By Sarah Pentlow
Global Lead for Gender Equality and Social Inclusion
2017 has been a year where the feminist movement has had its profile raised significantly — the Women’s March in Washington DC, Canada’s launch of a new Feminist International Assistance policy and most recently the #metoo campaign has brought attention to the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault faced by women. While these events have been able to create a buzz for advancing the interests of women, we have also seen in this same time an increasing number of stories in the media on racism, xenophobia and violence on a global scale which might cause some to wonder if we are actually moving forward at all.
We live in a time and space where patriarchy is still the underlying paradigm upon which the fundamental fabric of our society is based. At the very core of this is the justification and acceptance of violence as a way of life. To bring real change and improvement for the lives of women all across the world will require a cultural and systemic shift individually, collectively, at home and globally. This is no small feat. As an individual, one might ask where do you begin? The answer is: to volunteer.
Think back to the classroom when the teacher would say, “I need 3 volunteers to help…” Were you the one who raised their hand or the one who sat back? Research has shown that the act of volunteering itself fosters pro-social behaviour, in other words those who volunteer are more likely to develop a more caring disposition and less likely to engage in destructive behaviour (which explains why many schools have made volunteer hours a requirement for graduation). Historically, the movement to end violence against women emerged through committed volunteers at the grassroots level, and with limited resources today it continues to rely on volunteers to provide services. In a study on staffing the anti-violence movement it was found that only one-quarter of service providers were paid staff, though a simple google search will easily provide a sense of the scale to which volunteers are integral to furthering this mission.
Not all may have time to volunteer with women’s services in the community, however we all can and must step up and volunteer to end violence in our individual spheres of influence; in what we teach our children about what is acceptable and not acceptable; in naming sexism, racism and other isms when we encounter them in the workplace. From an individual level, volunteering can extend into the community or internationally.
To be sure, this is not about wealthy Canadians going to “poor, underdeveloped” countries to “lift people out of their poverty”. Nor is this about voluntourism and sending unskilled youth to provide free labour. This is about solidarity in its rawest form. I have been working with Cuso international for over 10 years and what keeps me motivated in my work is seeing the impact that volunteering can make in promoting social change. Volunteers come from all different walks of life and work alongside local people to support change at the community level. They are challenged to think through the issue of power and privilege and consider how they will navigate that in their overseas placement to promote equitable outcomes in their work.
More and more as I hear stories of interactions and lives changed at a personal level I find myself being able to hope. Like the story of a Bolivian civil servant who after attending a workshop on “positive masculinities” committed to being a better father; like the story of a Canadian lawyer who went to Myanmar and has continued the partnership between her organization in Vancouver and the Dawei Pro-Bono Lawyer’s Network. Volunteering opens up a space for new interactions the coming together and collaborating between people of different cultures and challenging of worldviews. It also reinforces that in many ways, the challenges faced by those abroad, struggles for justice, fear of violence, are not that different to those at home.
Whether in Canada or abroad, it is through our daily interactions; listening to colleagues, believing our neighbours, calling out our friends, and promoting peace that change begins. From there, social norms will shift, policies and laws will be created and violence stopped. But it all begins by raising a hand and choosing to volunteer.
Sarah Pentlow works at Cuso International as the Global Lead for Gender Equality and Social Inclusion. She has volunteered in Canada, the UK and Sierra Leone.