The questions men need to ask themselves about how they treat women

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Andrew O'Keefe

One woman is killed every week as a result of intimate partner violence. White Ribbon Night ambassador Andrew O'Keefe ...

One woman is killed every week as a result of intimate partner violence. White Ribbon Night ambassador Andrew O'Keefe says a change in men's attitudes can help reduce this figure.

I have never met a person who truly believes that violence against women is okay. We all know it's not. Even when I’ve sat in on court-mandated behaviour-change groups for men who’ve committed violence against their partners, the strong sense I had was of guys who knew they’d done the wrong thing and were struggling to change. 

Appalling cases like the deaths of Alison Baden-Clay, Rachelle Yeo and Celia Harnum prick our conscience and remind us of how horrific the problem of violence against women in our culture is. And beyond the high-profile homicides, of course, are the hundreds of thousands of women and children who live their daily lives with violence or abuse in the home. 

Rightly, we’re starting to demand justice for our sisters. But how often do we stop and think about how we, as individuals, can change the reality of violence? Instead of asking “What are they doing about it?”, do we ever ask “What are we doing about it”? And how often do we take an opportunity to speak about the issue with our friends and family, or stand together and say publicly that we believe in the safety and happiness of all women?

Andrew O'Keefe.

Andrew O'Keefe.

Because that’s what we must do if we want our collective culture to change.

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As a man, ‘doing something about it’ means asking myself some tough and basic questions every day, so that instead of contributing to the problem, I can be part of the solution:

  • How do I manage conflict in my relationship? 
    Of course, there will always be disagreements in any partnership, but when that happens, how do I deal with it? Do I shout and swear and call my partner names, or threaten her or hit her so that I get my own way? Or do I sit down with her and try to calmly work it out? In other words, do I truly seek to love and be loved, or do I just want to be obeyed?
  • Do I show my sons and daughters what respect and equality really mean by trying to live a respectful life myself? 
    Do I do my fair share of the housework? Do I take an active role in nurturing my kids instead of just being a good-time dad? Do I treat my partner with kindness and respect by valuing her contributions and making space for her interests? Do I show my kids that a man doesn’t have to be the tough-guy in control of every situation? And do I celebrate the achievements of my boys and girls equally (or is a win in the footy somehow better than a win in netball)?
  • Do I talk to my kids about their world? 
    We know that children these days are bombarded with movies and games and ads and websites and instagrams that portray men as all-powerful warriors and studs, while portraying women as either meek nurturers or man-obsessed nymphos. Kids take those messages in. Of course, we can’t stop them from absorbing this stuff, but we can try to teach them that these images are a fiction, that real life isn’t like that, and that there are different ways to be a real man or an authentic woman. We can teach them what it means to give and expect respect.
  • Do I ever say anything to my friends or colleagues when they speak about women, or to women, in ways that I know are out of line? 
    I mean, we all know that feeling of embarrassment when one of our mates makes a joke that goes too far, or when someone runs down their partner in a really awful way, or calls out something really crass to a woman passing by. But do we ever pluck up the courage to actually say, “Hey mate, come on…”? Do I ever actually talk with my mates about this stuff at all?
  • Do I truly believe that men and women are equal, even if we’re different? 
    Do I really hope for a world where all the women I love get the same opportunities for happiness, success and safety that I want myself? Or do I secretly think that men have a special place of privilege in this world that women will never share?

As parents, we know that if we raise our boys right, they’ll probably grow up to be fine men who are judged on the quality of their characters and the merit of their deeds. Of course, we hope that our girls will be judged the same way, but sadly there’s a fair chance they’ll also be judged on what they look like in a pair of denim shorts, or what they’re prepared to do for their boyfriend in the bedroom, or whether they can 'grow a pair of balls' in the boardroom. And there’s also a very good chance our girls will never be as safe walking home at night, or being home at night, as our boys will.

Personally, it horrifies me to think that my girl would ever be attacked or belittled by a man she loved, or by anyone. And it horrifies me just as much to think that either of my boys would ever imagine it was okay to treat a woman that way.

Every one of us knows in our heart that violence is wrong: that no person should be robbed of their health, or their dignity, or their self-esteem, or their kids, or their life, just because of the lottery of their gender.

So it’s time for us to step up and take responsibility for changing that.

Every action we take, every word we utter, makes a statement about what we want for this world. Sure, we won’t get it right all the time. I’m no saint, believe me. But every day I remind myself to ask those big questions and have those conversations, because I know that in some small way, my life sets a standard for my kids, for my mates and for men I’ve never even met. 

As the great Irish statesman Edmund Burke said, “Nobody ever made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.”

We all want to see an end to violence against women and girls. But if we want to see the change, we have to be the change. The change starts at home, with me.

White Ribbon Australia's 'Night In To Get The Word Out' takes place on Friday July 25. Go to whiteribbon.org.au to register or donate.