Culture is the reason why violence against women exists. Unique to ethnic, linguistic or geographical groups, culture defines what is acceptable and what is not. Cultures the world over condone violence against women in numerous forms and to varying degrees. Acid burning would not be tolerated in the US, but domestic and sexual violence is. Yet there are individuals the world over, working to re-define unquestioned customs that result in harmful practices to women. The following video is a powerful example of a change-maker; a courageous woman who dared to defy a standard cultural norm and shift her group’s culture entirely.
(Video Source: Phil Borges, Social Documentary Photographer & Film maker)
As seen in the video, in order for culture to change, culture must be included in discussions on violence against women and women’s rights. To leave it out is to ignore the foundation upon which women’s rights frameworks exist around the world (plural intended). The cultural context of each group needs to be considered when such conversations occur. Indeed, the challenge in our work as activists is to hold the space locally for the work on a micro (individual) level simultaneously with the macro, bigger systems change work we do both locally and globally.
As someone who works with survivors of domestic violence on a daily basis, I wouldn’t be truthful if I said I carry this balance perfectly all the time. Frankly, I sometimes lose my perspective and fall into a myopic trap, only seeing violence against individual women with whom I work. The rage I feel towards the perpetrators boils up within and it is only in debriefing with colleagues or taking a break that I can successfully “zoom out” and see the bigger picture: the cultural constructs of the United States that continue to provide space, messaging and freedom for violence against women. In our culture, myriad oppressions exist simultaneously in a framework that works to keep the dominant group(s) in power and the marginalized populations marginalized. I see effects of sexism, racism, homophobia, ageism, ableism or any constellation of these daily.
Yet if I were to only focus on these injustices (including the ones I know about going on around the world), I would send myself into a clinical depression, effectively eradicating my own voice from the cause that is my purpose in life: to work toward ending violence against women. I speak from experience.
In order to abate the relatively easy slide into The Overwhelm, I have constructed points of perspective, anchors of cultural change, to hold onto. The movement I work for started 30 years ago. Grassroots in its origins, it was inspired and buoyed by other movements for social justice such as the women’s, LGBTQ and civil rights movements. From volunteer-operated crisis lines out of someone’s basement, we’ve established an entire professional field to help survivors of domestic violence. From a “private family matter” we’ve pushed it into the culture’s consciousness resulting in legislation, laws and federal protections for survivors. Think: VAWA. Domestic violence is now considered a human rights issue and increased education and identification of this pandemic are nowadays the rule, no longer the exception.
In these 30 years we have shown that cultural change is possible. This creates a bud of hope within my heart that over the next 30 years domestic violence – in the United States and around the world – will no longer be tolerated to the degree that it still is and that perpetrators will not experience impunity but rather be held accountable not only by the legal system, but by their families and communities as well. Indeed, without families’ and communities’ presence and commitment to hold abusers accountable, we’re in this for the long haul.
Herein lies the challenge: those in positions of power, those with the loudest voice, usually men, dictate the trends of culture top-down. We need more women in powerful positions within our government (women make up just 17.2% in Congress), within the Fortune 500 (only 15 women are CEOs) and of course, we need more women at the top of mainstream media (the big 6 media conglomerates are all owned and run by men).
From the bottom up I’m aware of a lot of movement both locally and around the world to engage men in the process of eliminating violence against women. Most of these grassroots efforts, however, are led by powerful women. I’m proud to site the recently named Nobel Peace Prize winners as examples of influential women spear-heading cultural change directly related to women’s rights to be free from violence: Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian Women’s Rights and Peace Activist Leymah Gbowee and Yemenese Women’s Rights Activist and Journalist Tawakkul Karman.
While imperative to have people of specific cultural groups speaking out on behalf of and for members of their own group, I also believe we have a lot to share between ourselves as activists around the world. I am profoundly inspired by these three Nobel Peace Prize winners and feel that the recognition of their work reinforces the work I do in the US as well as the work of my global sisters. During my recent volunteer trips to Cambodia and South Sudan in which I volunteered for projects focused on violence against women, I emphasized an exchange of issues and solutions with the women I met. I wanted to hear what was relevant, important and necessary for their processes to create cultural change as well as share, if asked, what is necessary for our own here in the US. When I left each country, I was positively transformed and more deeply connected to the people and the cause.
Cultural change to eliminate violence against women needs to be a coordinated effort from the top down as well as from the grassroots to mainstream. I do see this happening. There is progress. But there is also substantial work to be done. Violence against women does not happen in a vacuum, but rather exists within cultural norms that define acceptable behavior. Until most countries, including the US, make a paradigm shift away from patriarchy we will be busy. And active. And loud. Moving the movement forward.