Call It What It Is: Use Words to Empower Women

Words are powerful. The way that we talk about common issues shapes the beliefs and norms we have about them. Changing the language we use and the conversations we have allows new ideas to form and challenges old, harmful mindsets. Movements which changed the conversation, for example, Me Too and Black Lives Matter have been so influential as they opened a space for people to find their voice and share experiences while challenging people of privilege to reassess their views. While more people are speaking up about sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV); shifting the conversation to focusing on the perpetrator will empower women to be more than victims, and help come up with more effective solutions.

Are Women the Problem?

The victims, usually women and girls, are made the focus of stories of SGBV. However, the abusers, often but not always, men, are left out of headlines and statistics. This occurs in news articles, academic research, everyday conversations, and social media. Some examples of statistics in Thailand are:

  • 9.3% of women were abused physically or sexually by partners in the last 12 months.
  • 20.2% of women aged 20-24 were married before 18 years.
  • 75% of women aged 18-49 have experienced more than one incidence of domestic violence.
  • 87.4% of women did not seek advice or help from authorities for this.

When women are the only focus in these statistics, it makes women out to be the problem. It seems as though it is a women’s issue, not a human rights issue. This creates victim blaming, where the women who are abused are then blamed for what happened; maybe because of what they were wearing or walking alone at night. Women who are trapped in abusive relationships are blamed for not leaving. The men who abuse and rape are allowed to be taken out of the story and ignored. Women are also expected to be the ones to fix these problems; by advocating for themselves, reporting to the authorities, and learning self-defense and self-esteem to leave abusive relationships.

Flipping the Script to Empower Women

But who is doing the abusing? Not everyone fits into the gender binary, and it can also be hard for men who are abused by women or other men to speak up about what happened. However, it is often men who are responsible for SGBV against women and children. Active language is when the person doing the action is the subject of the sentence. Instead of saying, “A woman was raped,” the active language would be, “A man committed rape.” Shifting to a perpetrator focus frees women to be more than victims. It highlights that to solve these issues there needs to be a change in behavior from men. Taking the example statistics of Thailand from above, and assuming these occurred in heterosexual relationships, flipping the script would look like this:

  • 9.3% of men abused partners physically or sexually in the last year.
  • 20.2% of men married partners under 18 years old in the last five years.
  • Up to 75% of men abuse partners physically or sexually in a lifetime.
  • 12.4% of authorities created an environment that was safe enough for women to go to for help.

This can feel uncomfortable, and it challenges the status quo. However, it puts the problem back on the abusive men and frees women to be worthy of support and respect from the community. It reinforces the idea that women are not to blame for simply existing as themselves. It gives freedom to focus on the root causes, and come up with more radical solutions that look into changing the beliefs and behavior of men. As well as this, it puts pressure on systems, like the police and authority figures, to change to become more supportive of victims. While there are limitations on this, for example, there is not always evidence of abuse, and we do not want men to be falsely accused, it can be very effective in cases where the perpetrator does not need to be identified.

The goal of shifting language this way is not to make men feel victimized, but for men to work together with women to create societies where everyone is free from abuse and violence. Men who are empowered to play an active role in keeping communities safe, and in raising respectful and kind boys who champion other women. Center for Girls is doing valuable work with community leaders, many of whom are men, in creating awareness of SGBV in their communities, and creating watchdog networks and safe community leaders, both male and female, that the victims and concerned relatives can go to for help.

What we focus on matters, so let’s start using active language in SGBV to empower women and come up with effective solutions.

– Aimee Vulinovich


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