According to a 2005 World Health Organization study, at least one in every three women across the globe will be abused physically and/or sexually at least once in her lifetime. The UN designates November 25th as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and December 10th as International Human Rights Day. Since 1991, the intervening sixteen days have been designated for the 16 Days Campaign, which focuses on awareness of gender-based violence.
The 16 Days Campaign, by its nature, is critical in thought and tends to focus on the specific factors that create a culture of violence. This year’s theme, for example, “highlights the role militarism plays in perpetuating violence against women and girls” as the amount of small arms in private ownership rises and “research shows that having a small arm in the home increases the overall risk of someone being murdered by 41%; for women in particular this risk nearly triples.”
However, other anti-domestic violence projects are not always so evaluative. Indeed, it seems that the trend is a troublesome commercialization and sensationalism. The Avon Foundation, for all the awareness it raises around the issue, still maintains two product lines (No More and m.powerment by mark) as part of its fundraising initiative.
Much like feminist sentiment surrounding the ‘Pink-ification’ of breast cancer, Avon’s lines present a thorny moral dilemma. On the one hand, there is a benefit to being able to contribute quickly and easily on a micro level (sometimes very micro – with certain products only bestowing cents of their total retail price to the cause) to larger social campaigns. On the other, not only is the commodification of a social ill ethically questionable, it can contribute to a buyer’s sense of complacency. Why, after all, if I’ve bought an m.powerment necklace or a pink vacuum cleaner, surely these ladies will be feeling better in no time!
Likewise, while it certainly raises awareness, sensationalizing gender-based violence can both turn the viewer away and instill him or her with a false sense of reality. France’s ad agency BETC Paris recently launched its campaign, entitled “Bruises,” a combination performance art and print work. On November 25th, dozens of women painted with realistic facial bruises dropped to the floor near the Pompidou Center in Paris under a banner that read, “In a single year, 122 women die after experiencing domestic violence.” The published images of the campaign that accompanied the performance depicted close-up views of bruises captioned in imitation of formal art pieces – “Grave Green,” “Booze Brown,” and “Rape Red.”
While extremely viscerally powerful, the BETC campaign remains simplistic and devoid of the complexities that surround domestic violence prevention strategies. Where is the discussion on how to spot an abusive relationship before it turns physical, the resources to escape such a situation before it’s too late. Reducing women and their stories to fodder for a shock campaign is, again, ethically troublesome to say the least.
So, are any campaigns getting it right? While they can receive criticism (as we all know that men are not the only perpetrators and women not the only victims), the recent trend of targeting sexual violence prevention campaigns towards men (see the following campaigns: My Strength is Not For Hurting; Real Men Know The Difference; Don’t Be That Guy, etc.) is certainly a step in the right direction. Here we do have an exploration of the ‘grey areas.’ Is drunken consent actual consent? Is there such a thing as spousal/relationship rape? Can consent be withdrawn? (The answers, for all that are following along, are resounding (a) NO, (b) YES, (c) YES).
Confronting these myths by being brave enough to suggest that gender-based violence thrives on a culture of hyper-masculinity can be the beginning of a critical and crucial evaluation of the behaviors that have created a culture of placid acceptance of both the myths and realities surrounding this violence.