Trauma knows no gender

Today’s guest writer is Karen Thind, a student at University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, BC. She participated in the recent student seminar of the Ottawa Office on Gender, peace and conflict: Exploring the intersection.

As we gathered together for the second day of our seminar, Thomas Coldwell, an MCC staff member from Alberta, began a discussion of masculinity, and the stereotypes attached to it. As we began calling out things like, “aggressive,” “man-spreading,” “protector…,” we started to narrow down the burden that society has placed upon the male gender. There was a specific lens, and specific qualities that made up a man, much like there are for women.

Seminar Thomas

Thomas Coldwell of MCC Alberta talking about masculinity. Photo Janessa Mann.

As our discussion progressed, it became apparent that our presentation would be about men and their experiences with violent conflict and PTSD.  I recoiled. Given that governments and NGOs are finally acknowledging the importance of women in addressing peace and security issues, do we really need to be addressing the needs of men? Surely we could make it three days without bringing the opposite sex into the conversation!

However, as I analyzed this train of thought, I became aware of how flippant and short-sighted I was being. Trauma and violence don’t just happen to women; they happen to communities, and those communities include men and boys.

Fighting violence against women should naturally include fighting the forces that feed that violence, and that means not only including a discussion about men and boys, but also recognizing the trauma and violence that they have experienced as well.

While Thomas queued up a video to watch, I had a moment to think, and my thoughts ran towards my nephews who have each, at ages 7 and 10, already heard the expression “man up.” I softened.  And I acknowledged that at one point male perpetrators of violence had been children, but the poison of social construct, and the cycle of violence had forced the abdication of their childhoods and demanded they forsake their humanity in exchange for a life filled with the void of masculinity.

Seminar women are human

The sign says, “Women are human.” Photo Janessa Mann

The film we watched underscored that ideal masculinity is hard to achieve and to maintain. Moreover, when that same masculinity is ripped away, the effects are just as explosive and dangerous, as those in the “making of the man.”

I had gone into the seminar with specific learning goals regarding the intersection of politics, policy, and advocacy in making gains against gender-based violence and sexual abuse. What I came away with was that and more! I came away with a clear understanding that not only do we need to “complexify” the narrative around gender, peace, and conflict, we also need to broaden our scope when it comes to the nuance of the victim/perpetrator dynamic in situations of mass violence.

The hunger for peace is  universal. The desire to live and thrive in an environment that is safe, whole, and accepting is felt by almost every person on the planet. Ideologies of masculinity have not diminished the urge for peace; rather, they have buried it under layers of expectation and —in the cases of some—forced them to become weapons of war. In the end, the hunger for peace remains.

A senator’s plea for friendship

We had gathered in Ottawa—eight MCC staff, along with 30 students and young adults from across the country—for our annual MCC Canada student seminar. The topic of the seminar was Gender, peace and conflict: Exploring the intersection.

One of our guest speakers was Senator Mobina Jaffer.  Jaffer has been active in promoting the Women, Peace and Security agenda for many years and she spoke about that work for several minutes. Then she asked permission to go “off topic.” She wanted to discuss what was really on her heart.

And what was on her heart was the reality of being a Muslim in Canada today.  Jaffer is herself Muslim—the first Muslim senator in Canada.  She spoke about the growing reality of Islamophobia in Canada and about her fears for the future.


Senator Mobina Jaffer (centre) with seminar participants. Photo Thomas Coldwell.

Her words were influenced by the recent massacre of Muslims at prayer at a mosque in Quebec City, the increase of messages of hatred directed towards Muslims and others online, and the reaction to Liberal MP Iqra Khalid’s motion against Islamophobia in the House of Commons.  As a result of the motion, Khalid has received thousands of harassing and hateful emails, even including death threats.

Political developments in the U.S. and the impact on Muslims is also affecting Canada. Muslim asylum seekers from the U.S. are increasingly crossing the border into Canada at points other than official border crossings so as to avoid being returned to the U.S. through the Safe Third Country Agreement. Some Canadians are sounding the alarm about the potential threat these individuals pose.

“We are having a real crisis here in Canada,” Senator Jaffer said. “The conflict is at our door.”


Small group discussion. Photo Janessa Mann

Nevertheless, she urged the students to be ambassadors of peace and goodwill and to resist the stereotypes which paint all Muslims as terrorists and a threat to society.  “Take time to get to know your Muslim neighbours,” she urged.  “Be curious about them. Ask them questions.”

Above all, she said, “Reach out.  Ask your Muslim neighbours, ‘How can I stand with you?’”

Jaffer’s plea for friendship and solidarity was a poignant interruption in the well-laid plans of our seminar.  At the conclusion of her speech, we paused to take a group photo and a few individuals spoke with her one on one. Then we continued with our agenda.

But the “interruption” returned at the conclusion of the seminar when two of the seminar participants shared their personal stories. Both are Muslims who arrived in Canada as refugees. Both felt emboldened to speak because of Jaffer’s words.

One young woman from Syria told how, as a result of the war in her country, she had lost her dream of becoming an engineer. After one year in Canada, she is beginning to believe the dream might become a reality. She reminded us of the saying, “I am because you are.” In other words, our lives as humans are intimately intertwined.

The other young woman, a Palestinian from Iraq, dreams of becoming a neurosurgeon. She urged her fellow students not to accept life as it is, but to commit to changing it for the good. “You can make a difference in the world!” she insisted. She expressed her deep gratitude for the Mennonite congregation that sponsored her and her family’s resettlement in Canada and for the friendship experienced at the seminar.


In front of the Peace Tower.  Photo Thomas Coldwell

MCC has long been committed to building bridges of friendship with Muslims here in Canada and around the world.  Interfaith dialogue and bridge-building is, in fact, a key way that MCC, together with the partners we support around the world, seeks to build peace where there is hostility, friendship where there is fear.

We hadn’t identified interfaith friendship and peacebuilding  as one of the intended outcomes of our student seminar. But, thanks to a senator’s heartfelt plea, that’s precisely what happened.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for the Ottawa Office.

A war against women?

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.

Women peacemakers Cambodia

Young people In Champong Cham province of Cambodia complete a training course on the rights of women and children.(MCC Photo/Amanda Talstra)

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.

Purple ribbon

During the month of November, MCC Manitoba encouraged people to wear a purple ribbon to raise awareness about domestic violence.  (MCC photo/Alison Ralph)

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?

MCC has been involved in addressing gender-based violence for decades.  Learn about the work being done in Canada and around the world.