Not all men, but virtually all women

Until more men understand just how deeply ingrained the fear of violence and harassment is in every woman’s consciousness and behaviours, it will continue to feel almost like a normal part of womanhood. It shouldn’t be that way. We need change, fast.

Kew Gardens, London

Normally in my blogs I share some personal experiences to illustrate my point. I am choosing not to do so this time, as I write about male violence and harassment targeted at women and girls. Today, I want to primarily address the systemic issues.

“Even for women who don’t experience violence or harassment, the fear of it is part of daily life from a young age.”

I passionately feel that as a global society we need to tackle the problem of sexual harassment and gender-based violence with much more urgency than we have exhibited thus far. It is so widespread that it is safe to say that virtually every girl and woman experiences it in some form during their lifetime, wherever they live. Between 90% and 97% of 18 to 24-year-old women in the UK experience unwanted sexual attention in public places. About 60% of UK women in the workplace at some point experience sexually inappropriate behaviour from male colleagues. Some 50% of women over 15 years of age in the EU experience sexual harassment. Globally, 35% of women experience physical and/or sexual partner violence, or non-partner sexual violence, at least once in their lives. And the awful list goes on. The World Bank states that gender-based violence is a global pandemic. The effects on women last a long time, sometimes a lifetime.

Even for women who don’t experience violence or harassment, the fear of it is part of daily life from a young age. Women adapt their behaviours and carefully navigate public spaces, workplaces and, sometimes, also home environments, to minimise their chances of getting harmed. That robs them of vital opportunities and experiences that men can take for granted.

When something terrible happens to women, especially incidents awful enough to make the newspapers, the debate about women’s lack of safety is often accompanied by individual men acting defensively. That is not helpful. All women know it is not all men. The problem is that often they don’t know which men until it is too late. Not nearly enough men fully understand that. Men need to practise empathy and be pro-active in making women (feel) safe. They should actively help make society less of a threat for women and girls. Not being a perpetrator is not enough.

“We need to make all men aware of the responsibility they have to help change the present toxic culture.”

It is time we stop treating incidents of violence and harassment against women as isolated occurrences. They are not. They are the tip of an iceberg that is so big it is prevalent across all of global society. Perhaps, because it is widespread, we have so normalised gender-based harassment and violence that we collectively shrug off far too many unacceptable behaviours and practices.

It will require huge culture change to tackle the problem globally. We need to teach boys and young men that being caring and empathic are important virtues, and that violence harms. We need to make all men aware of the responsibility they have to help change the present toxic culture, and to be much more aware of how women fear certain situations that for men are completely unproblematic.

We need to change our systems, public spaces, homes, workplaces, schools and universities with women’s right to safety in mind. We need to stop leaving it to women to adapt their behaviours to minimise risk. We need to further change our regulations and, if necessary, our laws. We need to make it easier for women to come forward with their stories and experiences, and we need to visibly take action when they do. The vast majority of victims of sexual violence do not formally report incidents. Many do not even discuss them with family or friends. There are reasons why most women decide to stay quiet, and we need systems change and societal change to alleviate their valid concerns around reporting.

As I noted in my last blog, it will take a lot of energy to fundamentally change a global society that is so far away from gender equality, but there is no reason why a society that is much less dangerous and harmful for women cannot be achieved in the near future. Leaders of every institution in the world can start by making those places safe for women, and governments can start taking the issue more seriously, and write new laws or encourage better enforcement of existing ones. And in contrast to what I said at the start of this blog, I do want to say that, clearly, individuals can play a huge role. Especially men. All men.

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Simone Buitendijk

Simone Buitendijk

Vice-Chancellor at the University of Leeds.