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Month: November 2009

End violence against girls and women

To mark White Ribbon Day the international day for the elimination of violence against women we have a guest post by Sarah Casey. A PhD student at Griffith University, Sarah’s focus is the relevance of feminism to the world today.  


Did you know that violence is the biggest cause of injury or death for women between 18 and 45? One in three Australian women will experience physical or sexual violence in her lifetime.

One in three women worldwide will suffer violence directed at her simply because she is female.

Wednesday, November 25th is White Ribbon Day, a time for people across the globe to help put an end to violence against women. This includes domestic violence, child abuse, sexual abuse, genital mutilation – and the list goes on.

Pop sensation Rihanna is used to making international headlines. However, early this year, her story took a tragic turn after she was beaten by her famous (now infamous) boyfriend Chris Brown. Rihanna has spoken out about domestic violence, including in this interview with veteran American TV journalist Diane Sawyer.

Here at home, former Australian Idol contestant Paulini Curuenavuli recently told Woman’s Day about the beatings that she endured in a relationship.

There was a point where I said to myself, if I don’t leave now, I won’t make it . . . Things were getting so bad that I was fearing for my life in those last few weeks.

–Paulini Curuenavuli, Woman’s Day.

Sadly, a woman fearing for her life, as both Rihanna and Paulini have, is far too common a scenario. Internationally, violence against females is on the rise.

This must stop. Pass the word around about White Ribbon Day. Buy a white ribbon if you can. Talk about the issue if you can. There are resources for schools and individuals on the White Ribbon Day website, and an abundance of information about where to get help if violence is affecting you or a girl or woman you know.

Violence against women is perhaps the most shameful human rights violation. And it is perhaps the most pervasive. It knows no boundaries of geography, culture or wealth. As long as it continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development and peace.

Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations

Violence against women has become as much a pandemic as HIV/AIDS or malaria. But is generally downplayed by the public at large and by policy makers who fail to create and fund programs to eradicate it.

United Nations Development Fund for Women

It is estimated that 70% of global poverty is women’s poverty, and violence and poverty are often linked (though violence affects all groups, not just ‘poor’ women). It has been acknowledged that one of the main keys to economic prosperity globally is the saving of women. And if one in three females is suffering violence in her life – that’s conservative, many experts say it’s closer to half of all women – then it’s always happening to someone we know, or to ourselves. So why aren’t we all yelling about saving women? I acknowledge that not every woman may be in the position to speak out, but for those of us who can, the time is now. The answers aren’t simple, but the White Ribbon Day website can act as a starting point, a focus. Consciousness raising is so desperately needed.

Violence against females is not something that only happens somewhere else – it happens everywhere – and at alarming rates in ‘privileged’ countries like Australia. Rates of violence against females in Indigenous communities are also much higher. There needs to be zero tolerance, which is why I urge you to look at the White Ribbon website and see what you as an individual can do right now.

Obviously this is a dire situation that can’t be solved by one event, or symbolic day, or a lot of savvy marketing. This is not a ‘sexy’ issue, but it deserves to be given the attention it desperately needs. (Violence against men is also an issue, but this campaign focuses on women.)

We need to create an open international dialogue about violence against women in the same way that the former fringe issues of climate change and global poverty, for example, now are commonly discussed. How? Supporting White Ribbon Day is a start.  Education about self-esteem, respecting women and human rights, and the teaching of Women’s Studies in schools are part of the solution. So let’s lobby to do more. We can’t even keep Women’s Studies in universities most of the time, and in most state governments, the Office for Women is housed within another department, as though women are a fringe group. Females are not a fringe group or issue – we make up more than half of the world’s population, don’t we?

I believe that voicing feminist thought is fundamental to ending violence and other injustices against women. Feminism cannot afford to be seen just as a fringe movement, or just as an academic field or discipline. Feminism must use the predominant currencies of the times for awareness, charity and long-term structural change, which is why campaigns such as White Ribbon Day are really important. It’s a sad reality that feminism needs to focus again on awareness raising and convincing the mainstream that feminism is not – and should not be – dead.

