The Truth About Gender-based Violence

On December 10, 1997, Ana Parejo Vivar went on Spanish television to reveal how her husband had abused her. Then, much to his surprise, she announced that she was seeking a divorce. Ten days later, her husband doused her with gasoline and set her on fire. Death was a high price to pay for speaking out, but she would not hide meekly in terror. That year, 17,000 cases of domestic violence were recorded and only five percent of women went to the police. By 2010, Spanish courts had passed 145,000 sentences against male aggressors (NY Times, February 23, 2011). More women are seeking and getting justice—and that is a healthy trend.

Courageous women around the world have declared that gender violence should not be a guarded secret and they look increasingly to the media to help them expose its malignancy. Fortunately there are signs that the mass media are paying attention. Many television producers now regard the rape of women refugees in Eastern Europe and Africa as legitimate war stories equal in importance to the siege of a city. Enlightened newspaper editors have put domestic violence on the crime stories list–a step up from the traditional “it’s not hot news” attitude. Moved by tragic accounts, well-meaning journalists even portray the sordid details of fatal beatings–broken bones, slashed breasts and swollen bellies. We are horrified by the assaults. We grit our teeth and swear we will do something to help. But does reporting about gender violence inspire action?

FIRE radio
FIRE radio

I suspect keeping the public eye on the problem raises awareness, but this merely tantalizes our sympathy. Just the facts may not be enough to stir the average citizen out of complacency. Reports of gender violence buttress the false notion that men’s nature is naturally savage and brutish and that there is little one can do to control it. The public can even develop a depressing attitude of indifference because there is little in the “bad news” that shows a way out.

The remedy? We need more good news. By “good” I don’t mean sugarcoated tales that ignore what’s wrong. But there has to be more balanced reporting between tales of misery and upbeat stories about women’s leadership, activities and progress. The truth is, women aren’t just victims. They have mobilized for years to fight gender violence and they are making important gains. The stories that need more coverage are the ones that show how the UN, governments, judges, police and doctors, in partnership with local men and women’s groups, are making a difference. That kind of news encourages citizens to take action.

Where can we find the good news? Women’s media like Radio Internacional Feminista (FIRE) have popped up on Internet radio. The Women’s UN Report Network (WRUN) is another online resource for feminist news. The buzz these days is about the international campaign known as the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. This global event has become so popular that many governments have become official sponsors.

Men are also getting more involved in combating gender violence. Canadian men are showing their commitment by wearing white ribbons, signing petitions and making donations to support women’s shelters. Breakthrough, an award-winning grass-roots campaign, reaches millions of men and boys who “ring the bell” to end violence against women and girls. The media need to pay more attention to these kinds of events because the “bad news” about gender violence is only half of the whole truth. The rest is about hope.