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.

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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.

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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.

jaffer-and-seminar

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.”

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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.

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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 father’s thoughts on International Women’s Day

This week’s blog is written by Dan Leonard, operating principles coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee. He is the proud father of a three-year-old daughter.

As my daughter and I were reading the popular children’s book Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site, I was struck that all the machines in the book were referred to as he and him. Obviously assigning gender to inanimate objects can itself be an odd activity. But since the author decided that all strong, rough, hard-working construction vehicles were men, I decided to change the pronoun for every other machine to she and her. Having read the book other times, my daughter at first objected to this “people’s history of heavy equipment,” but she has since grown used to it.

The girls section in a typical toystore.

The girls’ section in a typical toystore.

Having a daughter makes it hard to ignore the social construction of gender. Whether it is clothing or toys, a crowd of pink princesses seems to invade our home on a daily basis, despite our best efforts for balance. Harmless as it may seem that there are no female trucks working at the construction site in a children’s book, it accompanies an absence of stories with girls and women as students, professors, adventurers, pastors, doctors, athletes, problem solvers, creators, heroes, politicians, or leaders.

Indeed, a 2011 study on gender and children’s books found that only 31 percent of children’s books have female central characters, and these characters are often represented in traditional gender roles.

In the coming two weeks the UN Commission on the Status of Women will hold meetings in New York to discuss how well the Millennium Development Goals have addressed issues of gender equity. So it’s a good time to assess where we are globally in the pursuit of gender equity. Unfortunately, there are many reasons to despair. Consider these examples:

  • According to the UN there is no country in the world where women earn on average more than men;
  • While the percentage of women out-of-school is decreasing, enrollment numbers are stalling;
  • Women still bear the brunt of unpaid care;
  • Nearly half of murder cases facing Aboriginal women in Canada remain unsolved
    Two-thirds of illiterate individuals are women;
  • The majority of young people and adolescents do not have access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services and education;
  • 1 in 3 women will be beaten, abused, or raped in their lifetime;
  • An estimated 100-140 million girls are living with the consequences of Female Genital Mutilation with FGM most often occurring for girls before the age of 15.

Despite what we know about the importance of women and girls’ participation in development, the stats could go on.

Thankfully there is also good news. In Canada, more women enroll in college and university programs and are more likely to finish these programs with a degree. Globally, the percentage of girls out of school has decreased from 58 percent in 2000 to 53 percent. And apart from the numbers, courageous individuals like Malala Yousafzai challenge our temptation to remain cynical.

A girls school in eastern Bangladesh supported by MCC's Global Family Program.

A girls school in eastern Bangladesh supported by MCC’s Global Family Program.

At MCC we are committed — through one of our guiding principles — to dismantling barriers of gender-based oppression, and working to ensure the participation of all community members in program design, decision-making, and implementation. At the project level in Ethiopia, MCC works with socially and economically marginalized women living with HIV/AIDS in vocational training and income generating strategies. In Palestine, MCC works with women in rural areas to raise the awareness of their legal and civil rights and promote women’s participation in civil society organizations. In Canada and the US, MCC is working with local churches to end domestic violence. These are just some of the ways that MCC works towards gender equity.

As I’ve reflected on these things in the lead up to International Women’s Day on March  8, I’m struck that changing the pronouns of a children’s book most certainly is not going to solve these sorts of global problems, and neither will any single project. But in the face of overwhelming gender disparity, we can start by critically reflecting on the subtle and not so subtle patriarchal narratives that hinder gender equity in our homes, in our workplaces, in our countries, and around the world.

What DFATD can learn from CIDA

This week’s blog is written by Dan Leonard, Operating Principles Coordinator for MCC.  Originally from Philadelphia, Dan now lives in Winnipeg where he has learned to love the winter. In February, he nevertheless looks forward to the start of Major League Baseball spring training.

In November, the government released the Global Markets Action Plan, a government strategic plan for promoting international trade opportunities for the Canadian private sector. One of the standout lines in the document is this: “under the plan, all diplomatic assets of the Government of Canada will be marshalled on behalf of the private sector in order to achieve the stated objectives within key foreign markets.”

