Heidi Schnakenberg

(WOMENSENEWS)–A 3-year-old girl was raped and sexually assaulted by an adult male and the act was recorded on a videotape discovered in Nevada.

Authorities investigating the case at the time seemed traumatized by what they saw and made the unusual decision to show the girl’s face on television in a nationwide call for help. A haunting image of the girl dressed in leopard print lingerie appeared all over the news.

As we watched, my husband was mortified in a way that I had not seen before. "I can’t take it. I feel sick," he said.

That was about a year ago.

At the time I was interviewing an inmate at a New York correctional facility for a separate project and asked him what he thought about it. He coldly replied, "The man who did that should receive the death penalty. No, send him to jail and let the inmates kill him. Because after that, they will."

My husband, this inmate and other men I know displayed the same kind of instant and visceral reaction to this story that most women show when they so much as hear about rapes and other types of gender-based violence. The knowledge that there was a video seemed to make it more real.

Most domestic and sex crimes occur in private and it’s rare to witness the violence. It’s even rarer to have indisputable evidence of the crime.

Ever since I was a kid and witnessed my mother suffer domestic abuse, I have wondered at men’s lack of direct involvement in preventing violence against women and girls in the first place.

Wrong Focus

The focus is usually on women not doing enough to protect themselves or their children, while far less attention is paid to the perpetrators. Why aren’t more men outraged at their fellow males’ actions and motivated to end it, once and for all? Why are women left to pick up the pieces? Isn’t this a man’s problem?

I believe many men feel out of touch with normally well-hidden violence against women and girls and have a hard time absorbing the reality of their plight.

Fortunately, a shift on this seems underway.

Joe Biden, the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee, has been proudly citing his authorship of the groundbreaking 1994 Violence Against Women Act throughout the campaign, including during the debate earlier this month with the GOP’s nominee, Gov. Sarah Palin.

As the U.S. economy heads into rough times the need for more of this kind of male advocacy couldn’t be more urgent.

Across the country, reports of violence against women are on the rise.

The souring economy has been blamed for dramatic spikes in domestic violence in recent headlines in California, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Rhode Island and West Virginia. Pennsylvania has had a devastating increase in domestic violence fatalities.

Violence Rises With Job Loss

An extensive 2004 report by the National Institute of Justice found that the rate of violence against women increases as male unemployment increases. When a woman’s male partner is employed, the rate of violence is 4.7 percent. It’s 7.5 percent when the male experiences one period of unemployment. It’s 12.3 percent when the male experiences two or more periods of unemployment.

A female victim’s lack of money, meanwhile, is a common reason why she may refuse to leave an abusive partner, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

As domestic violence support groups and state and local authorities brace for a possible recession, some male activists are working hard to make their voices heard in the fight to stop violence against women in any circumstance.

I’d like to hand a megaphone to Patrick Partida, outgoing president of the University of Texas organization Men Against Violence, which treats violence against women as a male problem.

"The problem is not women not protecting themselves but men attacking women," says Partida. "The blame must be put in the correct place. If all men dedicated themselves to stopping men’s violence against women, then complete eradication can become a reality."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, an estimated 1 in 4 women in the United States–and 1 in 3 worldwide–will be a victim of male violence in her lifetime, making these crimes some of the most widespread in the world.

Teaching Anti-Female Behavior

Partida says men are taught from a young age to be anti-female in their thoughts and actions. "They learn this behavior from the media, peers, parents and even teachers. Many men find methods of fulfilling their perceived need for power through external means, which often include being violent and instilling fear in women."

He adds that men suffer a great amount of fear, especially of each other and of not living up to the image of masculinity in our culture. "The greatest thing for men to do now is to question their own beliefs, those of their male friends and family."

Dick Bathrick, co-founder of Men Stopping Violence, agrees. "In a patriarchal society, the notion that certain groups are entitled to dominate other groups is normalized," he says. "We hold women responsible for the problem and the solution. Men are socialized to control and dominate, and to stop violence against women men have to look at themselves. We must create safe spaces for women, listen to them and open our eyes."

Todd Minerson, executive director of the White Ribbon Campaign, based in Montreal, Canada, says the cause is gaining ground. Sixteen years ago White Ribbon started with three men in Montreal and now has active campaign groups, organizers and advocates in 57 countries. Todd says the campaign asks men not to remain silent. "Most men and boys actually do sympathize with women. But they are afraid of what other men or their peers will say and don’t have the power of analysis to address the issue."

One of my male friends told me that simply hearing about my research on this article made him more aware of the daily-nature basis of male violence against women.

Men can and will be receptive to this discussion if we make it a priority to include them. There’s no excuse for domestic and sexual violence to continue in a tough economy or in prosperous times. Elimination of the problem is possible, but until men become an equal part of the solution, we will not win the battle against it.

Heidi Schnakenberg is a screenwriter, journalist, author and activist.