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 is working with activists and funders to grow the movement to end child sexual abuse. More about Monique >