Last Friday marked the beginning of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign. It is easy to be motivated by the idea of a 16 day dedication to combating violence against women, but I float between enthusiasm, doubt, and the occasional eye-roll as I read through some of the websites of major organizations that are promoting the campaign, like Say NO – UniTE, which is led by UN Women. I have to work a little bit to get past the cringe factor of what could appear as an elite-led advocacy campaign (ribbons, rubber bracelets, glossy pamphlets, etc.) to understand the significance of the campaign and its connection to the goal of a nonviolent world. Can anything led by the UN be called activism?
A little research offered me the campaign’s origin; it was launched in 1991 by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Of course, a white ribbon is involved. But wait, I thought the ribbon color for the campaign is purple? Another eye roll.
As we consider the actual levels of violence against women both in conflict, post-conflict, revolutions, and “stable” democracies campaign—the “campaign” should be a call for outrage, not activism. But at least for the next 16 days, the issue of gender violence will be on the agenda of many international institutions, organizations and communities, and that is better than silence, ignorance and denial.
After a deeper look at the campaign, I realize it is less about women’s rights and more about anti-militarism. It’s more about opening a global discussion about what a nonviolent world might look like. And in many places around the world, the formality of a global campaign may be just want local communities need to begin a dialogue, educate youth, or add creative nonviolent tactics to get the issue of gender-based violence on the agenda.
Women have been front and center of many of this year’s revolutionary nonviolent movements in the Middle East, and beyond, but they rarely fully enjoy the dividends of democratic change. Take the example of post-revolution Maldives, where women for years strategized and suffered for change that eventually led to the end of a 30-year dictatorship. According to Maldives Dissent, the new, democratic administration continues to support flogging, a form of punishment primarily used against women. And in Egypt, women who took risks and spent days organizing and protesting are not yet celebrating or participating in a reform government, as eloquently expressed by Dalia Zaida, an Egyptian blogger and nonviolent activist.
According to Amnesty International:
Violence against women is rooted in a global culture of discrimination which denies women equal rights with men and which legitimizes the appropriation of women’s bodies for individual gratification or political ends.
This seems to me a sanitized version of the issue. Although controversial and perhaps outdated, the 1983 pamphlet, Piecing It Together: Feminism and Nonviolence, is more bold and provocative. “When we are trying to rid the world of things as oppressive as nuclear weapons or poverty, sexism or racism, it can help to look at their structural underpinning – the system of patriarchy, with capitalism and the State as basic and linked aspects of that system,” state the authors.
Perhaps the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign will at least get people, particularly men, thinking and considering the subtle origins of gender-based violence—patriarchy, war, state power, corporate power and religion. My view, however, is that as long as this campaign remains a short-term, women-led initiative, nothing will change.
Piecing It Together offers one of the most profound statements of masculinity made in 1968 by Cesar Chavez, leader of the United Farm Workers Union in the U.S. struggling for the rights of migrant workers:
I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice. To be a man is to suffer for others. God help us to be men.
The issue of gender-based violence has everything to do with civil resistance and waging nonviolence because any broad movement for social change cannot succeed or create lasting positive change if more than half its population remains oppressed by the other through laws, norms, traditions or apathy. A society that is democratic, just, free and equal for all cannot condone violence against women, or any individual, in any form. That’s nothing to roll our eyes about.