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  • Jan-Paul Van Dessel

I'm just a boy, standing in front of 3.9 billion girls...

On this day, as I read all the online posters and positive affirmations of women (and there are almost 3.9 billion of them to celebrate, so a day hardly seems enough!) I am reminded of being a much younger boy, and how I learned (or should say did not learn) about what it is to be a woman. This is a short blog about facts, not faults - I am not trying to blame anyone, and how those facts in the culture I grew up informed my then understanding of womanhood.




I am one of 4 boys, the third child, and growing up was surrounded by all things male; footballs, action man figures, boys clothes everywhere (lots of hand me downs!), wrestling on the stairs and on Saturday afternoon TV. It was left to my late mum to represent the female world in our home, and I do feel a sense of shame that to me it felt like it was never given much space and that I showed very little curiosity then. It must have been a lonely experience in a way, to be surrounded (indeed swamped, when I consider all she did for us) but not wholly understood or seen by me. Primary school was an extension of this, my first 6 years of early education. The school was one long quite narrow building, split in half. Boys on one side of the building and girls on the other. Education and play time always segregated. In fact, I remember a threat that you might be sent to the girls school side if you misbehaved. Something to fear! Secondary school continued that segregation, boys only, and this time the girls school wasn't even attached - they were miles away. No new information on womanhood, no new experiences to learn alongside and with girls, just a new threat of violence from those bigger and stronger than you (and which was aplenty!).


Sisters might have been a possibility, my mum had several miscarriages. These were never spoken about with me as I grew up. I heard about them only much later in my mid-20's. Somehow, they were unspeakable events, perhaps too painful, and she is no longer around to ask how that impacted her. Then around 1980 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. That whole process was also 'hidden'; testing, diagnosis and ultimately radical surgery. I remember seeing her walking up the drive, with her arm in a sling after that surgery, and being told "be kind to your mum - she's had a rough time". I actually learned from another boy at school about 1 year later that she had cancer when he asked me how she was doing (as he had actually known because his own mum knew!). Like I said, these are facts, it's not about blame. Something about women could not be spoken of it seemed.


What had I learned so far? on reflection I would say that it was that women stayed in 'another place', were mysterious as a result and fitted some defined social purpose. The latter was reinforced culturally every day in the TV shows, movies, media and advertising of the day. Remember, this was when women appeared on the sides of beer cans, page 3 in certain papers and in the least powerful roles in both fact and fiction. I had learned at school how to draw a biologically accurate representation of the female reproductive organs but had literally no idea about what that might mean for a woman in terms of the responsibility, wonder and pain that brings. It was a drawing on a piece of paper.


I was one of about 500 boys in that secondary school, and that was just one of the boys schools in the town I grew up in. That system of segregation in the decades before and for some time after, must have churned out literally tens of thousands of ill-prepared and naive young men into the world from that one town alone! The multiplication factor on that across all of Ireland is a scary prospect. I am of course telling this part of the story through my own lived experience of being a heterosexual man, and appreciate that this is only one strand of experience and relationship in a globally inclusive world. I would say that it affected every part of my ability to be confident and relaxed in relationship to any woman at that time whether that was just friendship or something more.


Thankfully many things have changed since then, that secondary school is now co-ed and has been for about 20 years now. Relationships, diversity and inclusion are much greater parts of our education systems and curriculum. There are powerful female leader role models across all parts of life, and a greater celebration of their achievements and there is still a VERY long way to go. My greatest learnings and discoveries of womanhood have been revealed to me in what has been an amazing 30 years of marriage to my stunningly brilliant wife and in my 23 years of being a proud and awe-filled Dad to my daughter. I am also grateful for all I have learned from the fantastic women who I studied alongside to become a counsellor. I was one of 8 men with 28 women (including 3 tutors) in the years that I studied for my PG Diploma in counselling and I felt included, equal and held by them. About 70% of my clients have been women and I have learned from every one of those, and especially touched where they have placed their faith in me as a man, when it has often been a man who has been the centre of their hurt, abuse or neglect. So today, I feel very grateful for all that I have received from the women in my life.


The International Women's Day key theme in 2021 is #choosetochallenge to challenge inequality, call out bias, question stereotypes, and help forge an inclusive world. In that respect I can say that I have come a long way since I was that young boy and I'm sure I have lots more to challenge myself on, and to learn, as it's a dynamic ever changing world and every new voice in it needs to be heard, nurtured and equal.


For now though I'll finish with a mis-quote from the great movie Notting Hill...


"I'm still just a boy, standing in front of 3.9 billion girls saying I think you are absolutely amazing!!"


Happy International Women's Day.



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