White Ribbon Day is effective for combating family violence

Opinion piece for New Zealand Herald

Bob McCoskrie is likely to be a lone voice with his decision to not wear a ribbon on White Ribbon Day, the United Nations sanctioned campaign when men speak out against men’s violence toward women.

White Ribbon Day is one of the most extensive and widely supported campaigns in this country’s community action calendar. More than 500,000 individuals throughout New Zealand will wear a ribbon, hundreds of communities will host White Ribbon events, and dozens of organisations will be lending the efforts of their staff and volunteers to push the day’s anti-violence messages.

McCoskrie suggests that White Ribbon Day is about “blaming” men for violence, that the campaign’s messages make a gender issue out of a family problem.

“What about women’s violence toward men and children?” he asks.

It is a legitimate question, but one that reveals a lack of understanding of the history, role and impact of the White Ribbon Day campaign.

White Ribbon Day has never made out family violence as solely a result of men’s behaviour. It is, at its simplest, a men’s response to the issue of family violence.

Started by men in Canada in 1991 after the mass shooting of 14 female students at the University of Montreal, White Ribbon has remained steadfast to its founders’ principles: That if violence is to be prevented, men must lead, and take responsibility for their role in it; and that starts with their attitudes toward violence against women. Rather than blaming men, White Ribbon shows men how they can be part of the solution. It uses the strength of men to help bring about an end to all violence.

There is good science behind this. Studies show that men respond more positively to social campaigns when the message they receive is from men, about men, and asking men to stand up and lead. When messages are more generic, men are more likely to then see it as “someone else’s issue”. We need men involved in family violence prevention in New Zealand. White Ribbon helps achieve that.

And it works. White Ribbon, and its allied campaign “It’s Not OK” have been proven to be effective, not only for raising awareness of family violence generally, but also increasing the number of people prepared to do something about it. Surveys on the impact of “It’s Not OK”, for example, show that one in five New Zealanders have taken, or would be willing to take, action against family violence when they encounter it.  The New Zealand Police have said for many years that family violence is seriously under reported. That’s changing. Tolerance of family violence is at an all time low and reporting at a record high, a result the Police freely credit, in no small part, to the impact of the anti-violence campaigns. And we are starting to see evidence that the actual rate of family violence might be starting to reduce.

This is backed up by the human stories the Families Commission hears. Participants in the main White Ribbon event – the White Ribbon motorcycle ride currently touring New Zealand – tell us repeatedly that the White Ribbon activities open doors for people from all walks of life to talk about family violence generally, and gives them the courage to act.

The ride has elicited an incredible grassroots response from communities and individuals throughout New Zealand. And when the leather-clad male riders talk, men listen, and so do their sons and wives, fathers and daughters, uncles and aunts and brothers. The stories people tell of the impact of White Ribbon activities are inspirational for their hope and life changing renewal, bringing an end to violence for many families, whoever the perpetrators have been.

And the perpetrators are varied; in gender, in the role they have in their families, in the type of violence they commit, and in the degree of responsibility and culpability they have for their actions. Family violence is not – and has never been made out to be by the Families Commission – a simplistic formula of who’s the strongest physically in a relationship. Women do commit violence, and women are not always the “innocent” partner when violence does occur. Indeed, seeking to “blame” either one or the other of a violent couple is not helpful. Family violence is complex, and difficult. Therefore it needs a multiple number of approaches to deal with it successfully. The White Ribbon campaign is one tool in our kit box.

However, the Families Commission suggests that the gender comparisons debate is the least useful. All forms of violence, whoever the perpetrator and whatever their gender, are unacceptable. The White Ribbon campaign neither denies these other forms of violence nor precludes discussion of them; quite the opposite. The campaign is proven as a catalyst for opening discussion about, and encouraging action against, all forms of violence in New Zealand. That’s got to be good for Kiwi families and whānau.

We agree with Bob McCoskrie that violence is a family concern, not an issue of gender. So, we invite him, as a man, to show personal responsibility and leadership by wearing the White Ribbon. It is an emphatic statement, by men, that they will not tolerate any form of domestic violence in this country.

Carl Davidson
Chief Commissioner
Families Commission

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White Ribbon is a community led campaign to end men's violence towards women

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