Feminism is not one consolidated movement. This is one of its greatest strengths. Yet it’s also one of its biggest weaknesses. I argue that feminists must take action on points of urgency – such as stopping violence and against women – and that debates about our differences can wait for now (though not forever). There are many branches of feminism alive and well in Australia and abroad, but my belief is that there needs to be mainstream mass-awareness campaigning once again, as in the early women’s movement. Such campaigns need to be strategically planned, which would mean a certain amount of collectivity.  Campaigns such as White Ribbon Day are crucial, yet unfortunately, they are not enough on their own. Recently, feminism – like women throughout history – has been largely defined by those in opposition to it. This, too, must stop.

Why? Because 85 million to 114 million women and girls have undergone female genital mutilation worldwide; it is estimated that one-fourth of women worldwide are physically battered. Out of 250 countries, only a few are currently headed by women. Only 1% of the world’s assets are in women’s names. Of people living in abject poverty (on less than $1 a day) 70% are women. Only 7% of the world’s cabinet ministers are women. Violence causes more death and disability worldwide amongst women aged 15-44 than war, cancer, malaria or traffic accidents. Women make up over 50% of the world’s population – and are still grossly marginalised, abused, mistreated and unequal – and for these reasons alone, women’s issues are amongst the most critical human rights crises of our times. (For more stats and information, click on these links for the United Nations, Womankind Worldwide and  the Human Rights Commission of Australia.) I take a similar stance to Bono, who when discussing extreme poverty and the myriad problems connected with it, said:

That’s not a cause. That’s an emergency.


s549226186_1013937_9557Sarah Casey is currently completing a PhD at Griffith University. Her main interest areas are women’s human rights, education, new media technologies and philanthropy. She argues that there remains an urgent need for many types of representation by women for women as the feminisms and so-called post-feminisms are in various states of crisis. Sarah researches strategies to enhance the relevance of the feminisms within mainstream audiences. She can be contacted at:

Skinny Kids

The following YouTube clip was brought to my attention by the divine Noelle Graham (a long term Enlighten supporter and a passionate advocate for young women suffering from eating disorders).

Unfortunately, I did not find it shocking for it reflects what I see in schools right across the country. I did, however, find it deeply sad. It left me more passionate than ever about offering both girls and women a different view of self – a more healing, whole view that recognises we are all far more than just our bodies. We are somebodies. We are large, we contain multitudes.

Love to hear your thoughts.

A National Strategy on Body Image

The issue of negative body image has officially crossed over into the mainstream public debate. We now have a proposed National Strategy on Body Image, put together by an advisory group appointed by the federal government.

Kate Ellis, the Minister for Youth, put together the group, which was chaired by Mia Freedman, former editor of Cosmopolitan, and  featured big names in the fashion industry and  media such as TV presenter and model Sarah Murdoch, children’s health and psychology experts including Professor David Forbes of the University of Western Australia, and leaders of youth organisations such as the YWCA. They considered submissions from the public–mostly young people, teachers, youth workers, social workers and psychologists–then came up with recommendations for government action to deal with the widespread problem of poor body image.

What excites me, and my colleagues at Enlighten, is that the Strategy gives public recognition to the important role school programs can and should play in helping girls develop positive body image.  The Strategy calls for increased funding for “reputable and expert organisations to deliver seminars and discussions on body image within schools” and for workshops that increase girls’ media literacy so that they can stand up to negative media messages.

Many schools access independent organisations to deliver one-off body image workshops or to facilitate body image discussions among students. A number of these types of interventions have been demonstrated as effectively reducing the body dissatisfaction of students. The Advisory Group encourages government to increase the opportunities schools have to access these activities.

