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Let's Stop Referring to Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault as 'Women's Issues'

From reproductive rights to paid family leave to sexual and domestic violence, our society neatly categorizes issues where women bear the brunt of the burden as "women's issues," turning them into problems for women and women's rights advocates alone to solve.
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portrait of five young men standing together
portrait of five young men standing together

From reproductive rights to paid family leave to sexual and domestic violence, our society neatly categorizes issues where women bear the brunt of the burden as "women's issues," turning them into problems for women and women's rights advocates alone to solve. But this framing couldn't be more wrong, and only serves to reinforce the practice of victim blaming that is so pervasive in our society.

As we close another Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we can't help but wonder -- where are the voices of the men? Yes, women are overwhelmingly victims of domestic violence, but men are overwhelmingly perpetrators. It comes down to male behavior and conditioning, so preventing and addressing violence requires men to be engaged in this issue, and take action as well. And breaking the cycle of violence starts with addressing how boys are conditioned to model "male" behavior and attitudes.

Young boys who witness violence at home are three to four times more likely to perpetrate acts of domestic violence as adults. Up to 10 million -- or every one in 15 -- children are exposed to intimate partner violence each year, and 90 percent of these children are eyewitnesses to this violence. Beyond what children may see at home, they are continuously surrounded by messages and images in community institutions, advertisements, TV shows, songs, and other spheres that reinforce gender stereotypes -- such as expectations of the subservience of women, or men exhibiting force as a display of strength -- that often correlates with abusive behavior.

It is crucial for men to recognize the impact of their behavior -- how it affects their children and those around them, and how it may influence the behavior of others -- and take on these issues themselves, without placing the burden on women alone to figure out how to curb men's actions. It is up to individuals and communities to create systemic change and help men transition from roles as perpetrators or bystanders, to allies and activists. To help men recognize and transform attitudes and behaviors that lead to domestic abuse, community centers and other social service providers should offer workshops that illustrate ways to model respect and promote healthy relationships, as well as mentorship programs that equip men with the strategies and tools to stop abusive cycles of behavior.

One of the first steps men can take in combating violence against women is to question and challenge traditional gender roles, and listen to the voices of women and girls. Everyone has a role to play in pushing back against traditional indicators of masculinity. It's up to local and community leaders -- coaches, faith leaders, teachers, and business leaders -- to guide men of all ages to navigate different forms of masculinity and understand that machismo does not mean treating women as property, but treating them as allies and equals. We also need to support women to feel comfortable reporting violence, seeking help, and recognizing indicators of violence in the men in their lives.

Fortunately, there are effective models for making the systemic change required to combat violence. Coaching Boys into Men engages high school coaches to promote respectful behavior among their players and help prevent relationship abuse, harassment, and sexual assault. CONNECT Men organizes workshops, roundtables, and training programs for men of all ages to examine behaviors and collaborate to develop successful methods of intervention that emphasize prevention over reaction when combating violence.

Another program, the Low Wage, High Risk project, engages employers to raise awareness about the effects of gender-based violence in the workplace, and to develop promising practices that prevent and respond to domestic and sexual violence, thus creating role models in the workplace. Addressing this issue at every level--in schools, community centers, and even workplaces--is the kind of approach that leads to the change we need.

With Women's History Month behind us and April drawing to a close, it's important to remember how essential it is to continue to talk about these issues during the other 10 months out of the year -- not just in March and April. So in the spirit of honoring and advocating for women year-round, call on the boys and men in your life -- whether it's your son, father, brother, coach, teacher, coworker, boss, or partner -- to join in the fight to prevent and combat violence against women. Replace the ripple effect of violence with the ripple effect of respect and dignity. Transforming the attitudes and behaviors of just one individual can bring us one step closer to systemic change and a safer, more just and equitable society. We all benefit when responsible men stand in their communities as shining examples of healthy and respectful masculinity.

Linda A. Seabrook is General Counsel for the anti-violence organization Futures Without Violence, where she leads Workplaces Respond to Domestic and Sexual Violence: A National Resource Center, a project funded by the U.S. Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women that works with employers, workers and advocates to develop and implement workplace policies that prevent and respond to domestic and sexual violence. The opinions, findings, conclusions and recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women. To learn more follow @WorkplaceNRC.

Quentin Walcott is Co-Executive Director for CONNECT-NYC, a leading, non-profit training, educational and advocacy organization dedicated to the prevention and elimination of interpersonal violence in New York City on three levels: individual, community, and systemic. To learn more follow @CONNECT_NYC.

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