Last Saturday was White Ribbon Day, the “men’s campaign” marking the beginning of “sixteen days of activism” to end violence against women. This year, WRD’s TV ads have attracted considerable criticism: they depict little girls looking on as their fathers, who would do “anything” for them, commit violent acts of self-harm (in one, a man amputates his own arm). But this is not the only problem with the campaign. Here, women’s emergency services and anti-violence peak groups give their view of what WRD could and should be - but isn’t.
In the early morning of November 19, in Townsville, Claire Carey was murdered, and her partner seriously injured, by Claire’s ex-boyfriend, who later committed suicide. The Courier-Mail reported this under the headline “Deadly Love Triangle claims two lives”.
Not only was this not true - Claire had broken off her relationship with her assassin - but also portrayed the victim as being somehow at fault for “two-timing”. This headline is all the more worrying because a number of national and international studies, including a just-published UN study, show that women are at the highest risk of violence from a former male partner.
And when women speak out, they meet with harassment and threats from other men. Women working in domestic violence services and lobby groups (as had Claire Carey) have reported receiving hate mail since the recent publication of “Seeking Safety” and “Dragonfly Whispers”, on Townsville women’s experience of male violence and the Family Law system, and the co-ordinator of these reports has even been stalked.
But Townsville is far from being unique: these stories are simply among the most recent in the unending horror stories of male violence, and retaliation against women who speak out.
Such retaliation is given more power not only by the proliferation of so-called “men’s rights groups”, as well as the writings of some male academics such as Michael Woods (University of Western Sydney) who seek to discredit research and testimony on male violence, but also by the media, which continue to sensationalise and trivialise it with tawdry headlines such as the “Love Triangle” one cited above.
All of which makes it terribly important that initiatives such as WRD exist. But how effective is it being in Australia?
WRD was initiated by Canadian men in 1991, the year after the massacre of 14 women engineering students at Montreal Polytechnic. Its initiators wanted to take responsibility as men, collectively, to “never commit, condone, or be silent” about male violence again. So what has gone wrong with the Australian campaign?
First, there are the ads, which are produced pro bono by advertising firm Saatchi and Saatchi with the support and sponsorship of UNIFEM.
In letters to the WRD group, to Saatchi and Saatchi and to UNIFEM, as well as through radio and television interviews and newspaper opinion pieces, women have overwhelmingly pointed out that the ads not only are confusing and appear to feature gratuitous violence, but they do nothing to send a message to men about their collective responsibility for male violence, whether committed by them or not.
What has been the response of the WRD campaign group, including UNIFEM, to these complaints? To withdraw the ads immediately? To seek dialogue with women working with victims of male violence to see what might be more appropriate? To acknowledge that not only did they fail to consult women, they also failed to do market research among men?
None of the above.
Written by Bronwyn Winter, University of Sydney, and Betty Green, domestic violence advocate, on behalf of WESNET (Women’s Services Network: peak body grouping 380 women’s domestic and family violence services across Australia); Pauline Woodbridge, Coordinator, North Queensland Domestic Violence Resource Service; Julie Oberin, Manager, Annie North Women’s Refuge and Domestic Violence Service; Marie Hume, National Abuse Free Contact Campaign; Veronica Wensing, Executive Officer, Canberra Rape Crisis Centre; Beth Tinning, Facilitator, Domestic Violence and Family Law Support Action Group, Townsville; and women’s rights advocates Desi Achilleos and Julieanne Le Comte.
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