Proposed National Strategy on Body Image

As a first step, I call on the federal government to immediately introduce the Body Image Friendly Schools Checklist in the Strategy (on page 42). It has some great practical ideas that I would love to see implemented in schools across Australia. The best of the recommendations:

  • Bring positive body image messages into the curriculum. It is easy to see how body image can be incorporated into health and physical education lesson plans, but teachers need not stop there. In English, students could be asked to write a critical thinking essay on how the media affects our idea of what a woman should look like. A media studies class might focus on the way that programs such as Photoshop are used by magazines to create an unattainable ideal of beauty.
  • Consult with students to develop a sports uniform everyone feels comfortable wearing. Being involved in sport has been shown to boost girls’ self-esteem and body image–yet it has also been shown that figure-hugging uniforms are one of the greatest barriers to girls participating in sport.
  • Provide Mental Health First Aid training for teachers that can help them identify body image and eating disorders in students and then know what steps to take next.
  • Give training for teachers in how to use body-friendly language with students–that is, no “fat talk”, either about themselves or their students.
  • Include positive body image in the school’s policy, even writing positive body image and the celebration of diversity into the school’s mission statement.
  • Do away with weighing and measuring students. It seems kind of crazy that in this day and age that has to even be spelt out, but it is still done in PE and even some maths classes. And for many students, the humiliation they experience leaves lasting scars.

Beyond the school system, there are some other good (and long overdue) suggestions in the Strategy that I hope the government implements. A standard system of clothing sizes to avoid the distress many feel when they find they can’t fit into a certain size. Stores stocked with a broad range of sizes, reflecting the diversity of our body types. Mannequins that look more like the many different women we see every day in the street.

But as with most such working papers put together by committee, within parameters set by a federal government, the Strategy of course has its limitations. For instance, it can simply suggest that funding should be increased in schools to ensure all girls receive the media literacy and self-esteem workshops they need; it can’t provide an assurance that this will actually happen.

The limitations of the Strategy become clearer when it deals with other avenues for promoting positive body image. The right principle is there: to encourage clothing designers, magazines and TV, the diet industry, advertisers and marketers to finally shoulder responsibility for the shame, disgust and body anxiety they routinely encourage young women to experience. But the Strategy recommends first trying the softly, softly approach: asking companies to follow a voluntary code of conduct and rewarding them for good behaviour by listing them in a roll of honour and awarding them the right to display a logo. Think of the Heart Foundation’s tick of approval, but in this case for creating positive body image rather than lowering cholesterol. Only once this approach had failed to produce results would penalties be considered.

I would be overjoyed if companies voluntarily started treating girls and women with more respect. And I think some would, so long as it was good for their bottom line. Think, for instance, of Dove, which uses the body image issue to sell a truckload of soap–while their parent company’s other key brands include Lynx (Boom Chicka Waa Waa, anyone?), Slim Fast and Ponds Skin Whitening cream marketed in Asian countries. A lot of fashion designers would  simply pull one of those frosty catwalk model faces in response to a suggestion they promote positive body image. I mean, can you really see Gucci saying “Hey, they’re right, we should stop promoting this unhealthy stick-thin image and adopt that voluntary code of conduct”?

I do wish that the proposed national strategy had more to say on the sexualisation and objectification of women and especially of girls. While body size and shape and the lack of diversity in the media are prime sources of despair, the pressure to be sexy–and only within a narrow ideal of sexiness–is increasingly causing serious problems.

Research shows that over time women can come to see themselves as objects and subject their bodies to constant surveillance, feeling disgusted and ashamed about themselves. So even if the code helps industry to get serious about presenting more realistically sized women, the expectation to be ‘‘hot’’ and ‘‘sexy’’ will remain. And industry will have the right product and the latest look we need to achieve this false ideal.

Misty de Vries, COO, Women’s Forum Australia, in The Age

The way I look at it, the National Strategy on Body Image is a great place to start. But its recommendations are only worth something if the politicians, the fashion and beauty product industries, and the media and advertisers follow through on them. It is thanks to all of us voicing our opinions that the government commissioned a Strategy in the first place. Now we have to keep up the pressure!

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