Step up, fathers: All men must help stop violence against women

On Father’s Day, celebrate with something more than a cookout — celebrate by taking a stand, says the president of The Heinz Endowments

Father’s Day is defined as “a celebration honoring fathers and celebrating fatherhood, paternal bonds and the influence of fathers in society.” Most of us mark the day by honoring our fathers or our own role as fathers, but for us dads, this is also a good time to think about the role of fathers in our country and our communities.

Like many dads, I strive to be the kind of father that my children deserve, and I worry that I sometimes fall short. But when I think of the influence of fathers in our society today, those worries turn more serious. As fathers, we are not ensuring that our families and communities are safe, and as a group we have been responsible for a great deal of harm. News headlines remain all too vivid: Men are hurting and killing women every day.

Nationally, one in five college-age women are sexually assaulted; one in three women are victims of violence by an intimate partner; one in four girls is sexually abused in childhood. Gender violence (meaning violence against women and girls because of their gender) occurs with such daily regularity that we have become numb to it.

A recent study found that young women often don’t report sexual harassment and assault because they have come to see it as normal, as an expected part of living and working with men. It is especially distressing that rape and domestic violence have been marginalized as “women’s issues.”

This has to change. Men’s behavior toward women is not a women’s issue, it’s a men’s issue. Of those men who abuse women, we fathers should ask ourselves: Who are their role models? Who teaches (or fails to teach) young men what it means to be a man?

As fathers, most of us would do anything to protect our families. It is time that we stood together as allies to protect not only our daughters but all women against gender violence.

This issue is personal to me. Women I love have been threatened and hurt by men. Given the statistics, it is almost certainly personal to you, too, whether or not the women you love have spoken to you about their experiences.

In March I attended a workshop in Pittsburgh — convened by the FISA Foundation’s cheerfully relentless Kristy Trautmann — with Jackson Katz, an internationally known educator whose presentations on men’s role in ending violence against women have been widely viewed online. Mr. Katz challenged the hundreds of men in attendance to take action: “It’s not enough to not be abusive. Men shouldn’t be getting high fives for not hitting or raping women. That’s a pretty low bar …”

He is right. Men must do more to support women leaders who have invested decades in protecting and defending other women from men.

It’s hard to think about ways to end gender violence. We have a tendency to view this issue as so enormous and intractable that we too readily allow it to become shrouded by a culture of drugs, guns, crime, violent media, peer pressure, family dynamics, poverty, racism and the mass of social dysfunctions that we use to explain every act of violence and cruelty, from Internet bullying to murder.

But leadership starts and ends with one simple question: What am I going to do? Or, to put it another way, what behavior am I going to model?

I am encouraged that more men are stepping up and intervening when we hear and see other men using offensive language or acting abusively. We need to talk to our sons (not just our daughters) about wanting them to have mutually respectful relationships.

A growing number of schools and community groups are implementing the Coaching Boys into Men program, talking to their male athletes about respecting women and confronting peers who spread locker-room rumors about women’s sexual choices. Boys are learning to shift rigid ideas of what it means to be a man and to honor the many different ways of showing care, respect and love.

Certainly, none of us alone has the power to alter the complex social dynamics that encourage gender-based violence. But history shows us that transformative social movements invariably begin with individuals deciding to do what they can, banding together to do more and slowly, step by step, spreading the word and cultivating support.

Jackson Katz makes the convincing case that leadership on gender violence starts with each of us refusing to stand idly by when we see it happening and making it clear that we view abuse as unacceptable.

That may sound like a modest way to start a movement. But starting can make all the difference — not only for the women and girls in our lives, but for the men and boys, too. The key to creating a more equitable, safe community for all lies in the hands and in the heart of every dad who has ever loved his children and wanted the best for them that life can bring.

So today, Father’s Day, celebrate with something more than a cookout — celebrate by taking a stand. Let’s ensure that our children will think of and remember us as fathers who stood up for what is right. Let us be the role models they deserve.

Take the Father’s Day pledge against violence at Together, let’s join in saying NO MORE to men’s violence against women and children.

Grant Oliphant is president of The Heinz Endowments.

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