Countering Domestic Violence through Popular Culture: The Bell Bajao Campaign as a Social Initiative

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Domestic violence, being the most pervasive of basic human rights violation, is also found to be the least talked about- both least reported and discussed in India. The rigid patriarchal standards along with the complex Indian cultural baggage, the stark boundaries between public and private lives, have come together to deem the question of domestic violence a complicated and nuanced one. This has resulted in the prolonged struggle against this heinous crime.

The Bell Bajao! or the Ghanti Bajao! campaign, launched in 2008 in India was a cultural media strategy to curb domestic violence by coaxing men and boys to take a stand against the practice. The campaign, seeking to reduce the occurrences of domestic violence and discrimination against women suffering from HIV/AIDS, focused mainly on highlighting the role men can play to lessen violence. In 2010, Breakthrough, which initiated the campaign announced with former American President Clinton that the Bell Bajao! campaign would go global from 2011. Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General joined the board as the campaign’s first global champion.

The concept being a media initiative since the very beginning, the idea took its base in popular culture- a series of radio, television and print advertisements which were conceptualized pro bono by Ogilvy and Mather and disseminated widely via a partnership with the Indian Ministry of Women and Child Development. Bollywood stalwart actor Boman Irani was roped in to be the campaign’s first male ambassador. The campaign, as we see, was bolstered to cater and reach out to a wide audience, all of society, to spread the message of peace and equality. Karnataka, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh saw a massive mobilization, which involved educational events, leadership trainings and massive outreach, to support the initiative.

In India, especially where the line between the public and the private is so out and out demarcated, barging into a household is almost considered taboo albeit extremely necessary. With the society deeming women as ‘women’- constructed, defined and sustained only within the space and institution of the family, married women being victims of male violence is usually ignored as being a ‘private affair’. The idea of a woman being prone to domestic violence within marriage is in itself problematic within the human rights discourse. The position of women in the development process can improve only if this generalized notion of subordination which clearly bypasses their social and ethnic identities is done away with.

The most typical forms of abuse include domestic violence, usually imposed by the husband or an intimate partner. This includes the women being beaten up, forced to have sex or even mentally tortured. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), 37 percent of Indian women have been abused by their husbands in the form of either pushing, punching, kicking, slapping, choking or even burning. What is generally more critical is the perception towards such abuse. Almost 50 percent of the Indian population, both men and women, believe that it is okay and even justifiable that a man beats up his wife. Breakthrough India’s country director, Sonali Khan says, “While there was a law, we felt there was an acute need for engagement with the public, those who are silent or in denial about domestic violence, and the need to bring them into the conversation”.

The campaigners opine that the concept of tackling violence against women commenced in 2006 when, post the enactment of a law to protect women who faced abuse in their homes, they understood the need to engage and involve men more proactively in this fight to curb violence. The campaign thus also consciously tries to throw light on men as being seen as part of the solution than the problem. With pro bono support from the advertising agency Ogilvy, Breakthrough brought out the online campaign focusing on the ‘doorbell’ as a metaphor, which can be read as an urgent still-call to action in order to aid the debunking of the taboo around intimate partner abuse or violence in India.

Image source: BellBajao.org

These advertisements went on to capture the eye of everyone within a short span of time. The ads usually showed instances wherein a man or a boy, hearing the cries of a women being beaten up in a house, after some deliberation, went ahead to ring the doorbell of the house. This man/boy would ask for some help like asking to make a phone call, or to borrow something or get back a lost cricket ball and so on. The idea was to let the abuser know that the person intruding was aware of the violence going on and was against it. The request for help is a pretext to notify the abuser of the person’s knowledge of violence being committed against the women and warning him that it will not be tolerated. These ads usually voiced the tagline, asking people if they had “rung the bell” yet.

