By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for the Ottawa Office.
This Sunday will mark the 26th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre and the annual National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women.
December 6, 1989 is the day Marc Lepine walked into an engineering class at l’École Polytechnique in Montreal, sent the men out of the room and shot the women. Lepine went on to kill 14 women and injure 14 other people (a few men were caught in the crossfire). Survivors recounted that Lepine said he needed to kill women because they were all feminists and he hated feminists. Lepine was enraged that women were studying engineering!
The anniversary reminds me of a flight I took from Winnipeg to Toronto less than a week after the massacre. I was sitting in the window seat of the aircraft. The seat next to me was empty, and a youngish man sat in the aisle seat. Much of the flight he flipped through a newspaper, looking over at me from time to time. After a while he tore a small piece out of the newspaper, slapped it down on the tabletop between us, jabbed at it repeatedly to get my attention, and then said, “That’s what I was looking for.” I read the paper – it was an advertisement for a gun. I recall looking up at the man, puzzled. With a hideous grin on his face, he said to me, “Because I hate feminists.”
I can still feel the chill that went through my body at that moment. I sank into my airplane seat, pressed my face to the window and did not move until most everyone had gotten off the plane. Today – much older and angrier – I would probably have reported the man. At the time, I was too terrified to do anything.
Violence against women. Or, if you prefer, gender-based violence. It is a global epidemic that casts fear and terror into the lives of women and girls around the world.
While sensational events like the Montreal Massacre galvanize public attention for a time – the event led to tougher gun control laws in Canada – much of the gender-based violence happens behind closed doors in homes and workplaces, with the perpetrator known to the victim. Indeed, violence perpetrated by an intimate partner is the most common form of gender-based violence. However, violence against women and girls is also endemic in areas affected by war and political unrest.
Consider this information from the UN Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, which took place on November 25:
- 35% of women and girls globally experience some form of physical and or sexual violence in their lifetime; in some countries up to seven in ten women face this kind of abuse;
- Indigenous women in Canada are five times more likely than other women of the same age to die as the result of violence;
- In Colombia, one woman is reportedly killed by her partner or former partner every six days;
- It is estimated that, worldwide, one in five women will become a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime;
- In the Democratic Republic of Congo approximately 1,100 rapes are being reported each month, with an average of 36 women and girls raped every day. It is believed that over 200,000 women have suffered from sexual violence in that country since armed conflict began;
- Women worldwide aged 15-44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war and malaria, according to World Bank data.
Besides the statistics are the stories. In my community of Winnipeg, there are the regular media stories of women – often Indigenous – killed or beaten or sexually assaulted or simply disappeared. There are the stories of women harassed or abused by employers, colleagues and even clergy, and stories of young women drugged and raped by their dates. And there are the personal stories of violence in the home, perhaps whispered only to a friend.
Most of the people who work to end violence against women understand that this violence is rooted in gender inequity and in the attitudes, practices and structures of male superiority and domination. Critical to ending the violence, they say, is ending the patriarchal systems that perpetuate it. Patriarchy certainly motivated Marc Lepine.
I am grateful to the many women and men who work tirelessly to bring comfort to the victims of gender-based violence, to educate their communities about it, and who seek to dismantle the inequities that foster it. At the same time, my heart weeps that the violence goes on and on, year after year.
Given the statistics, the stories and the systems, one could easily argue that a war is raging – a war against women. Indeed, some thoughtful people have used war terminology to describe what is happening.
If we called it a war, would that make a difference?