What Do These Awareness Days Mean, Anyway?

Orange is the Color of the 16 Days UN Campaign

Orange is the Color of the 16 Days UN Campaign

Yesterday was a difficult day for those who want to believe in the promise of a fair and equal society, one in which all of us are respected simply on the basis of our shared humanity. As I read through the reports on social media, I also noticed it was the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, recognized every year on November 25 as the start to the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender- Based Violence. A year had passed already? And I missed it? I usually write something up for this campaign, as I appreciate the opportunity to focus on the global epidemic that is gender-based violence, and to connect with activists across the world on possible solutions. I wrote something last year; and reading it again, it more than holds up for this year.

In last year’s post, I wrote about Marissa Alexander’s case – a FL domestic violence survivor who used a legally-obtained firearm to fire a warning shot during a fight with her abusive ex, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. How is Ms. Alexander doing a year later? Well, she was granted a new trial, but the FL State Attorney decided to double-down on her assertion that Ms. Alexander was the aggressor in this case, and pursued a 60 year sentence. Less than a month before the December 08 trial, Marissa Alexander took a plea deal, leaving her a 65 day jail sentence and two  years of probation. This is in no way justice, but at least it gets Ms. Alexander out of prison and allows her to be with her young children again, including the baby that had just been born when this incident took place.

What else has happened since the last awareness day?

Video surfaced of football player Ray Rice knocking out his fiance in an elevator.

Media and cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian was forced to flee her home over violent threats made due to her documentation of misogyny in the video game industry.

Popular CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi was fired due to several allegations of sexual assault and harassment of women.

Miss Honduras and her sister were shot by her sister’s boyfriend.

An Oklahoma police officer has been charged with sexually assaulting at least 13 women while on duty.

The murmurings about Bill Cosby’s history of sexual assault have finally reached the general public. (And Don Lemon decided to ask one victim if she considered biting Mr. Cosby’s penis as a way stopping the sexual assault that was occurring to her.)

It took a Rolling Stone article for UVA to even admit a brutal gang rape had happened on its campus (and they still haven’t really done anything). (Note: huge trigger warning on that article, for a graphic description of the rape).

These are literally what has popped into my head just now; I am sure there is much more that I could write if I thought about for a bit longer; and that there is plenty I don’t know about. Point is, it’s been quite a year for violence against women (VAW); and much hand-wringing and victim blaming has ensued.  It sure is easy to question if our awareness campaigns are doing much to stop the violence.

And as we tally up these incidents of direct physical violence, at this time in our country’s history when another black life appears to have been casually dismissed, we also need to look at the indirect violence the indiscriminate killing of black and brown men is doing to the mothers of these men. Will we talk about the violence Lesley McSpadden, Tressa Sherrod, Samaria Rice and so many others have experienced as their sons were killed with little or no accountability for those who killed them? And what it’s like for those mothers who live with the fear they will experience this racist violence?

Awareness campaigns are an important tool in our social justice toolbox, and I am not willing to give them up. But I do hope we can start to push past them when needed. Like now. When violence against women, violence against people of color, violence against LGBT-identified persons is still an epidemic with no real end in sight. It’s a “crisis” that’s been going on a long, long time……Many of us are at least aware of the problem; now we need to commit to doing something about it (and that “it” can look like many things, including just speaking up in casual conversation to push back on the dismissal of this violence and on the victim blaming).

I had the opportunity to see Mildred Muhammad – ex-wife of the “DC sniper” – speak recently. She speaks eloquently about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her ex-husband; abuse that wasn’t believed because it was in the form of threats and controlling behavior, not acts that left bruises. As she was sharing this story, she told us she eventually developed the attitude “fine; you don’t believe me and won’t help. Get out of my way and let me find someone who will”. In other words – don’t waste her time with your justifications of why you won’t help; or why you think your beliefs and attitudes trump her lived experience; or make her listen to why you think you’re part of the solution when you are really part of the problem. Just get out of her way and let her find someone who will help.

I thought that was good advice, for those of us who think we can change things for the better.  Let’s try for fewer awareness campaigns designed to drift over the heads of the disengaged, and more action campaigns that bring in those ready to take a stand for change.

Tara Romano, NCWU, President