In The Fight Against Sex Crimes, We’re All In This Together

This op-ed appeared in The Ottawa Citizen on November 12, 2014 

Late last week, amid the growing scandal surrounding Jian Ghomeshi, buried under the reprehensible politicking and partisan bickering over the handling of sexual misconduct allegations on Parliament Hill, was a remarkable moment of bravery and candour from well-known political commentator and former Parliament Hill staffer Ian Capstick.

A regular contributor to CBC’s Power and Politics media panel, Capstick, while discussing a history of troubling culture experienced by many on the Hill, revealed that as a young staffer he was repeatedly sexually harassed by one MP, and sexually touched by another. Both perpetrators were men, and in neither case did he report the abuse.

Echoing the sentiments of many who posted to the #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag – a movement started jointly by retired Toronto Star columnist Antonia Zerbisias and Montreal Gazette justice reporter Sue Montgomery – Capstick remained silent due to a sense of powerlessness.

“You feel absolutely without power,” Capstick explained, “to be able to report somebody who is 30 or 40 years your senior, and is perhaps at a status where you just simply, as a 21-year-old, can’t challenge that person.”

Asked by host Evan Solomon what prompted him to divulge such a personal, clearly painful, experience, Capstick cited Zerbisias and her online movement, noting “the bravery of women who have had to go through much, much worse than I ever have,” and that telling their stories allowed for “a very different style of conversation.”

Indeed, what has emerged as a light amid the deluge of trauma is the empowerment of sexual assault survivors — the coming forward, and coming together, of those who’ve long shouldered a common, deeply private burden, and the collective shedding of shame, defiance of stigma, and reclamation of power.

What’s been created is a rare opportunity for constructive dialogue: to discuss boundaries, educate on consent, and shed light on unwelcome behaviours that are often overlooked, seen by many as harmless, not because they’re acceptable, but because they’ve become so commonplace.

This cannot happen, however, when the terms of discussion are dictated by a small, but passionate, segment who, through sweeping assertions that “all men” are equally predatory and are de facto responsible for the behaviour of everyone sharing the gender, unwittingly marginalize an entire group of victims: male survivors of sex crimes.

Men, too, are victims, and are often met with a greater skepticism when allegations of assault – especially at the hands of a woman – are made.

Case in point: Most-“liked” comments under a recent report of an ex-NFL cheerleader’s indictment on charges of raping a minor: “Headline should read: Teen’s Fantasy Fulfilled!” “Raped by NFL cheerleader! Where were they when I was young?” “ Kids have it too good these days!”

Man or woman, gay or straight, old or young, independent or disabled — no survivor is responsible for having been victimized, nor is he or she culpable for whatever societal grievance abusers use to justify their crimes.

A Y-chromosome shouldn’t be an original sin for which carriers must forever repent. No, all men are not responsible for the actions of some.

But all men do, indeed, have a part to play in fighting rape culture, combatting everyday, casual sexism, fostering equality, and teaching their sons – the next generation of men – to do the same.

A deeply ingrained, outdated patriarchal culture can only be uprooted through a collective, unified effort; there can be no substantive change without unwavering, persistent efforts from both sides of the gender divide.

The atmosphere which empowered Capstick to share his experience is precisely the environment needed to advance beyond hashtag-activism toward real-world change. We must shift from talking past each other and begin talking to talking to each other – allowing for input, welcoming questions, listening to concerns – and base the merits of any contribution on its substance rather than the gender of the contributor.

Only then can the seeds of change finally begin to take root.

At The G8, Refusing To Be Silenced On Women’s Rights

A Monday gathering of Canadian and international women’s rights experts on Parliament Hill was intended to discuss Canada’s role in the maternal and child health initiative at the upcoming G8 summit; To voice their concerns over the erosion of gender equality and women’s rights in foreign policy under Stephen Harper, and address the omission of abortion rights in the maternal health initiative.

But rather than taking into consideration the issues brought forward by those in attendance, Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth offered some raw advice in an effort to silence further debate on the abortion issue.

