On December 6, 1989, Canada changed forever. Until that day, thousands of women in our country suffered violence with little recourse. A woman beaten was a woman ignored. A woman raped was a woman who asked for it. A woman harassed at work was a woman who couldn’t take a joke.
The violence was treated as a family matter, a personal affair. A visit by the police brought a warning to settle down. Judges put rape victims on trial. Newspapers reported only the most spectacular of crimes against women.
In the face of all this, hundreds of women worked, often in obscurity, often in the face of ridicule and hostility. They provided shelter for women escaping abusive relationships and counsel for those who had been assaulted. They fought for legal reform. They tried to educate even when most of the pupils refused to listen.
Until December 6, 1989.
The murder of fourteen women engineering students – no, let me say it this way, fourteen of our sisters, fourteen of our daughters – simultaneously ended fourteen lives and began a national discussion, a searching of our souls.
Through our souls, other voices spoke. The voices of women who had been ignored, belittled, or silenced forever. The voices of women who had been told to lighten up or put up with it. The voices of women who had said “no” but had been told it meant “yes.” The voices of girls and boys who endured watching the abuse of mothers whose pain was their pain. The voices of women who for too long had lived their days in fear and their nights in terror.
We started hearing voices from farther away: Women trafficked into prostitution. Girls whose genitals had been sliced off in the name of culture. Women raped as a weapon of war.
But many of these same voices carried with them an undertone, for they were women who had defied this abuse. They were women who refused to cower, who refused to be shamed, who said they mattered, who said they deserved, who said they belonged, who said they would survive.
Years of patient, sometimes angry work by women began to bear fruit. Laws changed – now “no” legally meant “no” and it took an explicit “yes” to mean “yes.” Police were trained to intervene and arrest. New shelters were built, although seldom without a struggle. Sexual harassment was named and companies and governments passed new rules. Government statisticians surveyed and discovered the violence was even greater than most could imagine.
The pupils began to listen. Our attitudes began to change and more Canadians, both women and men, now knew that men’s violence against women was neither a private matter, nor something that affected only a few.
In all this, where were the men? True, a few of us had spoken out before and more of us could feel our attitudes changing. But it wasn’t for another two years, in the fall of 1991, that Canada – and the world – saw its first organized, large-scale, response by men.
Three of us, challenged by the women in our lives, sat down and decided that for too long women had stood alone. We knew that the majority of men in Canada did not beat their wives or sexually assault their girlfriends. But we knew we had been silent about this violence and through our silence we had allowed the violence to continue.
Along with men in several cities, we started the White Ribbon Campaign.
The campaign grew across Canada, sprouting in soil tilled by the patient, sometimes angry work of women, fertilized by the national soul-searching began on December 6, 1989 – twenty years ago.
The campaign received not a penny of government funding. For most of our first decade, the White Ribbon Campaign (WRC) had no paid staff or, at times, one or two. We were getting a small taste of the challenges women organizers had faced for years.
And yet, the WRC not only survived, but it captured the imagination of men and women around the world.
This little Canadian effort has now spread to more than sixty countries. When Nelson Mandela led thousands in a march to end violence against women, he wore a white ribbon. Volunteers in Cambodia and Nicaragua sport White Ribbon T-shirts when they speak to villagers at markets. When European parliamentarians commemorate the International Day for the Eradication of Violence Against Women, they wear white ribbons as does the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Professional soccer players in Italy wear the ribbon as do men in Pakistan, the United Kingdom, and Brazil. Students in the US and, of course, across Canada, take part in white ribbon activities in their schools and on their campuses.
It is but one of the accomplishments, coming out of tragedy and soul-searching, that all Canadians can be proud of.
In spite of many gains, twenty years later, now in December 2009, women continue to struggle for government funding for shelters and crisis centers. Where we were once at the forefront of legal reform, we find ourselves falling behind Sweden and Spain. Missing and murdered First Nations women are still ignored by police. Companies and governments have good harassment policies, but rarely train workers and managers to make sure the human rights of women at work are respected.
We seem to have slipped into a bit of complaisance that this problem is old news. But it is not old news for the student who was sexually assaulted last night. Nor to the child who can’t concentrate at school today because he cried himself to sleep listening to his father screaming at his mother. Or the woman hiding her bruises from her workmates. Or the woman who, at this very minute, is living in fear that tonight will be the night that he finally kills her.
Despite all the challenges that remain, to ignore the dramatic progress of the past twenty years would do a terrible disservice to the fourteen women whose deaths sparked these changes. It would belittle the thousands of women who worked, patiently and sometimes angrily, for change. It would again silence the millions of Canadian women who have experienced violence at the hands of a man and the many more who resoundingly say no to this violence. And it would forget that millions of men and boys in Canada, and tens of millions more abroad, looked into their hearts, questioned their attitudes and behavior, and spoke to their fathers and sons, their brothers and friends.
On December 6, 1989, Canada changed forever and, in some way, so did the world.
Michael Kaufman is the co-founder of the White Ribbon Campaign and works with the United Nations, governments, women’s groups and other non-governmental organizations to promote gender equality and end violence against women. www.michaelkaufman.com
This article appears in the Calgary Herald on December 5, 2009 and the electronic edition of the Toronto Star on December 6, 2009.
© Michael Kaufman, 2009