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A boy looks at a writing on the ground during a protest in support of women's rights, in New York City, U.S. on October 7, 2017.    © 2017 Reuters
“Why would anyone do that?”

My son asked this as he looked at the photo of Al Franken, Senator of our home state of Minnesota, posing with his hands over radio host Leeann Tweeden’s breasts as she slept, a stupid grin on his face. My son stood silently, shaking his head, as I described Tweeden’s account of Franken forcibly kissing her.

My teenage son isn’t naïve. He and his younger brother know about the outpouring of #MeToo stories. For years, they’ve heard about how women face violence, harassment, and discrimination in all corners of the world. I’m their mom, I work on women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, and I talk about it.

But the Franken story hits close to home.

A few months ago, I took my sons to Washington, and like many tourists do, we took a Capitol tour guided by Senate staff – in our case a Franken employee. Franken’s staffer pointed out statues of women suffragists and Rosa Parks. The kids and I talked about Franken, and took pride in our Senator supporting women’s rights causes.

And now this.

If these are the only incidents, it may be that Franken’s actions were less menacing than what victims have described about Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, and too many other men in positions of power. But they’re horrifying nonetheless.

What Tweeden describes represents the lower-level, ongoing harassment women frequently face – harassment that wears us down and forces some women to give up on the career of their dreams, change jobs, or leave the workforce altogether.

Franken has apologized. There will be an ethics investigation, and perhaps more. It matters that Franken and men like him, and the institutions they work for, examine their actions and take responsibility. Beyond any single case, we need systems to prevent sexual harassment, support survivors, and hold perpetrators accountable. 

My colleagues and I at Human Rights Watch work every day to fight harassment, violence, and discrimination against women around the world. We push for policy reforms and justice. We face the challenge of government apathy, or officials being perpetrators themselves. Sometimes we face well-meaning people who just don’t get it.

Many of us are also parents, facing the daily challenge of raising our kids in a sexist world. How can I ensure that my sons are not among the next generation of abusers?

As my son stared at the photo of Franken, I searched his face. To my relief, I saw signs that he gets it.

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