The campaign which took off as an online (television, radio) and in print form of educating the masses also soon took to other forms of protest and awareness. The commercials that went viral were based on real life experiences and were consciously kept as simple as possible. The next step was grassroots oriented engagement tactics which sought to address the issues via discussion and performative arts, likely video vans, informative games and hard-hitting street plays. The video vans kept going around the states of Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, exposing almost 2.7 million people to the burning issue of domestic violence in India, ensuring interaction and participation through street theater, games, audio visual tools and quizzes. Breakthrough came out with its impactful and groundbreaking blog for the cause- a platform to discuss domestic violence openly which previously didn’t exist in India. The space encouraged personal testimonies and opinions from advocates, victims and witnesses to be shared online for reflection and education. The Rights Advocates Program was put together to reaffirm and instill the message of the campaign among a wider audience, thus focusing better on a leadership training programme to overlook capacity building among the trainees on issues like human rights, gender-based violence and reproductive health which they were coaxed to disseminate in their respective communities and groups. In 2009 alone, the programme trained over one lakh trainees.

The statistical evaluative survey conducted by Breakthrough states that awareness about domestic violence and its laws rose by 10 percent, there was an 8 percent rise in the number of women coming ahead to demand legal justice for abuse discussion of this issue in mainstream conversations increased by 20 percent. There was a notable increase in public knowledge which changed the individual and community attitude towards the cause to a great extent. The success of the campaign coerced the volunteers to take it to other states as well.

The campaign has been significant mainly for its effective penetration into the male dominated society and sensitization of the male members towards entitlement and rights of women. The campaign in general has underlined the necessity to have men included in the conversation around domestic abuse and violence. Mallika Dutt, the president and CEO of Breakthrough India says,

“For all of us, the role of men in ending and preventing violence is key. It’s absolutely vital. We feel the time has come to ramp up that call…We’re even moving beyond domestic violence and connecting the dots between what’s happening in the home to what’s happening on the streets. We are focusing on men and boys making specific promises. We want men to step up. We want men to be clear and accountable about what they will do”.

A major issue with respect to women’s repression in India is that men come across as one-dimensional mediums of oppression. The Bell Bajao campaign does manage to make space for men, progressive and humane, to do something if they suspect domestic violence. The campaign asks them to ring the bell or find alternative ways to interrupt the occurrence. The obvious message being that men can work to reduce violence against women, which is significant to the bigger movement, while the applied implementation of the campaign might still pose questions. Would we really want to go and intrude our neighbor’s or a stranger’s privacy, even if it is to stop assault? The idea is just that if the campaign manages to inspire men to resolutely answer positively to the question, the campaign is working.

Jerin Jacob is the Chief Editor at One Future Collective.

Featured image credit: Breakthrough India

Mapping and negotiating power

Uncuff India Episode 10: Dimensions of conflict and peace: visioning a utopian world

Uncuff India Episode 9: Civic space and dissent: A pathway to social justice

Religion, Orientalism and Gender Based Violence: A Feminist Analysis of the ‘Abused Goddesses’ Print Campaign in India

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“Pray that we never see this day. Today, more than 68% of the women in India are victims of domestic violence. Tomorrow, it seems like no woman shall be spared. Not even the ones we pray to.”- With this tagline, the Abused Goddesses campaign sought to curb domestic violence and sex trafficking of Indian women. Led by ad agency Taproot India, for the international non-governmental organization Save Our Sisters, as an initiative of Save the Children India, the campaign was a print campaign that went viral amidst both criticism and accolades in September 2013.

Domestic violence, being the most pervasive of basic human rights violation, is also found to be the least talked about- both least reported and discussed in India. The rigid patriarchal standards along with the complex Indian cultural baggage, the stark boundaries between public and private lives, have come together to deem the question of domestic violence a complicated and nuanced one. This has resulted in the prolonged struggle against this heinous crime.

The idea behind the campaign was to send across the grave message that India’s most popular religion, Hinduism stresses on reverence towards women, in lieu of the large number of goddesses that form a significant part of the Hindu pantheon. Despite this deep-rooted reverence for the goddesses propagated by the religion, the country is extremely unsafe for women, with cases of gender based violence being reported in large numbers every other day. The campaign used the faces of revered goddesses from Hindu mythology to come up with their bruised and battered variants in print, to show that with the current rate of gender based violence in India, it wouldn’t be surprising if tomorrow even the goddesses were attacked. The campaign manages to capture India’s most startling contradiction with respect to its hypocritical mindset and the treatment of its women. It was awarded the Spike Asia award in the Design category, as it focused on the prevention of sex trafficking along with domestic violence.