“We’ve got five weeks or whatever left until G-8 starts. Shut the fuck up on this issue. Let it roll out. I hope I’m not proven wrong, but I have every confidence that it will include family planning and so on … and I hope I’m right. It’s just, if you push it, there will be more backlash. This is now a political football. This is not about women’s health in this country.”

The threat of potential ‘backlash’ validates the suspicions already percolating throughout various Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs), that in criticizing the Harper government you run the risk of having your organization defunded. In fact, over the past two weeks alone, many women’s rights groups have already been stripped of their funding:

-Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW)
-Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation (CERA)
-Conseil d’intervention pour l’accès des femmes au travail (CIAFT)
-New Brunswick Pay Equity Coalition,
-Réseau des Tables régionales de groupes de femmes du Québec
-Alberta Network of Immigrant Women,
-MATCH (30 year old organization fighting for equality for poor women),
-Centre de documentation sur l’éducation des adultes et la condition feminine
-Association féminine d’éducation et d’action sociale (AFEAS)
-Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses (OAITH)
-Womenspace Resource Centre (Lethbridge, AB)
-Feminists for Just and Equitable Public Policy (FemJEPP) in Nova Scotia

The rescinding of federal funds from these organizations strikes an eerie resemblance to George W Bush’s infamous Mexico City Policy, also known as the global gag rule, which prohibited all federally funded NGOs from performing, promoting, or advocating for abortions in other countries. This poorly conceived policy is supported and promoted by the religious right, where ideology always comes first and scientific fact is often ignored.

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated during her appearance at the G8 foreign minister’s meeting, “if we’re talking about maternal health, you cannot have maternal health without reproductive health; and reproductive health includes contraception and family planning, and access to legal, safe abortion.”

In what it bills as ‘The Preventable Pandemic,’ the World Health Organization (WHO) compiled a sobering report on the “urgent public-health and human-rights imperative” of unsafe abortions. The report sheds light on the fact that “unsafe abortion remains one of the most neglected sexual and reproductive health problems in the world today,” providing stunning statistics to back up the assertion. The report estimates about 68 000 women die every year from unsafe abortions, 97% of which occur in developing countries. In Africa alone, over half of all maternal deaths come as a direct result of unsafe abortions.

Death isn’t the only consequence of so called ‘backstreet’ abortions; morbidity, or permanent injury, including haemorrhage, sepsis, infection, and trauma to the uterus and abdominal organs is a common occurrence. The report states that when access to safe abortion is made more difficult or illegal, women’s health rapidly deteriorates. By contrast, women’s health rapidly improves when abortion is made legal, safe, and easily accessible.

The WHO report also details the impact unsafe abortions have on the medical system, noting “treatment of abortion complications burdens public health systems in the developing world. Conversely, ensuring women’s access to safe abortion services lowers medical costs for health systems. In some low- income and middle-income countries, up to 50% of hospital budgets for obstetrics and gynaecology are spent treating complications of unsafe abortion.”

“The cost per woman to health systems for treatment of abortion complications in Tanzania is more than seven times the overall Ministry of Health budget per head of population. Estimates from Uganda comparing costs of treatment of abortion complications with costs of providing safe, elective abortion show the potential resource-savings to health systems. Post-abortion care offered in tertiary hospitals by physician providers was estimated to cost health systems ten times more than elective abortion services offered by mid- level practitioners in primary care.”

Perhaps the most compelling argument for the inclusion of access to safe abortion in the G8 maternal health initiative deals with the sensitive issue of rape. It’s undeniable that rape is used as a weapon of war, and women and young girls are targeted as a means to punish others. Some people in South Africa hold the belief that intercourse with a virgin will cure HIV, so children are preyed upon and victimized, many becoming pregnant as a result. Why should these victims, having already been traumatized, be forced to carry the child of the man who raped them? More importantly, why should children who are impregnated following a rape, be subjected to a full pregnancy at the tender age of 11?

In Canada we’re fortunate to have the freedom of choice; When a woman is faced with a dangerous or unwanted pregnancy, she has a full range of options available to her. The fundamental advantage of a pro-choice policy is safe access to abortion when necessary, but not necessarily an abortion. It means protecting and preserving life in the vast majority of pregnancies, while providing safe access to a service that, in various circumstances, is medically necessary.

