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The Role of Indigenous Men in Ending Violence Against Women

A column by Kenneth Deer about eliminating violence against women among Native Americans.
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This column was originally pubished in The Eastern Door, a community newspaper in the ancient Mohawk territory of Kahnawake, in Quebec.

One of the agenda items at the just concluded UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues was “Combating violence against Indigenous Women and Girls.” The title was a bit counter-productive, using a violent word like "combating" to end violence. A better word would have been "eliminating."

Other than that, the session dealt with a very important and saddening reality. Participants heard a litany of examples of how Indigenous women and girls globally are victims of violence from spousal abuse to forced prostitution to rape and murder. And the perpetrators ranged from family members, husbands, neighbors, strangers, clergy, industry, government officials, police and the military.

But one statistic that struck me was a study that concluded that 80 per cent of violence against Indigenous women and girls is perpetrated by non-Indigenous people and 20 per cent by Indigenous.

And it occurred to me that, while there is not much we can do directly about the 80 per cent, the 20 per cent by Indigenous men is preventable.

Sure we can complain, criticize and condemn the non-Indigenous society for their role in this violence, and justly so, but we, as Indigenous men, have to look at ourselves for the violence our men commit.

The 20 per cent is a significant amount when applied globally but it is far higher in our communities and the most visible to us. The other 80 percent generally happens elsewhere.

So what can we, as men, do about it?

Our own traditional teachings are very clear about the role of men and the respect we must have for our women who bear and raise our children and carry the clans which is the foundation of our social and political system. We have a matrilineal society where the women wield a lot of power and can install and remove chiefs.

I don’t need to go deeply into this, we all should already know these things.

The respect we should have for women is also based on a gift from the Creator and that is the gift of reason and a good mind. It is only rational that men should treat their women well and it is irrational to mistreat them.

So why are they mistreated? The list is long and we can go over some of them here.

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Alcohol and drug abuse

Probably one of the major causes of spousal and family violence against women and girls is the abuse of alcohol and drugs. No surprise here. It is also used as an excuse. Men say they were drunk at the time and they are not responsible and they should be forgiven. That excuse used to work but not anymore. At one time you could kill somebody driving a car while intoxicated and the judge would let you off. Not anymore. The same goes for spousal and family abuse. You commit violence against a woman, you are wholly responsible.

So if the excessive use of alcohol or drugs is causing you to be violent, then stop using alcohol or drugs. This is not rocket science.

The Creator gave men the ability to be rational and to make good decisions. Some better then others, I’ll admit, but the premise is the same. It is irrational to perpetrate violence against women and girls, so just take the logical steps to prevent it.

Is alcohol and drugs are such a part of your life that it controls it? If so, then the gift of reason is being lost. Who or what is in control? It is irrational. You have to take back control of your life, at least that part that affects your relationship with women and girls.

Related to this, of course, is addiction, which can make prevention harder. But still, we are all capable of reasoning and overcoming obstacles that we created ourselves.

Other excuses men use for violence against women and girls is the impact of residential schools, colonialism, the Indian Act, the prevalence of a patriarchal system in the mainstream society, the patriarchy in various religions, violence in media, and the list goes on.

But the answer to all these excuses is the same. We are given the gift of reason and we can use reason to counter the negative attributes of all the above list.

If we understand the damage residential schools have done to our people, we can work on fixing that damage. If we see how colonialism has changed our thinking, then we change our thinking to what it should be. If we have been taught that men are superior to women, then we have to stop that kind of teaching. If we believe that women and girls are just mere toys for men, than we have to change what we believe.

All of this is in the hands of men and we can make a difference. We can prevent that 20 per cent of violence against our women and girls. It is preventable. We just need to use the gift of reason that the Creator gave to us and apply it in a good way.

If we can eliminate violence against our women and girls, we are better positioned to prevent violence from non-Indigenous predators.

Kenneth Deer, Mohawk, is a freelance journalist, the former publisher and editor of The Eastern Door newspaper, 2010 National Aboriginal Achievement Award Winner for Media, member of the Board of Trustees of the UN Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Populations, and Chief Administrative Officer of Indigenous World Association, an NGO with UN consultative status.