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.
They have asked “mental health professionals” to write a lengthy “expert” defence of the ads, which currently appears on the home page of the WRD website. There is also a prominent link to Saatchi and Saatchi’s “explanation” of the meaning and purpose of the ads.
But if the ads have to be “explained”, then they are not effective. Rather than listening to the real “experts” - women who have themselves suffered male violence and women who are working with them and with a range of governmental and non-governmental organisations to end it - the WRD group have chosen self-justification.
Yet, UNIFEM and the WRD group have relied heavily on women's organisations to support WRD. Even though in some parts of Australia, men are actively and constructively involved in promoting the campaign, in many others, it is an event that has been largely supported and driven by women's services and networks such as local domestic violence committees, membership of which is predominantly female.
Betty Green, long time worker in this area in New South Wales, who this year received an Edna Ryan award for community activism, has commented that in her recollection, “no men's service in the community nor men's group in NSW has ever taken responsibility in organising or promoting White Ribbon Day”.
The ads, then, are merely a symptom of a wider problem with men’s active involvement in their own campaign. When men wear a White Ribbon it is not merely a silent statement but must be an acceptance of responsibility and commitment to address that which continues to afflict a significant proportion of women in our community.
It should be a time where each man considers his own behaviours, attitudes, beliefs and values he holds towards the women in his life and his community.
If men are serious about eliminating violence against women, they must act upon this conviction, whether in the criminal justice and family law systems, the workplace, the media or down the pub with the mates.
Indeed, a much better ad for this year’s WRD campaign might have been the re-enactment of the following true story: in a visit to the country town where he had grown up, a young man - let’s call him Col - was invited for a drink at the local by former school mates, who had become known wife-batterers. Col’s response: “I don’t want to drink with blokes who beat up their wives; in fact, I don’t even want to be in the same pub” - and he and his friends walked out.
Most importantly, they must listen to the experts: women with experience of the multiple layers of damage done by male violence in women’s and children’s lives and with knowledge of what is needed to stop it.
As women, we already have more work than we can cope with, simply trying to repair or minimise the effects of the damage. It makes our job harder, not easier, when men who claim to support us ignore our feedback and leave us to do the groundwork on “their” campaign. Until all men involved with initiatives such as WRD are truly prepared to “walk” their talk - as Col did, for example - men will, literally, keep getting away with murder.
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.