I write this message for International Women’s Day 2018, feeling that the world is changing for the better, and that in many ways, things will never be the same. But in keeping with any progress – especially progress that aims to address long standing inequalities – there is a feeling of uneasiness, unrest, and sometimes outright backlash as we sort out how to ‘be’ in our shifting world. What is clear, however, is that the profession of social work is ideally positioned to help pave the way forward.
I can understand how certain groups could feel as if the #MeToo movement is a new trend. I can understand how certain men, and women, can feel as if the world has turned upside down and that, suddenly, things that were acceptable are no longer so. But as a long time social worker, and life-long feminist, I can tell you that these examples in the media aren’t new, rare, or exceptional. And equally, the outrage and the solidarity among women and allies aren’t new either. What is new, however, is the level of coverage in the mainstream media, signalling that the broader public is ready for this conversation.
Consistent with any controversial news story, we have all witnessed many reactions to the #MeToo phenomenon. Some think things have gone too far; others, not far enough. Some feel the movement is problematic because it’s portrayal in the media lacks intersectionality. To these viewpoints, I think social work has a unifying response: it is now our role to provide space for the voices of those who are too often silenced. In Canada, no group has been so violently silenced as Indigenous women and girls and all non-Indigenous people have a responsibility to ensure that the voices of Indigenous women and girls -- the group in Canada who bear the heaviest burdens of patriarchy -- are central as this conversation moves forward.
And still others feel that some, like me perhaps, try to stretch the #MeToo conversation too far; for instance, by making it about Indigenous women and girls. To this I believe the Code of Ethics would say: there is enough outrage to go around. There is enough passion. And indeed, there is enough advocacy. Any voice for a group of women is a voice for all women, and in advocating for Indigenous women and girls we advocate for all of Canada.
As for our role at CASW, we will continue to press the federal government for not only a gender based analysis in the development of Budgets and policy, but also a reconciliation lens that considers the impact on Indigenous people and communities. We will continue to amplify the voices of First Nations organizations such as the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and others. We will continue to advocate for a basic income and other policies to ensure no woman, child, or family lives in poverty.
But in the meantime, while our Association and our Profession work toward long term, sustainable change, there are women impacted by this movement in everyday, visceral ways. There has been much backlash against the women who have come forward. In many cases, there are petty disagreements among the accused and their allies about the exact nature of the allegations that often demonstrate just how far society has to go. How many times have we heard “he didn’t do anything illegal,” or even “it’s not like he held her down and ripped her clothes off.” These statements fall so woefully short of the point, failing to realize that #MeToo is in response to individual cases and incidents, as well as in response to the toxic masculinity that has lead us here. We are striving for a world in which leaders, celebrities, and society as a whole respect, value, and uplift women and girls, and in which we are all held to a standard beyond innocent until proven guilty.
In pursuit of this standard, our profession is ideally positioned to lead us in a new, better direction. Indeed, the catchphrase or philosophy of this movement, “Believe Survivors,” is part of the very fabric of our profession: the knowledge that those we serve are experts on their own lives. We inherently respect the dignity and truth of each person. The incidence of false accusations are insignificant against the numbers of women whose experiences of abuse or harassment were ignored, suppressed or rejected.
Beyond the values of our Code of Ethics, believing survivors comes naturally to the social work profession for another reason: demographics. In a profession dominated by women, it is perhaps less accurate to say ‘we believe survivors’ than it is to say ‘we know.’ To victims and survivors, we say: we believe you because we trust and honour your lived experience. And because, in large part, us too.
And now, in keeping with the frenetic pace of today’s news cycle, the stories about #MeToo are already beginning to wane. Social workers will still be here, still listening to the stories of victims and survivors, still striving to dismantle the systems and beliefs that so negatively impacts our society for women and for men. As we move forward, there are many unanswered questions: how can we keep the momentum? How can we engage and motivate allies? How can involve men – knowing we can’t have true change without their allyship – without making this conversation about men?
CASW will continue to push for systems and policies that foster equity and privilege the experiences of women, and in particular, Indigenous women and girls. In our advocacy work on Parliament Hill and with our other stakeholders, we will not let this conversation die; just as we know Canadian social workers will continue this work in their therapeutic and professional relationships, in board rooms, and in lunch rooms across the country. Our unique systems and person-in-environment perspectives, and a Code of Ethics that embeds the pursuit of social justice in our everyday work, are ideal tools to begin the next steps.
Jan Christianson Wood, MSW, RSW