The NGO’s and advocates speaking on behalf of women’s rights understand the importance of a woman’s right to chose. The foundation from which they craft their policy is based on sound research, verifiable data, and direct input from medical professionals. The push for the inclusion of access to safe abortions in the G8 initiative is not based on a political agenda or religious ideology; It’s based on the desire to craft a comprehensive foreign aid policy that will best enhance the lives of women and children in developing nations.

These tireless crusaders for women’s rights must continue to speak out, demanding to be heard. At a time when their voices are more important than ever, they mustn’t surrender to the threats and intimidation from the Prime Minister and his Conservative colleagues. If Harper is genuinely interested in improving the health and welfare of women and children abroad, he’d do himself a great deal of service by heeding the advice of those who’ve dedicated their lives to the very initiative he espouses.

Cross-posted at rabble.ca
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Further reading:
Congo Rape Victims Jailed For Seeking Abortions
Top medical journal chides Harper on abortion funding: “hypocritical and unjust”

Stephen Harper’s Maternal Health Disaster

In what is arguably an effort to win over fundamentalist Christian voters, Stephen Harper’s G8 maternal and child health initiative, as it currently stands, will result in far more preventable deaths than the overall number of lives saved.

In what Huffington Post contributor Jodi Jacobson called an “absurd move,” Harper initially excluded family planning from his G8 initiative. A brief explanation was given by International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda, telling the House of commons “when we know what we can do by providing clean water, vaccinations, better nutrition, as well as the most effective way is the training of health care workers and improving access for those women, that is what we are going to do.”

Oda’s remarks came a day after Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon told a Commons committee that the Conservative government’s maternal health initiative “does not deal in any way, shape or form with family planning.”

Facing both opposition and international backlash, Harper back-pedalled on the remarks made by his cabinet ministers, telling the House of Commons “[the Conservatives] are “not closing doors against any options including contraception. But we do not want a debate here or elsewhere on abortion.”

Any hope of an open debate on the issue was crushed when a motion demanding a “full range of reproductive health services” in the government’s G8 initiative was put forward, and ultimately defeated by the Liberals.

Last week, Jennifer Dicthburn of the Canadian Press outlined the “startling statistics about the impact of expanded access to contraception” contained in a report released by Guttmacher Institute and United Nations Population Fund. The report concluded, among other things, that “meeting the world’s needs for modern birth control would reduce maternal deaths by 70 per cent, family planning would eliminate two-thirds of unintended pregnancies and three-quarters of unsafe abortions…and spending on contraception would ultimately reduce other health costs for women and their babies – an estimated $5.1 billion annually if wealthy nations were aggressively contributing to the cause already.”

On the issue of abortion, CNN shed light on a study revealing the barbaric methods women in Kenya are forced to turn to in the face of that country’s restrictive abortion laws. The so-called ‘backstreet abortions’ are crude, makeshift medical procedures using foreign objects such as metal wire and knitting needles to put an end to tens of thousands of unwanted pregnancies. ‘Backstreet abortions’, which carry a high risk of infection, injury, and death, are often the only option Kenyan women have due to the lack of access to safe abortions. When it comes to maternal mortality rates in Kenya, it’s no surprise that one-third of all maternal deaths come as a direct result of unsafe abortions.

Harper’s actual record on the well being of women and children is questionable at best, and in a scathing piece from The Globe And Mail’s Gerald Caplain details precisely why “evidence counts for nothing in faith-based Tory policy.”

Harper’s lack of credibility on the plight of women and children, combined with his willful ignorance of the scientific evidence backing the importance of contraception and abortion to maternal health, sets the stage for another Bush era ‘no condoms for Africa‘ foreign policy disaster; Conservative political posturing resulting in millions of easily preventable deaths.

This is ‘collateral damage’ in its cruellest form.

Cross-posted at rabble.ca
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UPDATE March 30: From the G8 Foreign Ministers conference, Hillary Clinton: Contraception must be part of maternal health plan

UPDATE April 27: Stephen Harper refuses to include abortion in G8 plan

“There will be no debate, Tories say, putting Canada’s signature maternal-health initiative at odds with policies of U.S. and Britain.”