By MURPHY BROWNE
“Sit still, cross your legs, put your hands in your lap, pull down your skirt, I don’t want to see your underwear”.
The four-year-old seated on the carpet in the kindergarten class, along with 20 other four- and five-year-olds, flinched as if slapped and tears welled in her eyes. She glanced quickly at the adult who had assaulted her sense of dignity and, just as quickly, at her classmates, some of whom giggled nervously while others were shocked into silence at the unwarranted attack. Then she lowered her gaze…and her head.
The male authority figure in the classroom seemed oblivious to the violence he had just unleashed on this small child’s self worth.
This scenario was witnessed in a kindergarten classroom of a school in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) during the first months of the school year 2009-2010. If this is not countered, this four-year-old, who entered school for the first time in September 2009, is at risk of accepting/normalizing that violence against her person is acceptable, especially violence from males who may be viewed as authority figures.
The child, whose self-esteem was violated by the public shaming, is not the only one at risk of normalizing this abuse if it continues; her classmates might also internalize and normalize the abuse of women.
Ridicule and verbal abuse from a teacher who wields enormous power in a classroom can permanently scar a four-year-old child and leave that child vulnerable to accepting abuse as an adult.
Some of us have heard that sticks and stones may break our bones but words will never hurt us but there is overwhelming evidence that those who have suffered from verbal abuse find that words do hurt and can be as damaging as physical blows. The psychological scars from verbal assaults can last for years and leave the victims unsure of themselves, unable to recognize their self worth and talents and, in some cases, unable to adapt to life’s many challenges.
If you are a woman and, especially, if you are a racialized woman, there will be challenges throughout your life.
The National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women is observed in Canada on December 6, the anniversary of the 1989 murder of 14 engineering students at École Polytechnique who were targeted because of their gender. December 6 is commemorated by holding vigils, discussions and various reflections on violence against women.
The commemoration also includes the raising of Canadian flags on all federal buildings – including the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill – which are flown at half-mast, and Canadians are encouraged to wear white or purple ribbons and observe a minute of silence as a commitment to end violence against women.
While it is important that there is recognition that physical violence often leads to the death of many women, it must also be recognized that there are women whose lives are damaged by mental and psychological violence.
On December 20, 1993, the United Nations General Assembly passed resolution 48/104 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women which recognizes that “violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men and to the prevention of the full advancement of women”.
The UN declaration called for the elimination of violence against women in all its forms, from violence within marriage and sexual harassment in the workplace to female genital mutilation and forced prostitution. These issues were also discussed at the UN’s Fourth Conference on Women which was held in Beijing in 1995.
The UN recognizes that there are many forms of violence against women, including sexual, physical or emotional abuse by an intimate partner; harassment and abuse by authority figures (such as teachers, police officers or employers); trafficking for forced labour or sex; and practices such as forced or child marriages, dowry-related violence and honour killings, when women are murdered in the name of family honour.
Systematic sexual abuse in conflict situations is another form of violence against women.
The World Health Organization has recognized that violence against women is a major public health problem and a violation of human rights and that lack of access to education and opportunity and low social status in communities are linked to violence against women.
According to published studies, at least one in three women globally has been beaten, coerced into sex or experienced abuse in her lifetime; four million women and girls are trafficked annually; and 50 per cent of battered women have been killed by their partners (in some countries this number is a staggering 70 per cent of all murdered women).
Women are the victims of their partners more often than they are of car accidents, rapes and robberies combined. Almost two thirds of victims endure long-term violence, while more than half of them experience violence daily.
The UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women also recognized that some groups of women, such as women belonging to minority groups, indigenous women, refugee women, migrant women, women living in rural or remote communities, destitute women, women in institutions or in detention, female children, women with disabilities, elderly women and women in situations of armed conflict, are especially vulnerable to violence.
On December 6 when we are remembering the women who were murdered in 1989 and the many women who are brutalized physically, please give a thought to the four- and five-year-olds who witnessed and experienced psychological violence in at least one classroom in our city.
Even one is too many.