International Women’s Day: Let’s Seize the Opportunity to Ask the Hard Questions

As a young girl I remember feeling lucky because I happened to be born on March 8, International Women’s Day. At the time I didn’t realize that the women’s movement would become so integral to my life and work. These days I look forward to this time not only to reflect on another year of life, but also reflect on another year in the movement.

As I approach this year’s International Women’s Day, I am thinking a lot about our collective work to end violence against women and girls.  I’m thinking about where we’ve been, our successes and ongoing challenges, and where we need to go. During the last 40 years, we built a national infrastructure to address violence, secured government funding, and launched major initiatives such as Move to End Violence designed to supplement this infrastructure with innovative social change strategies. These things have been hard won and cannot be taken for granted (as we clearly saw in the recent fight for VAWA).

At the same time, I am painfully aware of how far we have to go. With this in mind, I’m hoping that the occasion of International Women’s Day might be a catalyst for all of us to take a moment to reflect, turn inward, and ask hard questions of ourselves as a movement. This is in contrast to strategic questions about the work that needs to be done “out there” in the larger world to end violence. What I’m suggesting is that we use International Women’s Day as an opportunity to collectively look in the mirror and name the areas where we are falling short as a movement. We might ask, for example: What are the tensions in our movement? What have been the unintended consequences of our work? Who has been left behind? 

In my work at the Ms. Foundation for Women, I have seen how our movement continues to be siloed across issues and communities. The issue of child sexual abuse is one example. Although child sexual abuse was first named publically as part of the early feminist anti-rape movement, it soon dropped out of the discourse and was no longer understood as an integral part of the movement. Instead the issue largely came to be seen through a mental health lens that emphasized the individual nature of the experience, rather than the larger cultural, political, and historical structures that perpetuate such abuse. 

In being cut off from its early political roots, child sexual abuse has endured as a silent epidemic. Although the issue has received heightened media attention in recent years (i.e., Penn State and the Catholic Church), this has yet to translate into a broad-based movement. I would suggest that this is a problem for all of us, but particularly those of us in the women’s anti-violence movement.

Research tells us that women who have experienced child sexual abuse are more likely to be re-victimized as adults. This is true in terms of subsequent sexual violence, domestic violence, trafficking, and other forms of trauma in adulthood.  (Similarly, research tells us that child sexual abuse is a fundamental barrier to women’s health and economic security, and is linked to numerous other intractable social problems facing our communities—including obesity, HIV infection, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, eating disorders, depression, homelessness, and incarceration.)

As a movement to end violence against women and girls, we need to talk about how child sexual abuse fits within our larger vision and strategy. It is one of the areas where we are falling short. But it is certainly not the only one. 

Let us honor and celebrate International Women’s Day by taking care of each other and our movement. Let us ask the hard questions of ourselves:  Where are falling short?  What have been the unintended consequences of our work? Who has been left behind? 

Monique Hoeflinger

Monique Hoeflinger has been active in social justice movements for the past 20 years, serving as a lawyer, organizer, strategist and funder. Her work has centered on the criminal justice system, LGBT rights and gender violence. Currently she serves as the Executive Director of the Just Beginnings Collaborative. More about Monique >


Jessica Deltac (not verified) replied on March 06, 2013

As a rape crisis volunteer for the midnight to 6am shifts for 5 years before giving birth to my first born, I would respond to a phone call and get dressed and travel to one of 6 hospitals in my town to act as advocate, active listener or gatekeeper between police or family and the girls and women who were sexually-assaulted. As atrocious as the act of rape was, I was amazed at how many of these women's mothers, if in attendance, had almost expected this to befall their daughters, if it had happened to them in their past.  And over 50% of the time it had.  The view of these mothers, was if it was just a matter of time.  Of course they didn't want this to occur, but the potentiality of it, did not shock them.  To me, this shows that the most important person in the life of a young girl or woman, did not convey that their body should rightfully belong to themselves.  Someone, actually everyone should tell all the girls and women they meet, that their body BELONGS to them.  They are the ones who determine who gets to touch it.  So, in honor of Int'l Women's Day, I am telling every woman and girl I come in contact with - that their body belongs to them, no matter what relationship they are ever in.  It is theres every second.  

Carol Plummer (not verified) replied on March 06, 2013

Happy Birthday, Monique!!  And thank you as well.  I agree wholeheartedly that we all need to take our own inventory, as is said, continue to grow, and really ask what we need to join together and get serious about change.  I still think we can do it!  Best wishes for a great new year----for you, for all of us!!

