On this International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, we need to be talking about boys.

Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and it marks the beginning of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign.  This international campaign makes the critical link between violence against women and human rights by linking  November 25 to December 10, which is International Human Rights Day.

The issue of gender-based violence is critical to the mental health and well-being of children and youth.  In Canada alone, it is estimated that half a million children every year are exposed to the abuse of their mothers and the harms of exposure to violence in the home is well-documented. Over the past 30 years, research has clearly indicated that violence in the home is directly linked to child maltreatment and other adversities, such as social-emotional challenges, and even physical and mental health disparities.  More importantly, these harms occur for BOTH boys and girls.

Home is also the place where these children are learning a very toxic message that violence and love may appear to be connected, and this message wreaks relational havoc for both boys and girls – but often in very different ways.    Girls present with internalized issues of depression and low self-esteem, and are most likely to experience victimization. Boys typically present with externalized behaviours, such as aggression, difficulties with self-regulation and much higher rates of perpetration of violence in their later relationships.  The prevalence of domestic violence in the lives of children seeking assistance from children’s mental health programs is staggering and we haven’t even started to collect systematic data in this regard.

Last week, Dr. Jackson Katz, an advocate for ending men’s violence presented at the University of Calgary, as part of the campus campaign to end sexual violence.  He is a dynamic speaker who is best known for his film Tough Guise:  Violence, Media & the Crisis in Masculinity and for his bold Ted Talk that challenges us to consider that violence against women is actually a men’s issue.

I highlight him here, because he would likely argue that the day itself should be renamed to be the International Day for the Elimination of MEN’S Violence Against Women in order for it to truly make a difference.

And that is where Dr. Katz’s ideas really take hold, in the understanding of the harm that men cause to both girls and boys, and our roles within society to take a leadership stance on helping boys become the kind of men whose strength resides in their moral courage, rather than their fists.

As I listened to him speak, I was reminded of yet another powerful talk about masculinity that left it’s mark on me many years ago.  In this talk, Tony Porter recounts the story of a 12-year old boy who said he would be destroyed if he was told he was ‘playing like a girl’.  He wisely poses this question to the audience, “If it would destroy him to be called a girl, what are we then teaching him about girls?”

So, on this day of Elimination of Violence Against Women (and girls), we need to be asking ourselves more than just how to keep our daughters safer; we need to be taking a leadership role in talking to our sons about what it means to be a strong man in the kind of society that we all want to thrive in.

If you want to learn more about helping young men navigate masculinity, this website and film is an excellent place to start.