If it were between countries, we’d call it a war. If it were a disease, we’d call it an epidemic. If it were an oil spill, we’d call it a disaster. But it is happening to women, and it’s just an everyday affair. It is violence against women. It is rape at home and on dates. It is the beating or the blow that one out of four Canadian women receives in her lifetime. It is sexual harassment at work and sexual abuse of the young. It is murder.
When I wrote these words 20 years ago this week, I didn’t think they would launch a world-wide campaign. After all, at the time it seemed unusual, if not totally bizarre, to imagine that men not only should but could play a key role in ending men’s violence against women.
The White Ribbon Campaign, though, has spread from Canada to more than 60 countries. Millions and millions of men and boys, from Brazil to Pakistan, China to England, Namibia to Russia, Cambodia to the United States, Chile to Japan, Norway to Argentina have worn a white ribbon, put up a poster, signed White Ribbon pledges, taken part in White Ribbon ceremonies, marches, services, and meetings.
There’s no secret enemy pulling the trigger. No unseen virus that leads to death. It is just men. Men from all social backgrounds and of all colours and ages. Men in business suits and men in blue collars. Men who plant the fields and men who sell furniture. Not weirdos. Just regular guys.
Three of us, Jack Layton, Ron Sluser and I, came up with the idea for this campaign but we were quickly joined by several dozen other men in a handful of Canadian cities on time for our late November launch in 1991. Within days it spread across Canada and, within years, around the world.
Men have been defined as part of the problem. But the White Ribbon Campaign believes that men can also be part of the solution. Confronting men’s violence requires nothing less than a commitment to full equality for women and a redefinition of what it means to be men, to discover a meaning to manhood that doesn’t require blood to be spilled.
In some countries the campaign has been a modest local or national effort. In others, such as the amazing efforts in Australia and New Zealand, it is so visible that governments and the media in those countries refer to November 25 (the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women) as White Ribbon Day.
It keeps growing. For example, this year on November 25 in Turkey, the multi-year effort of Hurriyet (one of the country’s largest newspapers), the UNFPA, and men working in the police, military, with religious authorities, and elsewhere is culminating with the launch of a new campaign. The first signatory among prominent men is Prime Minister Erdoğan.
Why The WRC Spread Around the World
White Ribbon has spread first of all because of the tremendous impact of the women’s movement around the world. It has spread because most men don’t use violence in our relationships and are finally ending our long silence.
It has spread because from the start, we decided the WRC should be a campaign like no other: A politically non-partisan effort that unites men across the political, religious, and social spectra. An effort that is totally decentralized because we knew that women and men know best how to reach the men and boys in our own communities, workplaces, schools, places of worship, and nations. A campaign that aimed to be totally mainstream and, by working alongside women, to shift the everyday ideas shared by men.
To mark the 20th anniversary of the White Ribbon Campaign, I’ve written a short article about its basic ideas, what was unique about our approach, and how it rewrote the book on how to engage men and boys for change. It also includes the founding Statement of Principles from which I’ve pulled these extracts in this blog. (Please click here if you’d like to read or download it.)
Taking the Pledge
The most important thing, of course, is not the 20th anniversary of the campaign. It is the fact that courageous women around the world continue to speak out and challenge age-old traditions and the power structures that have preserved them. It is the fact these women are finally being joined by men and, together, are making a real difference. We can celebrate that many countries have better laws and, in some cases, are actually implementing those laws. We can celebrate that, in some countries, rates of violence against women, are starting to go down.
But millions of women are physically and sexually abused each day, women are murdered by boyfriends and husbands each week, women and girls are trafficked into prostitution, women are sexually harassed in workplaces and on the street, and too many of our sisters and mothers, daughters, wives, and friends are still living in fear.
Because of that, it is more critical than ever, that all men pledge, that all men promise, that all men swear not to commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women.
It has been the longest war, the greatest epidemic, the biggest disaster. With strength and love, we commit ourselves to work alongside women to bring this violence to an end.