I was 18 years old and walking home from an evening shift at the ice cream parlour where I worked for the summer months. As I walked down a poorly lit street, a young male jogger appeared. I didn’t pay much attention, until he stopped directly in front of me, dropped his pants, exposed himself and began to masturbate.
I was absolutely terrified. I expected that I was about to be raped, and I froze, unable to move. Eventually, I managed to pass the man and continue on. I forced myself not to run or to look back, thinking that any sign of fear on my part would invite him to do something more harmful. Somehow I got myself home safely.
Although not nearly as serious as much of the violence that women are subjected to around the world, the event traumatized me. For weeks I had nightmares, and for years I felt profound anxiety if I met a man on the sidewalk in the dark. With time, I found healing, though without telling many people or seeking any professional help.
I had not thought about this experience for a long time, until I took up the latest issue of Intersections, MCC’s quarterly on theory and practice, as well as Sally Armstrong’s recent book, Ascent of Women. Both writings reminded me of the “global phenomenon of gender-based violence” and how it allows perpetrators to exert power and dominance.
In Canada, half of all women have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual assault. Across the country, 83 percent of police-reported domestic assaults are against women. Four out of five people murdered by their spouse are women murdered by men. Women with a disability and Indigenous women are at a much higher risk of violence than able-bodied and white women.
In war zones, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, rape is used as a weapon, demoralizing and disrupting entire communities. In some traditional contexts, honour killings of women and girls who bring disfavour on their families are still common. And in places where religious fundamentalists (not only Islamic) are active, women and girls face serious threats for seeking education and opportunity, and even moving about.
But the news is not all bad. Both Sally Armstrong and the various writers in Intersections describe important ways in which women, and their male allies, are rising up, asserting their power, resisting violence, and bringing about nonviolent change. In Canada, for example, Indigenous women are calling for a national inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women. In eastern Congo, courageous people staff a legal clinic providing human rights and legal advocacy for thousands of rape victims. In a landmark case in Kenya a group of 160 girls successfully sued their government for failing to protect them from sexual assault. In Bangladesh, women enslaved by the sex trade are finding alternate employment and self-respect.
And then there is the the amazing and irrepressible Pakistani teenager, Malala Yousefskai, who has become a symbol for the yearning – no, the demand – of girls and young women in her country to go to school. She is only the most visible of many others.
My own experience so many years ago pales in comparison to the violence and abuse suffered by women around the world, but it has given me deep and enduring empathy – as well as righteous outrage – for the many who continue to be victimized in horrific ways. As I learn about the courage and resistance of women, banding together with supportive men, to build cultures of peace, dignity and respect for all, I am filled with profound and grateful hope.
Esther Epp-Tiessen is public engagement coordinator for MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office.