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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 20, Number 2, October 2007

Women's history: A history of violence?

By Jane Turner

October is women’s history month. Usually, this is the time we are reminded of Canada’s first female Member of Parliament, Agnes McPhail, or Canada’s first female Senator, Terese Casgrain, or Canada’s first woman in space, Roberta Bondar. Women’s history is often recounted as the litany of extraordinary women who broke the gender barrier in a variety of situations. However, it is important to reflect upon the contemporary lives of women, most of whose names we’ll never know, in order to catch a glimpse of the women’s history we are currently creating.

Women’s history is increasingly becoming a history of violence. Our own experience of women missing or murdered from Vancouver’s downtown eastside or the aptly named "highway of tears" cutting across the centre of the province, starkly outlines the violence women face here in British Columbia. Women have historically experienced violence in their homes as well as in the public arena, however the violence perpetrated upon women is escalating into new realms in unprecedented numbers.

During the US Civil War, the only American civilians who were killed were voyeurs who got too close to the battlefield watching the action. When the battle suddenly overtook them, civilian casualties resulted. War used to be confined to killing soldiers on both sides, bad enough on any level, and worse when you consider many soldiers were involuntary conscripts. Today, however, civilians are purposefully targeted and called collateral damage. A recent, horrific, example of this is Darfur. Women are targeted as they walk to wells for their family’s daily water. Horsemen surround the women, kidnapping, raping, and/or murdering them to create terror in their enemies’ psyche, but there is another purpose for these brutal attacks on women and children. Women have not only become tools of terrorist warfare, they have become the source of wealth. Their kidnappings are motivated by business opportunities within the global sex trade.

In a report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights (February 2006), the focus was on the trafficking of persons, especially women and children. The UN Special Rapporteur found that women and children are increasingly targeted as objects, bought and sold through and for the international sex trade. While there is a mythology that many women enter the sex trade willingly as a viable employment opportunity, the UN report dispels that notion unequivocally:

"It is rare that one finds a case in which the path to prostitution and/or a person’s experiences within prostitution do not involve, at the very least, an abuse of power and/or an abuse of vulnerability. Power and vulnerability in this context must be understood to include power disparities based on gender, race, ethnicity, and poverty. Put simply, the road to prostitution and life within "the life" is rarely one marked by empowerment or adequate options."

So we find ourselves, at this stage of our historical development, in a paradox where in some instances, women are participating equally in public life as they never have before. For example, in the US, there is the very real possibility that a woman may be elected president and it is not being seen as completely outlandish. Yet, we have modern, democratic societies contemplating legalizing or the decriminalization of the sale of women’s bodies for sexual purposes. Ironically, as the UN’s Special Rapporteur notes:

"The act of prostitution by definition joins together two forms of social power (sex and money) in one interaction. In both realms, (sexuality and economics) men hold substantial and systematic power over women. In prostitution, these power disparities are merged in an act that both assigns and reaffirms the dominant social status of men over the subordinated social status of women."

While often touted as a move to protect or further liberate women, normalizing women’s participation in prostitution and pornography results in just the opposite. It regresses women’s equality with men.

As we celebrate women’s history month every October and note the contributions and progress of women historically, we also need to critically examine women’s present circumstances so that future generations do not reflect upon our own time as the "dark ages" of women’s history.

Jane Turner is assistant director, BCTF Professional and Social Issues Division.

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