In 1911, 1 million+ people gathered in support of the first International Women’s Day. Men and women around the world marked the occasion by attending rallies and campaigning for women’s right to work, vote, be trained, to hold public office, and to end discrimination.
Fast forward to 1975 when the United Nations celebrated International Women’s Day for the first time. More recently, this day is commemorated worldwide to celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women while also advocating for a more gender equal world and raising awareness of gender bias.
As a criminologist, I have worked in the field of violence against women and girls in Israel for more than 40 years and have studied gender bias at length. I am also a founding staff member of Beit Ruth for Young Women and Girls At Risk, a long-term residence and school for at-risk and vulnerable girls, ages 13-18, who have been removed from their homes by court order due to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Girls receive full-time care, an education, therapy, and enrichment programs at the Beit Ruth Village, one of the first youth villages in Israel to be designed according to a gender lens, including an all-female staff.
Prior to Beit Ruth, attempts at addressing at-risk youth focused on boys whose aggressive behavior following sustained abuse forced a national response; however, because girls primarily engage in self-harm, their needs have largely gone unnoticed and unaddressed. Through advocacy, we share our best practices and model program to educate, empower, and engage a global community to create social change. For example, to commemorate International Women’s Day, I will be sharing about gender violence to several different audiences, including as a panelist for a women’s conference alongside Oded Feuer, chair of the Knesset’s Status of Women’s Committee, and by special invitation of the Ministry of Welfare’s Strategy Department.
One of the key philosophies at Beit Ruth is to instill gender equality to empower our girls. The reason our staff are all women is based on the idea that our girls need positive female role models. Many of them witnessed violence against their mothers or were socially excluded outside of the home because their behavior was misunderstood. We also have many men who are part of our enrichment programs and who are positive male role models to our girls.
Modeling healthy behaviors, demonstrating solidarity among women, and providing insights into healthy behaviors is how we teach empowerment by example. We know an empowered woman is more likely to be an independent woman, both financially and emotionally, and therefore, she is less likely to stay in unhealthy relationships out of fear of being homeless, emotionally abandoned, falling into poverty, or worse. We invest in our staff, both personally and professionally, and our girls see this. They see strong assertive women who are good friends to each other and who support each other. Our staff bring their husbands and families to the Village and girls play with their children. For many of our girls, it is the first time that anyone has shown trust in them.
At the Village, if a girl is seen sitting alone during a school break, a staff member doesn’t just walk by – she checks in to see what is going on. Girls learn that they are seen, that they matter, and that they are fully supported. Because they are honored as a person, they learn to honor themselves.
With tailor-made programs designed according to individual needs, each girl receives praise for her accomplishments, while also given opportunities to showcase their talents, whether through music recitals or displaying artwork on the walls of their homes. In these ways, girls develop self-confidence and learn that they do not need to fall into a pattern of negative behavior to be noticed. Instead they learn positive alternatives to express themselves and their hopes for the future.
Empowerment also means choosing a good partner. We want our girls to understand the warning signs to look for so they can be fully aware and make healthy choices about their relationships. Jealousy, possessiveness, or overprotection can sometimes be interpreted as love, but these qualities do not show healthy love. Because of our work, we have the joy of seeing many Beit Ruth alumnae in positive relationships and raising children who will not have to experience the violence and abuse that their mothers did. That is our mission – to help break the generational cycle of violence for our girls and for future generational or children in Israel.
If Israel is to achieve the vision of International Women’s Day — a world free of gender bias — it must do everything it can to intervene earlier on behalf of at-risk girls and to prevent further trauma. With the United Nations reporting that 243 million women worldwide, ages 15-49, have been subjected to sexual and/or physical violence, the time to act is now. If we do not, we know that an abused girl today, who goes unrecognized and untreated, is more likely to continue experiencing violence as a woman tomorrow — or far worse.