Goat project Jordan

A goat project in Jordan provides income and food for poor families. Khulood, 11, holds one of the offspring of the goat that her father received. MCC partners with the Wadi Araba Benevolent Society to provide goats for families.

The government’s focus on “economic diplomacy” is particularly interesting to read in light of the decision last year to amalgamate Canada’s foreign affairs, trade and development agendas into one new department—the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development (DFATD).

The action plan deals little with the development agenda specifically, other than to “leverage development programming to advance Canada’s trade interests.” This leads some to question whether global poverty reduction as an end in itself is still a goal for Canada. So what impact, if any, will prioritizing the international trade agenda have on Canada’s international development agenda? This question been discussed previously on this blog; MCC Canada’s ongoing concerns on policy coherence recently prompted letters to the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and International Development.

Some context for the Global Markets Action Plan is helpful. The 2012 Development Assistance Committee (DAC) peer review of Canadian foreign aid noted that Canada has a “strong reputation for its contributions to international development, multilateral organizations and the promotion of human rights.” Central to the effectiveness of Canadian development work has been the insistence that communities should be active participants in defining their own development. One of the key aspects of Canada’s commitment to the Aid Effectiveness Agenda is that “development must be locally-led in order to produce and sustain meaningful results.” More so, Canada has been at the forefront among donor countries pushing NGOs to integrate a gender lens into programming, regularly outspending other DAC members in resources allocated to gender equity and women’s empowerment.

Mahmoud Hassan sorts tomatoes he picked in the field where he works in Wadi Araba. The crops were grown with water from an MCC-supported water catchment project.

Mahmoud Hassan sorts tomatoes he picked in the field where he works in Wadi Araba, Jordan. The crops were grown with water from an MCC-supported water catchment project.

My intention is not to create an idyllic and selective narrative of CIDA’s past. But recognizing the role and reputation of Canada in international development in years past is useful for reflecting on how the intentions and values guiding Canadian development work overseas might change in the future, as Canada aligns a development agenda with a trade agenda.

For example, how will marshalling all Canadian diplomats “on behalf of the private sector” coincide with a desire for “locally-led” development? Will diplomats reviewing CIDA proposals analyze them for community participation, or for how well they align with Canadian economic interests, or perhaps both? Can gender equality help define trade interests? What might that even look like? Or for instance, will plans for a mining project be required to adopt a gender lens and demonstrate that the environment is not unnecessarily degraded? Or, in that same example, if a community does not want the mine, will the project be halted or adjusted even if it limits Canada’s economic opportunities?

The Marlin Mine in San Marcos, Guatemala is owned by Goldcorp, a global leader in gold mining.

The Marlin Mine in San Marcos, Guatemala is owned by Vancouver-based gold mining giant, Goldcorp.

Truthfully, we do not know fully what this amalgamation of agendas will mean in practice. But some clues are emerging in the Global Markets Action Plan. Even in the years leading up to the amalgamation, CIDA began funding partnerships between NGOs and mining companies, raising questions as to whether development is acting as a subsidy to, or public relations activity for, mining companies.

On the other hand, in the “development” section of the DFATD website, key priorities of gender equality and environmental sustainability are still mentioned. Projects implemented by NGOs are also still required to integrate a gender and environment lens. So perhaps there is potential for these principles to more forcefully speak into how we conduct trade–though there is no indication in the Global Markets Action Plan that this will be the case.

The win-win of Canadian growth and international development is admittedly tempting. The questions I raise here are not to dispute the merits of aid and trade, or to reject the idea that private sector and NGOs should work together. The point here is that Canada’s private sector interests overseas should not compromise the tremendous learning gained over years of  Canadian development work–namely, that essential ingredients to sustainable development are local ownership, gender equity, and environmental sustainability. This is true whether you are an NGO or part of the private sector. Otherwise the win-win of aid and trade will be more of a dream than a reality.