On Nov. 25, when much of the United States took a pause from our routines to celebrate Thanksgiving, 16 days of activism to combat gender-based violence began. The annual campaign, sponsored by the United Nations Center for Women’s Global Leadership, challenges all of us to act courageously and jointly to make a world without gender-based violence against women and girls a reality. Though most people do not consider themselves activists, we all have a stake in ending violence against everyone. Violence against individuals who are targeted because of their sex or sexual and gender identity affects us all. And a larger swath of the public have taken to holding themselves accountable for acknowledging and addressing it.
Yet faced with the daunting rate of gender violence worldwide and in our own communities, well-meaning people routinely ask me what they can do about it. We can start with rethinking what activism can be.
Massive, highly organized public marches are not the only expression of anti-gender-based-violence activism. Thanks to a growing awareness of new platforms for communicating the urgent need for action, activism against what once seemed intractable takes many forms. Employee activism demanding changes to the way workplace sexual harassment complaints are handled is growing. In 2018, Google workers demonstrated the power of acting in concert when 20,000 employees in offices from Silicon Valley to Singapore walked off the job. More recently, workers at the gaming company Activision Blizzard staged a walkout to demand that CEO Bobby Kotick be removed for his reported mishandling of sexual assault and harassment claims. Recognizing the potential for industry-wide harm, some of Activision’s business partners and competitors have publicly called on the company to address the issues, and others have called for Kotick and other executives to resign. Highly visible corporate intervention is relatively new and may well be a sign of increased corporate activism.
According to Legacy.com, grieving families increasingly choose to go public about the domestic violence that caused their loved ones’ deaths. Kathryn Cochran of Denver “died tragically, a victim of gun violence and domestic abuse,” according to the obituary published earlier this month. Reading the names of people mourning her death reminds us that while the suffering of victims of gender-based violence is singular, they do not suffer alone. The Cochran family’s willingness to be open about the pain associated with a senseless and preventable loss may encourage other victims of domestic violence, and those who care about them, to seek help.
Like Kathryn Cochran’s obituary, prayer and candlelight vigils around the country have brought together people directly impacted by gender-based violence in conversation with their communities and the public. This fall, the town of Danvers organized a candlelight vigil in response to reports of racism, homophobia, antisemitism, hazing and sexual abuse.
College students around the country are protesting sexual assault and racism at their institutions, recognizing that students on their campuses may face multiple forms of oppression. These protests show an awareness that the problem of gender-based violence varies depending on racial identity and that racism is often accompanied by violence based on a person’s gender.
The enormity of gender-based violence has attracted the attention of artists, writers, and filmmakers. In documentaries (”The Rape of Recy Taylor”), feature films (”Bombshell”), and streamed series (”I May Destroy You”), in performances like “Story of a Rape Survivor” and in best-selling memoirs like “Is Rape a Crime?” and “Know My Name,” true stories of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment are reaching broad audiences and have changed the way we think, talk, and react to gender violence. It doesn’t matter that they don’t all label what they do as activism.
Activism as a behavior is personal. Your activism can be something as intimate as telling your harassment story to your child or to co-workers or students whom you mentor. It can be as straightforward as donating money or time to a local rape crisis center or anti-domestic-violence program. It can be as old-fashioned as writing your representatives at all levels of government about the need to pass laws like the “Be Heard Act” that provide stronger protection for workers. Or to step up enforcement of Title IX to prevent sexual harassment and assault in our colleges and universities.
Activism is about using your experiences, platforms, and resources to raise awareness and call for change. We can all be activists. Each of us can commit ourselves to creating a world that is free from gender-based violence.
Anita F. Hill is a professor at Brandeis University and author of “Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence.”