05 Oct White Ribbon Australia: how support for the anti-violence c…
White Ribbon Australia, the well-known charity for the prevention of violence against women, was plagued by financial issues long before it filed for liquidation on Thursday.
The charity’s 2018 financial statement outlined its purpose as using “education, awareness-raising, creative campaigns, preventative programs and partnerships” to “highlight the positive role men play in preventing men’s violence against women”.
Despite being propped up by government funding, White Ribbon Australia had an $840,827 deficit by the end of 2018, with liabilities of $2.5m.
But amid questions around how effectively White Ribbon Australia used its money – most of its expenses went towards public relations, marketing and administration costs – the charity’s biggest problem was not one of finances, but of public image.
A ‘low bar’ for ambassadors
The charity gained its public profile by recruiting well-known men to serve as its ambassadors, usually in the form of wearing a white ribbon and declaring support for ending violence against women. But there has been a perception in the sector that this form of “awareness-raising” has been superficial.
As Dr Juliet Watson, a family violence researcher with RMIT University has pointed out, “it’s advantageous for men to align themselves with feminist causes”.
“They receive increased speaking opportunities, exposure, financial opportunities and brand power,” Watson, a senior lecturer the university’s school of global, urban and social studies, said.
“But in the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUp, we are becoming more critical of those putting themselves up to be aligned with these organisations. As we should be. It’s not that controversial for men to stand up and say, ‘we don’t support family violence’.
“It’s setting a pretty low bar for which they reap the benefit of male feminist capital. In other words, they gain a lot for not doing very much. We need to see evidence that ambassadors are putting in the hard work of education for themselves and others.”
White Ribbon Australia seemed to lack a rigorous process around who qualified as an ambassador. The charity was forced to distance itself from one of its ambassadors, the controversial psychiatrist Tanveer Ahmed, after he wrote an opinion piece published by News Ltd suggesting men’s violence against women could be attributed to the historic decline of men’s power.
Other ambassadors, including police commissioners, have refused to weigh in on high-profile cases of domestic and sexual violence.
In 2017, the Sydney Morning Herald revealed the organisation was planning to accept money from a publican if he was granted permission to install more poker machines in his venue. In 2018, Buzzfeed revealed that the then White Ribbon chief executive, Tracy McLeod Howe, removed the organisation’s support for reproductive rights, saying it was “agnostic” on the issue – a move to appease stakeholders.
The timing of the decision was particularly poor, coming the day after Queensland decriminalised abortion. According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, women are at an increased risk of experiencing violence from an intimate partner during pregnancy.
Although White Ribbon Australia backtracked and reinstated its support for women’s right to choose, the damage had been done. For an organisation that relied on corporate sponsorship, it was losing supporters in droves.
Family planning and women’s rights organisation Marie Stopes Australia severed its ties with White Ribbon following the incident. Marie Stopes Australia’s managing director, Jamal Hakim, said the charity had responded to its membership rather than “respecting women’s autonomy and agency” and, as a result, he declined to become a White Ribbon ambassador.
The organisation also withdrew itself from the charity’s workplace accreditation program, which asks employers and employees to commit to stopping violence against women and implement standards to create a safer and more respectful workplace.
But Hakim said although the charity’s closure was not surprising, it was regrettable. More than 40 people had lost their jobs, and many of those were highly committed people who would be an asset to other family violence organisations, he said.
“For me, I am concerned there is now a void nationally in the conversation around how we bring men on board for the prevention of violence against women, which is important,” Hakim said.
“What White Ribbon did was create a conversation. They rallied large organisations on the issue and there is a big gap here in that organisations do find it difficult to focus on these issues. We really need opportunities for organisations to look at themselves and ask how they address the rivers of gender inequity by looking at their own community, their own gender pay gap, their own working arrangements and whether they are flexible and fair.”
Men’s involvement still important
Watson agrees with Hakim that men must continue to be involved in family violence prevention and call out those men with appalling attitudes and behaviour. With a spate of horrific deaths of women – including 32-year-old and pregnant Helena Broadbent and Aiia Maasarwe, an Arab-Israeli student in Melbourne – and Australia Institute of Health and Welfare data showing rates of partner violence failing to fall and hospitalisations of women increasing, getting through to men was more important than ever, Watson said.
“It’s not harmful to advocate to say family violence is unacceptable and anyone speaking about that is good,” she said. “But there needs to be content beneath those comments. There’s a greater awareness of men taking up oxygen about issues that affect women and children’s lives, and there must be a question of who is actually the expert here and what role men should play here.
“I think women are tiring of being spoken to about things we know about already. When it comes to issues of gender inequality and oppression it can be exhausting having to look at the face of men talking about it. Men should not be taking oxygen away from women, but they should call out other men and listen to and support women in telling their stories themselves.”
A few years ago, writer and feminist Eva Cox conducted an evaluation of intervention run in NSW football clubs, mostly rural ones, to tackle male violence. “When we asked footballers about what stopped them getting drunk and thumping people, they said their mates,” she said.
“A bloke’s friend saying ‘come on mate, don’t be a fuckwit’ has more of an effect on culture than a bunch of ambassadors wearing white ribbons on their suits and going to fancy lunches. There is still a great need to address the whole issue of male violence, not by men committing to save women from men, but by men saying there’s something wrong with masculinity. And we need to start that messaging in schools.”
While some family violence organisations contacted by Guardian Australia did not want to comment on the demise of White Ribbon, the anti family-violence organisation Our Watch, established to drive nationwide change in the culture, behaviours and attitudes that underpin violence against women, said it was saddened by the loss of the charity.
In a statement, Our Watch described White Ribbon as “an important part of the landscape, raising awareness of violence against women in Australia and supporting communities, workplaces and schools to take action”.
“On average, one woman per week is killed in Australia and recently, in seven days, five women have been killed,” the statement said. “Preventing violence against women is absolutely crucial.
“Our thoughts are with the White Ribbon board, staff, community supporters and volunteers at this challenging time.”