Half the sky, most of the suffering…and seeking everyone’s attention!

What’s one of the biggest reasons for suffering from violence?

Is it War? Racism? Extremism?

Or simply being born a woman?

One in 3 women is a victim of violence.

This is the powerful message in this one-minute-long public service announcement (PSA), which can be viewed here:

It was produced by the London-based advertising agency Leo Burnett for UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women. With a striking series of images, it reveals that violence against women is one of the most common forms of violence in the world.

This PSA is part of a new global campaign on this scourge.

As UNIFEM says: “Violence against women and girls is a problem of pandemic proportions. At least one out of every three women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime — with the abuser usually someone known to her. Perhaps the most pervasive human rights violation that we know today, it devastates lives, fractures communities, and stalls development.”

The campaign has elements on awareness raising as well as a call to action. The latter includes an online signature campaign that seeks to collect at least 100,000 signatures from those who oppose violence against women.

The online ‘signature book’ opened for signatures on 26 November 2007 with an appeal from actress and UNIFEM Goodwill Ambassador Nicole Kidman. She called the violence many women worldwide face “an appalling human rights violation that can be stopped”, and asked everyone to add their names to a growing number of supporters saying “NO” to violence against women at http://www.saynotoviolence.org.

She added: “The more names we collect, the stronger our case to make ending violence against women a top priority for governments everywhere.”

Watch her appeal on YouTube:

The UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women , established in 1996, will receive US$ 100,000 from the United Nations Foundation for 100,000 signatures

I have just signed up, on this leap day 29 February 2008. Three months since the campaign was launched in New York, it has so far gathered a little over 58,500 signatures.

It’s certainly commendable – but not nearly enough, and still more than 40,000 needed to reach the modest target of 100,000.

Not that it’s just a numbers game, of course. The quality and sincerity of commitment matter a great deal. At the same time, UNIFEM and other UN agencies trying to engage the public through online interactive methods should study how successful activist groups do the same — with much better and faster results.

Avaaz.org is a leader among these. It is a new global web movement with a simple democratic mission: to close the gap between the world we have, and the world most people everywhere want. Set up in early 2007, it has quickly evolved into online community through which hundreds of thousands of concerned people are taking action together on urgent issues like climate change, poverty, human rights and the crises in the Middle East and Burma.

In October 2007, I joined Avaaz in its signature campaign to focus global attention on the political violence and gross abuse of human rights in Burma. In just four days, thousands of Avaaz members donated over $325,000 online to support the Burmese people’s efforts to peacefully promote political change and tell the world about their struggle.

The Burmese junta may not care for millions of people protesting or donating online, but the leaders of the democratic world – pondering their response to the atrocities in Burma – would find it hard to ignore this surge of public concern.

But it’s a long leap from Burma to the bed room or backyard. A major difficulty faced by those campaigning to focus on violence against women: they are countering actions that are widely distributed, pervasive and sustained over time. Much of it happens at personal and family level, necessarily beyond the public and media’s glare. Incidents flare up only occasionally to spill over to the public space to become news events or talking points.

So, as in many similar instances, out of sight often means out of mind.

The big challenge is how to raise public awareness on a wide-spread issue of violence that happens, to a large extent, in private. The facts and figures are compelling as they are alarming and depressing. The campaigners have lined up some of the biggest celebrities (like Nicole Kidman) and enlisted big guns like UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

All necessary, but not sufficient.

The campaign needs more than just star power or the UN’s clout to galvanize mass action. For a start, UN agencies need to get out of their fondness for coining and using endless acronyms. Even with my regular forays into the development community’s acronym jungle (read my post on the alphabet soup), I was recently puzzled when a film-maker colleague referred to GBV in an email without explaining it. It took me full five minutes to realise that she meant gender-based violence.

And some imaginative ways of raising the public profile would also help. Browsing on YouTube, I came across this video from Ireland. As one article described it:
“The ghosts and spirits of the millions of women who have been murdered, violated, oppressed, excluded, driven into exile, denied freedom of speech, denied participation in any decisions concerning their lives, because of war, religion, race, culture, age, disability, sexuality, poverty, bonded slavery, domestic violence or bureaucracy, glided in and out of the shoppers of Galway on 7 December 2007.”