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Why should women fight assault alone?

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OTTAWA -- A while back, a Facebook friend posted a graphic with a simple message.

The woman in the graphic wondered why, instead of teaching women how not to be sexually assaulted, colleges didn't teach male students not to sexually assault.

It was one of those things that makes you cock your head to the side and go "hmmm."

Then last week, hundreds of people -- mostly women -- from around the world gathered at the United Nations in New York City for an annual gathering of the Commission on the Status of Women. It always falls in the same week as International Women's Day.

Canada's message to the world at the event was pushing programs that involve men and boys in programs to combat violence against women.

Is this a novel idea? Are we really not getting the message about combating violence against women through to half the population?

There are many countries in this world where women are still considered the inferior sex. We have witnessed tragic evidence of this in the last six months alone. There was the shooting of Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, shot in the head by the Taliban just because she thought girls should be allowed to get an education.

There was the gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in India, which highlighted the brutal treatment of women in that country and the rampant violence they endure.

Just two years ago, a judge in Manitoba gave a more lenient sentence to a man convicted of raping a woman, explaining the victim had been clearly sending signals she wanted to have sex. Judge Robert Dewar was lambasted and hauled before the Canadian Judicial Council, which decided not to do anything, as Dewar had already apologized and taken sensitivity training. The sentence he gave the rapist was overturned on appeal. It is clear there is still a ways to go, even in our own backyard.

Some statistics on violence against women worldwide are simply hair-raising. According to the head of the UN's Commission on the Status of Women, 40 per cent of women will be raped, beaten, abused or mutilated in their lifetime. In some countries, the figure edges to upwards of 70 per cent. And one in three girls born in developing countries are destined to become child brides.

In developed nations such as Canada, between 40 and 70 per cent of female murder victims are killed by a partner or spouse. Young women and aboriginal women are the most vulnerable. In Canada, more than half the female victims of violence are between 15 and 34. Aboriginal women in Canada are three times as likely as non-aboriginal women to be victims of violence.

Last week, as she pitched Canada's theme of involving men and boys, Status of Women Minister Rona Ambrose said most programs to address violence against women are aimed at women. But that avenue has been nearly exhausted, and as men are usually the perpetrators of the violence, are half the population and in most countries are the majority of lawmakers, why not pull them into the mix?

"It's time to turn our attention," she said.

Canada pushed the idea a year ago but was met with some resistance, Ambrose said. This year, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has jumped on board.

Perhaps it is time to take the onus off women to protect themselves and become a bit more insistent that we educate and work with men and boys to drive the message home. Women and men will always have to take precautions to stay safe, but if we are only focusing on half the population with "no means no" and anti-violence campaigns, we are missing a huge piece of the puzzle, as Ambrose said.

Some people last week took to social media to complain about the existence of International Women's Day, implying or outright saying it is no longer needed.

But as long as there are places in the world where a girl cannot safely go to school, where a young woman is unable to attend a movie, ride a bus or flag a rickshaw without fear of being attacked, where a young aboriginal woman seems as likely to be a victim of violence as to graduate from university, International Women's Day is much needed.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 11, 2013 A5

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