When my daughter was born, I was fully immersed in being a war journalist. Assuming I would be going to crazy places for most of her childhood, I sat down and wrote a letter. One I’ve been re-writing periodically for the last 11 years which she has yet to see. I told my daughter, “I go because these experiences must be recognized, must be honoured. On one of my first trips to Northern Uganda, an elderly man told me that if a dying person tells you their story, and it’s not passed on, you’ll be haunted. Well, I did pass on the stories I heard but the knowledge, the awareness, remained to haunt me."
I concluded by saying, “you cannot read anything I’ve written, yet. It will be some years till your judgement of me as a father, as a man, comes to maturity - when these struggles and sacrifices can be put into context. When that time comes, please know that I tried to be the best I could - though I faltered at times - that I wanted to make the world a better place not just for my daughter, but for all the sons and daughters in the world. As a father, as a man, as a human citizen of the world, I know we all must hold to the faith that a world can exist where I would want you to live, where men stand up with women and girls.
That is why I go.”
Achieving gender equality and the prevention of violence against women and girls is simply an impossible goal without changing the lives of youth, and men, throughout the world. I am not an expert on violence against women - nor really women in general for that matter - but as a former journalist and newly awakened advocate I do know that for too long the absence of men and boys, as well as the missing component of youth ingenuity and passion, has been an impediment to lasting progress.
Individually, we more likely than not don’t see ourselves as part of the problem and remain comforted in our ability to point the finger elsewhere. But as 19th century Minister and poet Frank Crane once noted, “responsibility is the thing people dread most of all. Yet, it is the one thing in the world that develops us, gives us manhood or womanhood.”
Being “good,” whatever that means, must not be defined by the things you don’t do, but by that which you do. The “good” person doesn’t stand by, or look the other way when an injustice is done; doesn’t condone misogynistic language such as “bitch” or “ho;” doesn’t define their manhood by the number of women with whom they can sleep, or how physically overpowering they can be on, or off the field; doesn’t objectify women or secretly see them as “less than.” The individual who’s good recognizes their strength is for defending, supporting, affirming, not for hurting.
Personally, through my work and focus on the lives of women and girls, I firmly believe we have a chance to create and affirm alternative masculinities, and possibly prevent violence as a whole - whether it’s child soldiers in the developing world, rape as a weapon of war, or urban violence here in America.
Let’s draw inspiration from the efforts of little boys and girls who marched towards high-pressure water hoses and police dogs in Montgomery, Birmingham without the assurance of safety, or success. Take heart from the examples provided by the youth who protested and affirmed their dignity non-violently during the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, when so many of their peers made the easy choice of picking up arms after “Bloody Sunday” and the countless confrontations which followed. And then there’s South Africa, where far too many schoolchildren fell and died in 1960 during the Sharpeville massacre, then nearly a decade later in 1976 Soweto, under a repressive, racist regime. They were unarmed in the conventional sense, but emboldened by weapons no one could take away.
If we are to address the disparities and lingering tragedies afflicting and created by men, we must be willing to confront them head on, recognizing that these are not issues tied to one race or ethnicity, nor do they solely concern Americans, or Mexicans, or Japanese, but they must be seen as human issues.
Equality and the full empowerment of citizenship benefit us all.
For those of us who’ve been here longer, the elders and soon-to-be elders, we have a special role to play for the young changemakers-in-waiting. Often, we don’t have a say when a “call to action” is issued…the best we can do is be open and prepared to answer it. Some of us are older and more than a little weary, some of us are battered, some of us feel we’ve done what we were meant to do and now our work is done. But before going, we must ask ourselves are those behind us empowered and ready to continue the struggles, finish our journey? Are they ready to lead, even when their desire to do so is present but not the capacity?
Young women and men throughout the United States, and the world, are intently searching for a restoration of the “bond”…the tie which connected slaves and former slaves to the survivors of lynchings and Jim Crow, to the displaced farmers and Dust Bowl driven travelers of Oklahoma and the American Southwest, to the suffragists who defiantly marched for women’s right to vote and politically participate - continuing to do so in far too many countries around the world.
In describing what was at stake for young students launching the early ‘60s sit-in movement throughout the South, James Baldwin, noted that “…Everything in our lives depends on how we bear the light. What the light reveals is danger, what it demands is faith. The young grow up by watching and imitating their elders - it is their universal need to be able to revere them. What the elders have that they can offer the young is evidence, in their own flesh, of defeats endured, disasters passed, and triumphs won. This is their moral authority which, however mystical it may sound, is the only authority that endures…Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. Those who are young cling to us, and the moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”
Read other articles in this series, 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence.