To My Son: Ask Questions. I Will Answer.
Juana Cooke, Executive Director of APLAFA
I used to assume that violence against women was something others did: a stranger, a family member, the State. While violence feeds on social structures and power imbalances between men and women, gender-based violence is an act that begins when a person decides to be violent. Statistically, those who violently attack women are men.
I watch you sleep, still wearing your soccer socks, and I’m writing to you, remembering the child you are and thinking of the man you will be. Nothing reminds me more that we live in a society that is violent toward women that the fact that I’m your mom, and I shudder at the thought that you could become a violent man.
I would like to remove the billboards from our city that use women's bodies to sell anything from car batteries to beer. When you walk with me, I would like for you not to hear the whistles and remarks I get from strangers. Harassment on the streets is an everyday practice in our city, so I grab your hand strongly and explain that I don’t know the man who just called out to me, and I tell you his words made me uncomfortable.
I would have preferred you didn’t find out about the 2-year-old girl from our district who was beaten to death by her stepfather. "What did she do to get so beaten up?" you innocently asked me. I felt a lump in my throat and explained that there's nothing a girl can do to provoke violent behavior that ends her life.
On November 25, when I took part in the march commemorating the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, you saw the crosses we were carrying, representing each violent death of Panamanian women. You told me you knew that I was walking for her, for that 2-year-old girl. Yes, my love, I walked for her. And I walked for all the women who have no voice.
When we see children on the streets who ask me for money, you ask why they are not in school. I explain to you that, although we are all equal, there are children who have to work. I like that you get angry and tell me that isn't fair.
"Why do you always give speeches?" you have asked me. I explain that I do it to ensure adolescents, children, and girls know that no one should touch them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable. I do it so they can go to the doctor and get proper health care. I do to make sure they know their rights and have the opportunity to find their own voices, just as you are finding yours.
I remember that day I came home in a bad mood, and I raised my voice when I spoke to you. You asked me not to mistreat you. You cut me short and you were right. I must be mindful of my own behavior, especially with you.
You ask questions, and I answer. I feel uncomfortable, but I explain it to you.
At the end of the day, I can't protect you from being exposed to so many expressions of violence, including violence against women. But I can prevent you from considering violence, in any form, to be something normal. I want to shock you, to make you mad. I want to make you feel angry about injustice, and I hope you keep questioning everything, seeing life with a critical eye. I hope you learn that we have to take action and stand up against violence.
You may continue walking through violent cities. You may still hear about the femicides of 2-year-old girls. But I hope this conversation makes you realize that just as an act of violence begins with one person's decision to harm, the solution begins with one person's decision to make a better choice.
Keep asking me questions, and I will answer them. Keep making me feel uncomfortable, and I will explain it to you—one myth at a time, one an act at a time—until you decide the change will start with you.