As one of the Press and Media coordinators for Hollaback London, a collective dedicated to ending street harassment, I respond to a number of journalists every month. These journalists tell us they are getting in touch because they believe in the importance of having specialists incorporated into their reporting on harassment. They suggest to us that feeding into their most recent column/feature/report/online news story will be good for us and good for survivors, and by and large it can be difficult to disagree with this sentiment. Nevertheless the stories we are routinely being asked to feed into have little to do with harassment. The questions these journalists ask us largely focus on whether we think violence against women and girls (VAWG) is getting any worse, whether we've noticed an increase in "crimes" against women, and what women and girls can do to keep themselves safe. And more often than not said journalists demand that we either recount our own experiences of harassment and violence or, preferably, that we find a survivor within our network who will be able to graphically detail their experiences of what happened when their public space was violated. Occasionally when we refuse to do this, instead directing journalists to our website which holds thousands of women, girls and non-binary peoples experiences, the platform for speaking is withdrawn.
The original purpose of consciousness raising and story sharing was to ensure women's voices were being heard, and to allow women and girls to discover what they had in common, so as to produce policy and theory to challenge the regular and persistent oppression and violence they experience. At Hollaback we would argue that story sharing actually does more than this. Harassment, like all forms of violence against women and girls, is so embedded into our everyday lives, so normalised, that speaking out and sharing experiences helps to de-root it. This is why Hollaback exists. This is why the heart of our work is to provide a space for women, girls and non-binary people to share private experiences online in a way that they often are not able to do offline, and in the process transform and extend the frames and lenses with which they understand their experiences - cognitively and emotionally. The stories they are forced to repress and conceal became public and in the process of doing this something transformative happens. Women, girls and non-binary people tell us that posting their stories online is a coping mechanism and a way of reclaiming power, but they also tell us how reassuring it's to see other women speaking out - they are not alone.
It's because of the power of speaking out and sharing otherwise hidden stories that we at Hollaback do respond to the press, and also engage with campaigning groups like the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW). In fact it's one of the main reasons why we were keen to be involved in the judging process for the first EVAW media awards. By speaking to the media we hope to support those who submit stories to our website to break the silence pushed onto them by those who harass them, and in the process build on, or amplify, their stories. We also hope to gently change public perception, and to shift the blame back onto the harassers and away from survivors. However it's difficult to do this when the media we respond to inadvertently yet routinely silences us, and the survivors whose stories we share, through the compounding of problematic myths. For example, when journalists persistently focus on what women and girls should do to keep themselves safe and stop harassment they suggest that it's our responsibility - the blame becomes ours to hold again. At Hollaback we can, and do, regularly challenge these myths when we speak to the media but there is only so much we can do when they are at the heart of the report/article. It's exhausting and feels never ending.
This fatigue and frustration is exactly why good reporting on VAWG is so crucial. Not only does it take some of the strain off the survivors and experts, but it's also vital for improving public discussions and social attitudes. Of course it could be argued that "good journalism" is highly subjective, nevertheless from my recent experience of judging some of the entries there were some clear qualities that stood out. Good reporting on VAWG is that which really strives to push and challenge, to understand and get to the root of the issue whilst also respecting the voices of both survivors and experts. When reading through some of the submissions for EVAW Media Awards I saw just that. I saw survivors' voices being placed at the centre in a way that was not for audience entertainment or voyeurism, but to allow a reclaiming of the space that was taken away from them. There was respect. There was understanding and empathy. And there was an awareness of the power of the media and its unique capacity to create informed debate, alongside a true appreciation of the importance of finding creative ways to guide readers and viewers through content, whilst always challenging myths. I hold onto the hope that maybe by recognising, celebrating and bolstering the best reporting on VAWG through these awards that we can continue to encourage survivors to speak out and feel heard, encourage the government to continue to fund specialist services, and potentially, one day, end VAWG.
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