Noeline Blackwell suggests practical steps we can take to advance the equality of women and men and to build a society where people can respect each other more and fear each other less.
Last Friday evening, at the end of a hectic week’s work, I went out to dinner with friends.
We’ve known each other for many years and are easy in each other’s company. We talked of many things: work, health, food, Brexit, family.
At some stage the talk turned to the discussion in Ireland about sexual abuse and harassment in recent weeks.
Gráinne, quietest of the group and less opinionated than the rest of us, a kind, tolerant woman who has raised her family and is now delighting in them and in her young grandchildren, spoke into the conversation and said she had been giving the question some thought, after the controversy surrounding George Hook’s remarks on Newstalk and the later sexual harassment claims relating to others.
She said: “When we were younger, young women, we were afraid of men. We were taught to be afraid of men. What’s happening now is that girls aren’t accepting that. They are seeing that men are responsible for themselves. Girls don’t have to be watching out for them or afraid of them. That’s what has changed.”
And she paused and then smiled and said: “And that’s a good thing.”
It struck me that in this kind and thoughtful remark justified and made sense of all the passion and debate that has taken place in Ireland over the past few months.
Gráinne is right. It was the case that women were taught that they had to fear men. Women had to take responsibility for men and ensure that they didn’t provoke or tempt them.
Having raised her own daughters into fine young women, my friend is now glad to see that today’s women have advanced to believe that the behaviour of men is the responsibility of men.
Our conversation that evening was about heterosexual relationships and undoubtedly other conversations will happen in the context of the acceptance of same-sex relationships.
But it is high time, beyond time, that the stereotypical heterosexual relationships were understood in the way that Gráinne has recognised it.
Alas, progress has not been uniform and many girls and young women remain afraid. And many boys and young men haven’t adjusted their analysis.
But some have moved on. And the pool is growing. Let’s make the best of the outpouring of unhappiness and hurt that we are hearing.
There are practical steps that we can take to advance the equality of women and men and to build a society where people can respect each other more and fear each other less. I am going to suggest three, but readers will think of many more.
First of all, our educators and policymakers in education could ensure that children are better taught to respect themselves and others in the context of sexual health. There is no sufficient sexual health education in our formal education curriculum.
It is a huge concern that many children and young adults are exploring sexual activity and experimenting without any proper discussion on what consensual sex entails.
Secondly, every employer could review their policies for the prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Employers are obliged to ensure that they have adequate policies to prevent such harassment and to ensure that employees have a safe and effective way of reporting such abuse. They must also take adequate steps to deal with complaints.
And finally, whether we are parents or not, in the formal workforce or not, we can all use our influence wherever we can to stop sexual harassment taking place because we now know and cannot forget that sexual harassment is a form of sexual violence which can have a huge impact on the person targeted and can result in serious suffering and pain for the person affected.
There are lots of resources available for those who want to do better. There are resources emanating from the Rape Crisis Centres for teachers and others who work with young people as well as on how to achieve dignity at work.
Universities and student societies have developed programmes for new arrivals at third level education.
The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has a Code of Conduct to avoid sexual harassment in the workplace. Human Resource and education professionals have their own capacities.
It’s not that we don’t know how to improve the situation. It’s just that we haven’t done it enough. But like my friend said, nonetheless girls are getting it.
They are not buying into the notion that they should be afraid of men.
If we develop that well, all of us will be better off.
Noeline Blackwell is CEO of Dublin Rape Crisis Centre
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