participate routinely in the social environments that support male domination and violence against women and children. Men are often supporting male domination and violence, whether they are being directly abusive or not.

We must go beyone surprise and shock

But here and everywhere, our reaction and response to grisly acts against women and girls must go beyond surprise and shock, beyond shaking our heads. There is much we can — and must — do. While essential, it is not enough to support victims' shelters and services and encourage the abused to seek help. We must increase focus on the men who are the perpetrators and the social context in which they act.

It is time to name the cause of this brutality and go about the hard work of fixing it. As Derry says, “This is not an individual problem ... this is a community problem.”

Cheryl Thomas is the director of the Women’s Human Rights Program, The Advocates for Human Rights, a nonprofit organization based in the Twin Cities and marking its 30th anniversary this year.

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If you're interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.)

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Comments (2)

Women too

It isn't just men that abuse women and it's not just men who are complacent in the knowledge that women are abused. Of course, and very importantly, it's not just women who are abused and killed in domestic violence situations. Women are also guilty of perpetuating (and probably perpetuating) our culture of abuse and violence. I grew up in an area where domestic violence was/is widespread and widely known. But no one talks about that in any meaningful way except to whisper about how you know that so-and-so is in an abusive relationship. Those who have the will move away. Those who don't often find themselves a punching bag.

Yeah, it's more often women. But I've seen the results of domestic abuse against males. Sometimes it's physical abuse, but often it's mental and emotional abuse. Sometimes it's a mutually abusive relationship, where both people get drunk (or high or whatever) and wail on each other.

The worst part is that these relationships are condoned in a legal sense. The Hennepin County courts appear to be notorious for granting parental rights to men who are proven to be abusive. This results in ongoing abuse on a different level despite the separation of parents. And it's not just male judges ordering the ongoing abuse of women (and children!) by abusive ex husbands. Women judges are guilty, as well. Not that Hennepin County is all that much of an outlier. Of course, such decisions are intended to be "for the children." But, rather, they simply support an unequal balance of power, and continue to allow children to live in conditions where violence and disrespect can continue to be learned.

In the end, this piece appears to focus on abusive men and punishing such men for their behavior. However, there's much more to the story. It's not just men, and it's not that they simply decide to treat women badly, but everything from learned behavior (from both men and women) to genetics. It really isn't simple at all. To say "We must increase focus on the men who are the perpetrators and the social context in which they act" is to be blind to a whole 'nother facet. Though you state that "this is a community problem" you placed the blame squarely, and entirely, on men. If this is your solution, we are failing before we even begin.

It is important that we not

It is important that we not shut down the discussion of how to solve the problem of violence against women and girls by shrugging our shoulders and saying women use violence too. This problem is too grave for women, girls, their families and their communities to continue to do this. Women do use violence. But the epidemic of violence against women I write about is unique in its alarming pervasiveness, its causes and its devastating consequences. There is no comparison in the statistics - women are far more often the victims. There is also little to compare regarding causes - this violence is a tool to control and subjugate women and girls. For example, unlike girls in Pakistan, boys are not shot because they are boys who want to go to school. And regarding the consequences, I am witness every day in my work to women and girls who have acid thrown in their faces, are killed because they ostensibly violated the family `honor', are sexually assaulted in our own US military, are enslaved and sexually tortured and raped all over the world. We must be willing to examine and address the causes of this unique form of violence --that which is gender based.