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Setting Up a Dialogue on Violence

By Melissa R. Hart

One year ago today, 14 women in Montreal were sentenced to death by a man with a gun.

Their crime?

They were women.

In the aftermath of the Montreal Massacre--as it is now called--television anchors, newspaper commentators and the public generally called the event "random," an "isolated incident."

But the killings in Montreal were not random, nor were they isolated. That unusually well-publicized bloodshed was just one expression of a pervasive norm of violence against women. Although the brutal slaying of 14 women may seem like an extreme form of violence, it is not more extreme than the wife-beating, child sexual abuse and rape that make up the fabric of daily life but don't often make the nightly news.

The statistics of violence are chilling. The FBI reports that a woman is beaten by her husband or lover every 15 seconds in this country. During pregnancy, this abuse--usually directed at a woman's face--regularly shifts to her abdomen. More than one-third of female victims of homocide are killed by their partners. Also according to the FBI, one woman in three will be raped in her lifetime. And a study of colleges around the country showed that one woman in five can expect to be raped during college.

THESE numbers will not improve until we change the way we think about violence. Until police are willing to arrest violent husbands before their wives are dead, until we all are able to see that rape is never a woman's fault, violent criminals will not be punished and survivors of violence will remain silent in our midst.

One of the major roadblocks to changing the statistics is women's reluctance to report violent crimes commited by lovers or friends. Although many use this silence to suggest that violence is not that prevalent, anonymous surveys consistently suggest otherwise. Instead, it seems that women are silent because they fear that they will not be believed. Violence against women is so "normal" in our society that women who report it are looked on with suspicion.

Stereotyped notions about men and women and "normal" sexual and personal relations between them have blurred the boundaries where violence begins. Once upon a time, "consent" had very little to do with what a woman wanted. Only one person was expected to consent--the man.

Because husbands literally owned their wives until early in this century, domestic violence was not criminal. After all, men could do as they pleased with their own property.

And even today, because women are expected to say "no" at first--even when they don't mean it--rape can't really happen when the man and woman know each other. A nice woman would never vocally consent, but that doesn't mean she didn't want it.

These attitudes not only affect the number of violent crimes, but also the number of crimes reported. Many men assume violence against women is acceptable, and so do many women.

BUT these ideas are changing--albeit slowly. Not everyone seems to have caught on to the changes, but part of ending violence against women is altering the way people think about it. As Radcliffe President Linda S. Wilson said yesterday, "We must accomplish a genuine change in belief and attitude between men and women."

The prevalence of violence against women is not an easy thing to accept. Nor is it easy to see the connections between the way we think, the things we say and the things that happen. But these are intimately connected.

If you tell your roommate or your friend that you don't believe in acquaintance rape, it isn't likely that she will tell you when it happens to her. The atmosphere on campus can make it more or less difficult for women to come forward with their stories. As long as we refuse to believe our friends, we silence them.

Attitudes about violence in our society allow the violence to continue. We must establish a dialogue about violence, about its causes and is effects, so that we can begin to change the way people think and talk about it. Only then can we begin to change how often it happens.

THE CAMPAIGN for a Women's Center at Harvard/Radcliffe is in part a recognition of this need. A campus Women's Center could begin to mediate that "genuine change in belief and attitude between men and women" which Wilson and others recognize as so important to solving the problem of violence.

A Women's Center could serve as a site for initiating a discussion about violence and its impact. It could work as an educational source, helping students understand the sources of violence and the means for stopping it. It could provide women with information about resources for healing and it could provide men and women with information about how to help friends. And it could provide a space for the entire community to begin actively working to end violence against women.

A Women's Center at Harvard/Radcliffe would not have stopped Marc Lepine from killing 14 women in Montreal last year. And it probably would not immediately eradicate violence against women at Harvard. But initiating a dialogue about violence, giving women a safe space to talk together and giving men and women resources for understanding, are important first steps to solving the problem.

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