Lungiswa Memela, director of the Western Cape Network (WCN) on Violence Against Women is very clear that campaigns around violence against women and children fall into two categories: those that actually make a change in communities, and those that consist of fancy lunches and launches. And she knows which kind she prefers.
Last year the WCN ran a groundbreaking campaign: it ruffled a lot of feathers, won lots of detractors as well as supporters but left no one indifferent. Their “Changing Faces” campaign stopped traffic, literally, as huge billboards depicting the faces of women were set up around Cape Town.
As the days went on the same women were pictured with ever more ever more bruises and scars, and bearing messages such as “he hits me because he loves me.” The images also ran in newspapers and on mobile billboards.
But what made this campaign different from so many others was that members of the public could interact with the campaign: when a certain number of people SMSed the word “stop”, the picture changed and the bruises faded over a number of days until the woman’s picture returned to normal.
“It got a huge response. People were talking about it on taxis and in the streets, it was being discussed daily on both commercial and community radio stations and it really got people talking. It was a real ‘WOW’ moment,” says Memela.
“We took that approach because violence against women is such a hidden issue. Even if we do talk about it we often don’t intervene, so public but secret at the same time. We put up marquees near the billboards, so people could drop in and ask questions.”
Memela says some people weren’t happy with the approach but at least those people were engaged with. Some women who went to the marquee were given counseling and intervention on the spot.
“Some men came in and said, ‘this thing is happening to my sister and I don’t know what to do’. Even some men who were abusing women came in and spoke to our staff,” she says.
While the campaign was very successful, it had some challenges. It was very expensive and there were also logistical problems with the billboards because of the sun and the wind. Probably the biggest challenge was that a big event was planned for 5 December, where people would form a ‘human white ribbon’ simultaneously in Cape Town and KZN.
“What we didn’t know was that FIFA was holding an event that day and offering people free transport and so forth, so we didn’t get the numbers we expected in Cape Town, but we got enough,” she says.
For Memela the biggest lesson learnt is the need for things that are out of the ordinary, and jolt people’s ideas. Of course, you can’t do this sort of thing every day, or it will lose its impact, she adds.
To counter act this, Memela says the fight against violence against women and children needs to be taken into themes. She suggests a monthly or bi-monthly theme –with different provinces doing different things at different times.
“The problem is that the 16 Days campaign has been taken over by everyone, from business to government, because everyone wants to be seen to be doing something – so now it has no impact. It ends up being a matter of quantity over quality.
“Obviously it is good for us to work with people outside the NGO sector, but we need to be honest: it changes the way we work and what we do. These groups are bringing money, so they take over and we end up being guest-speakers at fancy breakfasts and lunches, instead of working in the community in our jeans and takkies. And because we want to be seen, we just go along with it.”
Memela says NGOs who tackle violence against women and children need to be clearer about who they are targeting and whether the work reaches the targeted group in a focused way.
She is also concerned that activism is being diluted and that NGOs are losing their focus, as they try to juggle ever more complex relationships with funders and partners.
“I feel we have lost our fighting spirit. Who are we actually fighting nowadays? Our friends who have left NGOs to go to government? I also feel we often don’t put a lot of effort into these campaigns so they don’t have much impact. We need to rethink what we mean by ‘campaigning’.”
Campaigns are not just about marches – there are many other ways we can support each other. We need to interact with government, write to the Department of Justice about child rape, challenge legislation and so on. These are the ways we can campaign and support each other that don’t require a lot of money, she adds.
But do these campaigns actually achieve anything? Or are they just an expensive diversion of funds that could be better used if given directly to service providers?
Memela says that while she does not think there is less violence now than there was 10 years ago she argues that women are more aware of their rights, they know what their options are and they are more likely to stand up for themselves and also to report it.
“I know many women who I met in shelters who have moved on with their lives and are no longer being abused. So we have made progress. But now we need to move away from focusing on traditional things like how to prevent rape – such as better street lighting – and find ways in which we can stop the violence before it even happens. We need to stop the perpetrator before he even thinks of doing it,” she says.