Note: Cross posted from [wp angelfury] A Human Rights Issue-Custodial Justice.


One giant scar on mankind


November 17, 2009

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<i>Illustration</i>: Greg Bakes.

Illustration: Greg Bakes.

Almost 20 years ago, on December 6, 1989, a young man went looking for women at l'Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal. Here, in the middle of this highly civilised Western city, he wanted to find women and kill them. He killed 14 women that day.

The killer's name was Marc Lepine, though he was born Gamil Gharbi, an Algerian French-Canadian whose Algerian father believed women must be subservient to men.

He was 25. By the time he armed himself with a semi-automatic rifle and a hunting knife and went to the local university, he had spent years accumulating grievances against women for deserting and neglecting their traditional roles in society.

Lepine walked into a classroom and, at gunpoint, separated the men from the women. Nine women were in the room. He shot every one of them, declaring he was ''fighting feminism''.

Six of the women died. During the next 20 minutes he roved the corridors targeting more women. He killed or wounded 28 people, mostly women, before turning the gun on himself.

Twenty years ago, we did not have a wider context in which to place this outrage. Now we do.

The oppression of women has made a big comeback. Western feminism, it turns out, has triggered a vigorous counter-reformation. The world is engaged in a clash of civilisations, purportedly about religion, but in reality it is about the rights and freedoms of women. This is the true flashpoint of our age.

''One in every three women in the world will be a victim of domestic violence in their lifetime,'' says Libby Lloyd, chairwoman of the Federal Government's National Council to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children. The world's population is just under 6.8 billion.

Half are women. If a third of these women will experience domestic violence, then more than a billion women and girls will be assaulted in our lifetime. Even in advanced Western societies such as Australia, where the ideals of feminism are basically triumphant, violence against women is the one major category in the crime statistics that keeps going up, not down.

''Compared with crimes such as robbery, there has been a sustained increase in the recorded rates of sexual assault during the 1990s which has continued into the mid-2000s,'' says Dr Anne Cossins of the University of NSW, an expert on sexual crimes against women and girls. ''A major contributor to this increase has been a rise in the recorded rates of sexual assault of young people.''

This coincides with the latest annual report of the NSW Rape Crisis Centre, which records that 6725 phone or online contacts were made to the centre last financial year, a huge jump over the 2927 contacts they received four years ago.

A third of the contacts were about adult sexual assault. More disturbingly, 35 per cent were about childhood sexual assault, which accords with Cossins' analysis.

Some, perhaps much, of the increased numbers can be attributed to a greater likelihood for women and girls to report assaults, rather than simply an increase in crime. But sexual assault remains, by far, the least reported of all violent crimes. The vast majority of incidents never see a courtroom.

''About one in three women in Australia will be a victim of domestic violence and one in five will be a victim of sexual assault,'' says Libby Lloyd. Hence the endless procession of news stories about sexual violence and sexual intimidation and domestic intimidation against women, even in places such as universities, which are supposed to be centres of tolerance and rigorous inquiry but instead can serve as incubators of bigotry and narrowness.

The scandal at the all-male St Paul's College at the University of Sydney, where a group of male students engaged in crude and ugly anti-women posturing, is merely a variation on a theme.

Which brings us back to the Montreal massacre, which, like the murderer Marc Lepine, has been largely forgotten, blotted out by 20 years of turmoil where the rights of half the women of the world are in danger of going backward, not forward.

In Canada, a handful of men were determined that the anti-feminist massacre, and the larger problem of endemic violence against women, would not be forgotten.

Lepine had a mental disorder, but the influence of his father's attitudes towards women showed how important it was for men to be seen to be confronting the ageless problem of violence towards women.

To coincide with the second anniversary of the massacre, men began a campaign of remembrance symbolised by wearing a white ribbon. The campaign was largely driven within progressive activist political circles but the very nature of the problem meant that the cause outgrew its origins. In 1999, 10 years after the Montreal massacre, the United Nations General Assembly declared November 25 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Thanks to the original group in Canada, wearing a white ribbon has become the symbol of the day. More than 300,000 ribbons will be distributed in Australia on Wednesday next week. They will be worn by members of all Australian police forces and the defence forces, and by the 230 ''white ribbon ambassadors'', all of whom are men, because men are the cause of most of the violence.

Most United Nations-designated official days pass without notice, or interest, or relevance.

Next week is different.

Everyone who gets the chance to wear a white ribbon next week will be acknowledging a problem whose scale is as vast as it is hidden.

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