The campaign went viral within a short span of time, giving rise to an explosion of online activity and won a lot a accolades and print media awards. The campaign consisted of three images- of Saraswasti, the goddess of music, nature and knowledge, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, and Durga, the goddess of valor. These goddesses hold the position of Tridevi (three goddesses) in Hindu mythology. Their representations of divinity and aura were conveniently mangled by Taproot India’s bruised and battered depiction of victims of violence via them. By showing tear stained faces, open cuts, battered cheekbones and other signs of abuse on the faces of these famed goddesses, the campaign contradicts and merges the sacred and the abusive innovatively, thus distinguishing itself remarkably from other campaigns.

The original details (for example, the lotus in goddess Saraswati’s hand. etc) are all retained in these images. This minute attention to detailing has managed to retain the authenticity of the paintings, thus playing an integral role in helping the images connect with the Indians on a deeper level. It reinforces the fact that abuse is not a rare occurrence but rather, a disturbingly prominent one in most households.  It shows us that while men on one hand worship and pray to women, on the other hand they go home and abuse women too. This starkly sad duality creeps out as a result of worshiping someone we cannot see and abusing someone we can.

In her article in the Hindustan Times, Praneta Jha says, “Pedestalisation of women as goddesses is as damaging as portraying them as sex objects. Both dehumanize women. Both leave no space in between for women to exercise their will or have feelings and opinions and flaws and desires as human beings. Trapping women into images of a supposed ideal is one of the oldest strategies of patriarchy—and if we do not fit the image, it is deemed alright to ‘punish’ and violate us”.

Image source: India Today

These opinions suggest that domestic violence is the result of a sociocultural system that consistently works on dehumanizing women. Sanjay Srivastava, a Delhi based sociologist, throws light on yet another aspect of the deification of women when he says, “Given India’s patriarchal status, the worship of goddess(es) and the iconic status of a deity bequeathed to domesticated female figures is ‘a symptom of male anxiety and guilt’”. While many might contest that using religion to justify or even blame the outlook of people is problematic, it is surely unavoidable. There is a crucial difference between rape in other countries and in India. “57% boys and 53% girls in India think that wife-beating is justified”. These figures, though scary, reflect exactly the kind of problem we face as a society here.

Though the campaign raised many eyes with its unique approach, it also did receive a lot of flak and criticism. The first and foremost issue was contended to be the glamorizing of gender based violence. It should be understood that such images in the media space tend to create a cultural acceptance to violence, ie a culture of accepting gender based violence. Trends online that portray passive, bruised and beaten women who are also made to look perfectly beautiful simultaneously, tend to glamorize violence which might also make viewers re-internalise practising passivity in the face of such violence. The title tagline also underlines the efficacy of prayer- which in itself is never a palpable solution to any kind of violence. These images, also in no way portray the goddesses as reactionary, but rather as scarred and battered and passively in need of ‘saving’, which simply reiterate the age-old patriarchal narratives that let gender-based violence take place in society, and moreover, the same colonialist narrative that contextualize women of the global South as needing, and welcoming ‘rescue.’ The campaign, in no way talks about the perpetrators, which is gravely problematic, somehow only letting the focus stay on the victims. The campaign also does not suggest any particular and palpable course of action to bring about change. The target of the campaign seems more to make people aware that such violence does happen rather than to find or suggest ways to curb it.

In her work, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag discusses the dangers posed by images of ‘distant suffering’ on the viewer:

Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question of what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated- if one feels that there is nothing ‘we’ can do and nothing ‘they’ can do either, then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic.

The campaign thus, leaves us the means to rather be voyeurs than be productive about the discontent that arises as a result of seeing these images. A major flaw reflected in the campaign is that it greatly implies the role of Hinduism in domestic violence.  Domestic violence cannot and is definitely not confined to a certain religion. Rather, domestic violence is a non-religious crime prevalent all throughout the world. The “Abused Goddesses” campaign unreliably flings between being award-winning and being dangerously sensationalist.

