Violence Against Women: We're Asking Men the Wrong Question

We often invite men to connect to the issue of violence against women by saying, "What if were your mother? Your daughter? Your sister?" While this invitation is understandable and respectable, it's actually the wrong question to ask.

The recent major report from the World Health Organization confirms not only that more than a third of women worldwide experience violence, but also that the large majority of this violence is at the hands of a partner. In other words, most women are assaulted by people who are well aware their roles as sisters and mothers, wives and partners.

The wrong question, indeed. Instead of asking, "What would you do if if that were your sister?" we need to ask, "What would you do if that were your brother?" Far too often the answer -- even from men who never themselves commit violence -- is nothing. We women also remain silent.

As the WHO report shows, asking men to consider women's roles as mothers, sisters and wives does not prevent violence. To be sure, the "what-if" framing can help trigger an emotional connection to a broad and at times distant-feeling issue. But that approach is at best only an entry point, and at worst it's dangerous; it communicates the entirely false idea that men never hurt the women in their own lives.

Further, the wives-and-sisters gambit suggests that we should protect women because, and only because, of their relationship to men. Also false. Women deserve freedom from violence because -- first and foremost because -- they are people, with inalienable human rights to safety and self-determination.

So, how to respond to the global pandemic of violence against women? First, we need to call on men to continue to step up, as they are already, from Delhi to Dallas, in Tahrir Square and beyond. Men must be part of the solution.

Second, when we do, we need to be thoughtful about how we call on them to do so. We know that violence against women -- which includes not only domestic violence but also early marriage, sex-selective elimination and more -- occurs first and foremost against wives, sisters, mothers and daughters. We also know that violence in the ranks of the armed forces occurs among and against, "brothers." And we know that men who grow up witnessing violence in their homes are likely to commit violence themselves. The places where one should expect to be protected turn out to be the least safe of all.

So next time, don't ask the men in your life, "How would you feel it were your mother?" Ask them, "How would you feel it were your father, your brother, your son?" Let us call on men to lead the way and hold each other accountable, as so many -- like Australian Lt. Gen. David Morrison and the many thousands of men who have joined the Ring the Bell campaign -- already are. Let us work together, men and women, to build a world in which all of us are safe among our sisters and brothers.