In 2012, 153 women came to the Winona Women's Resource Center after having suffered sexual or domestic violence. According to the Minnesota Men's Action Network, men are responsible for 95 percent of domestic and sexual abuse cases. However, men can also support abuse victims and, many argue, help prevent this epidemic of violence.
The MENding Project is a new program addressing abuse. It enlists businesses to provide goods and services to the victims of sexual and domestic abuse for free or at a reduced cost. Local non-profit Beyond Tough Guise (BTG) is organizing the project, which was announced last month. The mission of BTG is to help stop violence by "improving the attitudes and behavior of boys and men."
BTG began in 2006. Since then the group has hosted discussion groups on abuse; organized a "Youth Action Theatre," which dramatized and discussed abuse and its impacts; published "Characteristics for Men and Boys," a pamphlet advocating responsibility and nonviolence; and helped initiate the Winona County "Clean Hotel" policy, a first-of-its-kind law restricting the county from patronizing hotels that offer pornography.
The MENding Project aims to provide a broad spectrum of goods and services that might be needed by women suffering from abuse—everything from medical care for their injuries to home repair for damages caused by her abusers. Many of these goods and services come from traditionally male-run businesses, and the MENding project is especially seeking their support. A brochure from the project says the goal is not only to "mend the harm" caused by abuse, but also to prevent abuse by speaking out against it.
"We want that harm to be repaired, first of all, as a message to the women that there are people in the community that are aware of this and they want it to stop," MENding Project Director Shel Hiscock said. "And until we get it to stop, we are going to stand up beside you and fix [it]. But the second piece is to prevent this from happening in the future."
So far, eight businesses have agreed to participate: Butler's Handyman Service, Jay Kohner Remodeling, Robeson Family Vision Clinic, Citizens Community Federal, Redig Electric, Restoration Carpentry, Tires Plus of Winona, and In*Tech. Those businesses will begin offering services to victims later this month. Meanwhile, the project is soliciting the support of additional businesses.
The participating businesses will post a sign in the window or on the counter announcing their pledge. Women who have been the victims of abuse can work with the Women's Resource Center to get a "Certificate of Hope," which states that they are entitled to participate in the program, and the women or their advocates at the Women's Resource Center tell the participating businesses what is needed.
"Confidentiality is really important here," Hiscock said. "Obviously we don't want to revictimize a woman." All of the businesses are required to sign a confidentiality agreement and go through an orientation process that reinforces the importance of protecting victims' privacy.
There is an economic argument for the importance of reducing violence against women, Hiscock and BTG President Joe Morse said. In 2005, sexual assaults in Minnesota cost $8 billion, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Incarceration, prosecution, and victim services make up a big portion of that figure. Issues related to assaults, including STDs, unplanned pregnancies, suicide, and substance abuse, were also figured in.
"It is a huge cost and it is being paid by every county and every city," Morse said. "We've got to stop wasting our money on something we can prevent."
Beyond Tough Guise is a member of the Winona County Sexual and Domestic Violence Primary Prevention Project (WCSDVPPP), a coalition of government and private organizations including Winona County Public Health, the Women's Resource Center, Winona County Human Services, Big Brothers Big Sisters, WAPS Public Education Program, and WSU. Their goal is to stop abuse before it happens.
This "primary prevention" work is a shift in how the problem of sexual and domestic violence has been approached in the past. "In the past, domestic violence has been seen as a family problem, something that women are going to address and try to resolve," Morse said. "What the [WCSDVPPP] is saying is that, no, this is a public health problem. If one in three women is being assaulted, it's not just a family problem, it is a public health problem."
The main focus of this prevention work by the WCSDVPPP and Beyond Tough Guise is to make the problem of violence more visible and to change cultural norms that may encourage violence against women.
Breaking the silence to end abuse
"[Sexual and domestic abuse] is something that our cultures, our communities, want to keep quiet," Hiscock said. "They don't want to acknowledge that it's happening."
The code of silence surrounding sexual and domestic abuse is part of the system that allows it to occur so frequently, Hiscock and Morse explained.
The MENding Project provides "a venue in which we can all talk about [sexual and domestic abuse] in our community," Director of the Winona Women's Resource Center Diana Miller said. "It begins to shed more light on the problem and begins to go toward eliminating it. If our culture, our climate, is such that our fellow community members cannot ignore [abuse], it makes things much more comfortable for victims to seek assistance and less comfortable for perpetrators."
Hiscock and Morse hope the MENding Project signs displayed in the windows of businesses will help raise awareness. "This is a way for men to be responsible for what is going on in their community, to step up and say, 'This is my business. It's not a secret. It is not something that can go on in our community. I'm stepping up because I want to this to end in our community,'" Morse said.
"On a case-by-case basis, having access to a specific good or service can make a big difference [for a victim]," Miller said. "But on a broader level, having victims see a visual sign that tells them: 'I'm on your side. I don't want this to happen. I'm going to do my part and stand up publicly with you to make this violence stop. We as a community are not going to ignore this, or just hope it goes away, or pretend that it doesn't really happen'—that's going to make a big difference."
A culture of violence?
"How do cute 3-year-old boys grow from being wonderful little toddlers, to being abusive to men and women?" Morse asked. Preventing that perversion is the goal of BTG. Morse said that boys are being enculturated to view women as sexual objects and to see strong men as having power (including violent power) over others, Morse said. Media, pornography, demeaning language, and poor male role models all help cultivate those attitudes in boys, and those attitudes lay the groundwork for abuse, he said.
The progression is, "if it's okay to demean women with my language, if it's okay to demean women with my thoughts, why is it not okay to just whack them when they make me angry?" Hiscock said.
BTG wants to share an alternative to violent masculinity. "The problem is young men thinking they can resolve whatever problems they've got going on through some kind of violent outburst," Morse said. "We've got to change the tone. That's not a solution to problems; that's not how we resolve problems in our community. We sit down, we talk about it, we negotiate, we compromise, so that people don't feel boxed and feel that they have to resort to violence."
If we want to stop abuse, "we have to change what's normal," Morse said.
A new front in the war on abuse
The Winona MENding Project is the first of its kind. The idea behind the MENding project was first envisioned by the Minnesota Men's Action Network. They provided brochures, signs, and other assistance to BTG. The Minnesota Men's Action Network has plans to help start MENding projects all over the state, but BTG's project in Winona County is the first.
The MENding project offers a new opportunity for men to get involved in the fight against abuse. "There have been the battered women's shelters—the Women's Resource Center has been around since 1978 in Winona County. Men have stood on the sidelines, maybe contributing money, maybe helping out a little bit, but really not taking an active role," Morse said. "So this is providing a way for well-meaning men to step up and really get involved in a big way. They're going to provide services and support to battered women that are really needed but, more importantly, they're going to change the tone, the environment, and the norms in the community so that boys don't grow up to think it's okay."
The cultural norms Morse and Hiscock are talking about are so ingrained, it is easy to throw up one's hands. How do you change culture? But it has been done, Morse and Miller point out. America has seen huge shifts in cultural acceptance for cigarettes and wearing seat belts in just a few decades. They believe a similar change in attitudes towards violence against women is possible and necessary. "I have great optimism," said Miller.
• 1 in 3 women worldwide will be abused sometime in their lives. - United Nations Development Fund for Women
• 1 in 6 women in the U.S. will suffer a rape or attempted rape during their lifetime. - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
• 158 domestic violence-related charges were filed in 2011 in Winona County. - Beyond Tough Guise.
• 153 primary sexual assault survivors were served by the Winona Women's Resource Center (WRC) in 2012. - WRC.
• 49 of those survivors were 17 years old or younger. - WRC.