The good news on women’s rights in 2014: Editorial
The annual end-of-year list of events that changed our world is normally one weighted heavily with disasters — war, terrorism, climate catastrophes, epidemics and economic upheaval.
That’s why a look back at some of the biggest news stories in 2014 is so surprising: it can actually make one feel hopeful.
In a break from tradition, the stories that most captured world attention in 2014 trumpeted something undeniably positive – the rise of women’s rights. Specifically they told us: no man is so powerful he can assault a woman and actually count on getting away with it. And no woman is so powerless that a crime against her doesn’t matter.
The stories didn’t mean that sexism, misogyny, harassment, victim blaming and violence against women don’t still exist.
But what was startling in 2014 was that those human rights abuses were top of the news and social media agendas, being written about, debated — and condemned — by women and men alike. More importantly, when combined, the stories heralded a potentially permanent shift in the landscape, one that bodes well for years ahead.
In Canada, the shift was more of a tsunami than a tilt after accusations of sexual assault against star CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi created a flood of angst and anger that engulfed everyone from doctors accused of sexually assaulting patients, to MPs on Parliament Hill accused of “personal misconduct,” to junior hockey players.
Fifteen woman came forward to accuse Ghomeshi of violent acts against them. Three would take their complaints to police.
The laying of charges — four counts of sexual assault and one of overcoming resistance by choking — went a long way to prove no one is too privileged to avoid prosecution. But perhaps a bigger message was this: no longer would the court of public opinion side with a powerful man against alleged victims. Ghomeshi lost his job and went from powerhouse to pariah even before charges were laid.
Similarly, two MPs, Massimo Pacetti and Scott Andrews, were suspended from the Liberal caucus after allegations surfaced against them, despite the fact no charges have been laid.
And just as the Ghomeshi story inspired coverage of other allegations of abuse in the corridors of the CBC, news of the MPs’ suspension spawned an outpouring of stories — from reporters, political aides, even former politician Sheila Copps — about assaults in the halls of political power.
Exalted sports celebrities, too, were no more immune to the shift in public opinion than entertainers or politicians.
The Ontario Hockey League wasted no time benching players Greg Betzold and Jake Marchment for 15 games for making sexist remarks on social media. And the University of Ottawa suspended its men’s hockey program and fired the head coach after allegations of sexual misconduct against some members of the team. All that occurred before charges were laid against two players.
The review could mean doctors who sexually abuse female patients would not be able to keep their licence and continue to treat male patients — as the college has been allowing. The college is also considering whether it should automatically report sexual abuse complaints to police, something that may see doctors criminally charged instead of just facing disciplinary action from the college.
It wasn’t just Canada where the tables of power were being overturned.
In the U.S., the NFL suspended running back Ray Rice indefinitely and the Baltimore Ravens fired him in September after a video surfaced of Rice knocking his fiancée, now wife, out cold in an Atlantic City hotel elevator.
It was a year, too, when Bill Cosby made the cover of People magazine, not for his fame but for his infamy, after more than a dozen women alleged he had drugged and raped them.
Meanwhile, South African Olympic superstar Oscar Pistorius was found guilty of culpable homicide and sentenced to a five-year prison term for killing his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day. His conviction wasn’t enough of a fall from grace. Prosecutors are now seeking a longer jail term.
At the same time as the powerful were being knocked from their pedestals, the previously powerless were being told they matter.
The murder of aboriginal teen Tina Fontaine demonstrated that the public would no longer stand silent when native women are attacked. In the shadow of Fontaine’s murder the Harper government refused to launch a national inquiry into the 1,181 aboriginal women who have been murdered or gone missing since 1980. Instead, it unveiled a $25-million, five-year plan to help curb violence against aboriginal women and girls.
The vocal, visceral cross-country reaction: It wasn’t enough.
Meanwhile, where once girls trying to seek an education could be killed with impunity by the Taliban, the world responded to the shooting of one girl in Pakistan in 2012 —Malala Yousafzai — by awarding her the Nobel Peace Prize.
Whether the victims were young or old, whether the crimes perpetrated against them were recent or decades past, the stories pointed to one thing: they mattered. As for perpetrators — no matter how privileged — they didn’t.
And if the signposts in the events of 2014 are any signal, there will be no turning back.