Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Eliminate. Stop. End. Fight against. What is the problem with this language and our current approach to ending violence against women?
The issue is that this is a deficit, problem-focused model of action. It focuses on the negative and is reactionary. I believe that to create a world beyond violence, we need a fundamental paradigm shift in the way we understand and respond to violence against women. We need a more creative, positive approach, which can tap into the potential power of human beings to create meaningful social change. We need to work towards creating cultures of peace, not simply stopping violence.
You might think this is just semantics; a meaningless difference in language. But language is powerful and it influences what we focus on. The distinction in language that I am talking about, and the power it has to change practice, is perhaps well represented by the Hiroshima Peace Park in Japan that stands in stark contrast to other 'war memorials'. The purpose of the Peace Park is to advocate for peace, rather than simply memoralise victims of war. Peace declarations are made every year and the mayor of Hiroshima pledges that the city will do everything in its power to abolish nuclear weapons and build lasting world peace.
Making a shift in the discourse from stopping violence to creating peace helps us to see the bigger picture. While work on violence against women has tended to focus on individual acts and changing individual behaviour, peace building is seen as a lifelong process; a continuum from the family to global institutions. This model works for addressing violence against women, which has been shown to be a complex issue with no single cause. Violence at the individual level is reproduced by cultures of political, economic and social institutions and legitimised by ideologies that sanction gender and other inequalities.
I find quantum physicist, David Bohm's conception of order useful in helping us understand the interconnectedness of the causes of violence. From his perspective, all human beings are part of an unbroken whole which is continually unfolding. He uses the example of a stream, where one may see an ever-changing pattern of vortices, ripples, waves and splashes, which evidently have no independent existence as such. Rather, they come from the flowing movement, arising and vanishing in the stream. This metaphor shows that at a level we cannot see, there is an unbroken wholeness, or what he calls an 'implicate order' out of which seemingly discrete events arise. Violence is the same, it is not an independent event and we need to take a holistic approach - tackling the underlying causes of social violence including inequality, poverty, oppression, social isolation and marginalisation, civil conflict, and substance abuse.
The useful thing about positive approaches is that they have a forward-looking orientation to producing change. Rather than focusing on analysing the ills of the past they place an emphasis on visioning and creating a positive image of a preferred future. Positive approaches are culturally relevant and contextualised to each new situation. They value diversity as a source of creativity and innovation, offer tools for bringing people together to discover shared values and a common future. Similarly we should not focus all of our attention on the problem but build upon positive and empowering examples with individuals, in relationships, institutions and environments - this process will ultimately change the problem itself.
There are some good examples of positive focused approaches that we can learn from. For example, safer cities projects that aim to challenge the gendered nature of urban spaces and present alternative approaches to making safer spaces have had some success. The Making Safer Places project, run by Women's Design Service from 2003-5, had the purpose of empowering local women in Bristol, London and Manchester to improve the design, access and facilities in their neighbourhoods. Comite d'action femmes et securite urbaine (CAFSU) in Montreal is challenging paternalistic ways of thinking about tackling violence against women. We can also look at the Gandhigram (Gandhi Villages) in India where they aim to create a classless society based on Gandhi's teachings of non-violence. The Big hART social change arts organisation, worked in a notorious central Sydney housing estate nicknamed 'Suicide Towers' enabling it to become the first public housing estate to achieve WHO designation as a Safe Community through producing various art pieces and films and ultimately saw safety to be about social connectedness and relationships; agency; well-being; functional physical environment; and a positive image within the broader community.
The other important element of creating peaceful cultures is that we all have a role to play. Peace is a state of mind and path of action. Peace is personal and political. It is not just that violent people need to change, but we all have something positive to contribute. Gandhi said that, "There is no way to peace, peace is the way." And in our daily lives, be it at home, at work or at play, we can all make an effort to live in more positive and peaceful ways. That will contribute to a future free from violence.
Dr. Emma Fulu is Technical Lead for the DFID-funded What Works to Prevent Violence Global Programme, based with the South African Medical Research Council.