Moreover, looking at the campaign from a post-colonial perspective, these images also play into the notion that Indian women or rather, brown women are perpetually oppressed. Analyzing the interest of western feminists and even the furore that the campaign has managed to capture globally, we realise that it is the orientalist framework acting here and that the attempt is to ‘save’ the brown sisters. It is uncanny as to how well the Save Our Sisters campaign fits into Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s colonialist notion of ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’. The only variant here is that in the case of Western feminists embracing this advertisement, one might read it as a case of ‘white women saving brown women from brown men.’ The campaign starkly reflects the Western audience’s assumptions about India, gender and violence: the idea that violence based on gender is simply so much worse in India.

We need a new set of images, images by which we can understand and engage with gender-based violence better, images that do not focus on similar problems like victim-based narratives that work at deifying, fetishizing and categorizing the passive female victim. We need better narratives that speak to the feminists of the Global North, so that they can not only understand but listen to, engage with and work together with their sisters in the Global South.

Featured image: India Today

Jerin Jacob is the Chief Editor at One Future Collective.

Mapping and negotiating power

Uncuff India Episode 10: Dimensions of conflict and peace: visioning a utopian world

Uncuff India Episode 9: Civic space and dissent: A pathway to social justice

Teach For India Workshops | Report

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Conflict Resolution, Peace and Bullying

Date: 12 October 2018

Report:

One Future Collective conducted three sets of workshops for children from the eighth to the tenth standard at the BMC Mohili Village School in Andheri, Mumbai. The topic for the workshop was peace and conflict resolution, with a focus on bullying within the classroom, conducted in Hindi and English. The children explored ideas of peace at the personal level — what peace means to them, what it means to be peaceful within a family unit, and between friends, and at school. They also explored peace at a societal and national level. The workshop focused on three aspects: (1) emotions, their origin and their effect on us; (2) whether we can control our emotions, and what effect they have on our surroundings; and (3) whether compassion could create a less hostile environment. The children had wonderful questions, such as: ‘where do feelings come from?’ and ‘can we really stop anger the moment it comes to us?’ They shared examples of times they have felt an overwhelming emotion, and the effect of that emotion on their own self and the people around them. The children were then asked to define ‘bullying’ and think of why one resorts to bullying. One class split themselves up into groups and performed a 3 minute skit, each, on how they would overcome a situation of bullying within their class. After deciding that bullying is no good, the children created their own rules for interaction within the class: ‘be compassionate, be kind’, and ‘stand up against a bully’ or ‘tell a teacher if things get out of hand’.

Gender Sensitisation, Gender Leadership and Busting Stereotypes

Date: 16 October 2018

Report:

One Future Collective conducted three sets of workshops for children from the eighth to the tenth standard at the BMC Mohili Village School in Andheri, Mumbai. The topic for the workshop was gender sensitisation, understanding and busting gender stereotypes and inculcating the understanding and importance of gender leadership and was conducted in Hindi and English. We discussed and along with them, analysed how gender stereotypes play out at home by way of the division of labour, decision making and differences between siblings. We discussed and analysed how gender stereotypes play out at school by way of access to leadership opportunities, behavioural expectations, subjects and activities being gendered and thus marked with restrictions among others. We had the children map these stereotypes by having them perform role-plays thus throwing light at how gender stereotypes play out and how an alternate gender neutral solution is the call of the day. We asked to sum up by analysing all that they felt was gender biased in their day to day lives and how they could possibly work together (both girls and boys) to look out for each other and thus change the situations.

Mental Health

Date: 26 October 2018

Report:

One Future Collective conducted two sets of workshops for children from the seventh and the eighth standards at the BMC Mohili Village School in Andheri, Mumbai. The topic for the workshop was understanding mental health, which was conducted in a mixed language of Hindi and English. The fundamentals of what they understood about mental health, what is its importance, how mental health is not always negative and how to remain stress free was discussed in the classes. Students from both classrooms showed enthusiasm and some eagerly participated to make the sessions interactive. The workshop maneuvered to discuss why is taking care of one’s mental health crucial at every stage of time, some points to always remember in order to make oneself happy and how to identify a classmate who may be going through a tough time. The workshop was focused on learning ways to reduce stress and always designate some time for taking care of one’s mental health. The workshop ended with talking and discussing about how to become a #mentalhealthfriend?      

Mapping and negotiating power

Uncuff India Episode 10: Dimensions of conflict and peace: visioning a utopian world

Uncuff India Episode 9: Civic space and dissent: A pathway to social justice