Thanks to the countless women who have come together in solidarity and activism over the last 30 years of 16 Days of Activism we have made great strides in building awareness of violence against women. We have raised our voices, challenged systems, driven policy changes and repeatedly called for a breaking of the silence that surrounds men’s violence against women.
But a lot more needs to be done, particularly in the area of the language we use and how we tell the story of gender-based violence. This story needs to be told – and listened to – 365 days a year. But how we tell the story in a world of noise and distraction is crucial.
In Trócaire we try to use the power or storytelling to make sense and raise awareness of the challenges faced by women and girls we support in our countries in Africa, Central America and the Middle East. Stories hold cultural signals and codes. How we tell stories, and who tells them, shapes the world around us.
At the heart of storytelling is language, and language is power. It can move us to love or hate, to care or be careless, to value or devalue. It can motivate us to change our attitudes, beliefs and practices and create the change we want to see in the world.
In our storytelling we hold a responsibility to be caring and ethical in how we gather and tell the stories of women who are abused. We must always be cognisant of creating a context in which women’s stories count and are valued.
The story of violence against women comes up in my daily work listening to our country teams and the communities we work with, reading the news and hearing broadcasts. It is everywhere – but yet nowhere.
Too often women are written out of the story. Their experience is minimised, and the perpetrator’s life, behaviour and theories about the state of his health and wellbeing are at the centre.
For example consider the expressions “sugar daddy’ and ‘child prostitute’. A child cannot be a prostitute, they are being abused. A child or young adolescent when approached by a man at the school gates or in the market is not entering into a relationship with ‘a sugar daddy’, they are being targeted and abused by a paedophile.
It is too often the norm to talk about violence against women, and not about men’s violence against women.
The challenge for us in Trócaire is to tell the stories and give voice and space in a way that is respectful, safe and caring for survivors. And the to use language that holds perpetrators accountable for their acts of violence, and society accountable for not ending violence against women.
To narrate and listen to these stories is to come face to face with the capacity for humans to inflict violence and pain against other humans. To listen to these stories means being willing to bear witness to the acts of violence. It means to sit with the survivor, to offer support, to share the burden of their pain and to take action.
For Trócaire the telling of these stories happens in the sacred space of supportive programming, and between a survivor and a trusted support worker. The survivor does not share her story for the gratuitous viewing of the external world, but to create understanding and healing and recovery for herself.
To tell these stories means making visible the social context within which abuse takes place, giving voice to the disempowered, and to demand accountability. To tell these stories honours the experiences, strengths and capacities of women.
If we don’t tell the full story and fragment stories into snippets, stripped of the context of patriarchy and the systematic oppression of women, only the ‘horror’ facts are highlighted. And it risks re-victimising the survivor and the reader simply turning the page, tuning out, or worse empathising with the perpetrator.
If this happens we have bought into the silence and inaction that perpetrators seek from us. The silence and inaction that allows violence against women to continue to exist with impunity in our societies.
The global theme for this year’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, which will run from today until 10th December 2021 (Human Rights Day) , is “Orange the world: End violence against women now!”