Fan (not verified) replied on March 07, 2013

Where we are falling short is in the engagement of Men on this movement, the drilling in to them that they are the key that can unlock the last door of stubborn resistance and ignorance. The realisation that they are missing out by not joining in this rising and potentially risking yet another shift of power that will be out of balance too for their lack of involvement in it.I am not ignoring the men who have already taken a stand and are being brave right now. I love them and feel better for knowing them and I am blessed to know a few. Still they are too few. How to take power away from those who have possessed it for so long, especially unhealthily so, is not going to work without pain, war and struggle unless they really get why it has to change and how exactly they will be better off. Yes they need an incentive! I am not saying that because I believe men are greedy, selfish and uncaring. I am thinking that many are hiding, possibly in shame and guilt, not knowing how to come out of it, even if they have not personally committed any crime or taken part in doing what we are fighting against. Their own kind has and that’s enough to feel guilty. They represent Man. They may not know how to express themselves without revealing their vulnerability to the point of losing their masculine pride. Not know how to stand strong in this issue without having massive projection weighing them down. I know that standing strong is of utmost importance to them. It’s important to us all but a man who feels he cannot stand strong is a man who feels he can’t be a man, that is the way he has been taught. Many men may not know how to refuse what seems to them so freely and widely given that they see women as the ones to blame and the ones to do something about it. Some probably don’t even understand why women moan because women are playing the very game that they can walk into. Not knowing how to resist, understand and control the many temptations given to them that appeals to their primal basic selves. Not knowing how to look up to women because that knowledge has not been passed on for while and because many of their mothers did not live in an empowered way, so why should they look up to them? Men need a whole new education and who will they listen to? Men more so than women, their peers because their language will be slightly different to ours and that is what they need to hear. How can we make Men understand that their co-leadership is needed and that this will take them to new unprecedented levels of power, power that will be respected and revered by sheer will and inspiration rather than force. How to replace their current power with one much healthier and steadier and one that will complete them, complete us as a species. How to reassure them that there is a better way and that with this better way they do not lose out, they gain! We have had Women vs Men, Men vs Women for too long and it is still going on too strongly in my opinion, we must come together and find the genuine self interest for each party. To us, women, it might be obvious, but to Men? Well I am not so sure it is yet. I am not buying into Men have had their time, let Women take over. That is the WRONG MESSAGE. That is not what we need, a world run by Women may well heal and solve current big issues we are facing but it will be out of balance yet again and there will be painful and damaging consequences to that. We want Men to be strong, strong in a new way. Where we are also falling massively short is with our hold on the media and corporations, which is non-existent, and this constant subliminal feeding of women as object, particularly sex object, even child-woman as object, men as object too but the latter unsurprisingly at a much lesser extent. Every day growing young men are faced with the message that women are there for them in "that" way, for sex, there to be the sexy presence. It is impossible to quantify how deeply in the cells it goes when you have grown up with it. The quality that is most drilled into to our young boys and girls! when it comes to girls and women is how good they can look! Not motherhood, not friendship, not sacred giver of life, not beauty all round, not feeler and giver, not weaver and story teller, not connector and protector, not fierce goddess and warrior and so much more... Just how She looks and how She can seduce! I remember watching an advert recently in America about toy guns for boys, target audience probably 7-11, boys enjoying themselves but suddenly at the end of the ad a girl, (looking fairly older than the boys in the ad) all fantastically made up and revealing of lot of skin with tight commando shorts and tight top revealing breasts and naked muscly tummy, appears and bang this seals the advert! I was gutted. Appalled that this somehow passed approval somewhere. I don’t have a TV and I don’t watch TV often, this was at a friend’s house and I was sat next to my friend’s 13 year old son. Of course boys would want that gun, but subliminally they will remember to want that girl in the advert too. This has got to stop and it is a typical consequence and feeder of the engrained culture that we are trying to rise up and away from. What also has to stop is women themselves postulating for those jobs, women themselves accepting and glamorising that lifestyle as though there is nothing better in the world, women accepting their face and body to appear in magazines knowing full well it is not the real them but a carefully reconstructed picture that looks like them. Women lying to themselves. I know that many of these women are simply responding to the education they have been given on what success and popularity for a woman is. It doesn’t make it any easier for me to accept and not feel betrayed by own kind. The work women are doing is beautiful and so needed, and every day I am grateful that I am part of this awakening, AND there is so much more to be done, so much more people, let’s keep on... I believe, I dream, I hope and I love. Fan  

Lisa (not verified) replied on March 07, 2013

Happy birthday. My birthday also falls on March 8th, and I also work with women, albeit in a very different way (energy healing and feminine spiritual empowerment) but I really support what you are saying here, especially regarding child sexual abuse. It is unbelievable to me how many women experience some form of childhood sexual abuse as girls, and how badly this can damage their sense of themselves and place in the world. Too often it leaves a legacy of shame, self-blame, fear, and disempowerment. Truly it is the ultimate expression of the imbalances and inequities present in our society, and is so important to address. Thanks for bringing attention to it.

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