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.

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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