To Stop Rape Culture, Ring the Bell

Very few men are rapists. Very few men are abusers. Or stalkers. Predators are the minority. The vast majority of men are decent people who want to do the right thing. 

What would it take to shift from a rape culture to a respect culture, and end violence against women? You have to involve the decent men. You have to let them know they are our allies, not our enemies. You have to let them know what they can do to help—to interrupt violence, to help spread new norms—without having to call themselves feminists or become full-on activists.

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about some such efforts in the United States. Bystander-intervention efforts, in which groups train young men and women in what it takes to derail a situation that could lead to rape. Today I spoke with Mallika Dutt, founder of the binational organization Breakthrough, which works in both the U.S. and India to build a respect culture and prevent all kinds of violence against women—one by one, at the local, personal level, where change is really made. I’ll tell you more about the conversation post next week. But first I want to tell you about her organization’s amazing campaign, Bell Bajao/Ring the Bell.

This is a bystander intervention project—a bystander interruption project—targeted specifically to densely populated areas (like so much of India) where people live life side by side. Its central message is this: Don’t ignore what you hear. Find a small way to get involved. Here's the example they give: If you overhear your neighbor beating his wife, ring the doorbell.

That’s all. Just ring the bell. He’ll come to the door. You can ask him for a cup of milk, or the time of day. Say nothing about what you’ve heard. Your disapproval will register. You’ll interrupt the violence. Without any risk to yourself, you’ll be a hero.

You really have to see these videos to grasp how brilliant and perfectly local they are. (This isn’t how a bystander project would look in the U.S., with our soundproofed single-family dwellings.) Here are Got MilkBank Clerk, Bus Driver, Software Engineer, Ring Ring—oh gosh, once I got started, I had to watch them all, they're so well done. In riveting little stories, and with absolutely no preaching, these Bell Bajao video spots quickly deliver a powerful—and potentially culture-changing—message. Beyond inviting ordinary men to act, they deliver the message that public-health folks say is necessary: Violence is not our norm. Our social norm is respect.

The initiative goes far beyond the ads; Breakthrough has run a video van through areas where television isn’t widespread, has worked to get the message into India’s soap operas and other storylines, and spreads the message through puppet shows, comics, local art, debating and drama competitions, and more. It has trained youth and community leaders, and organized those community volunteers to help train others in standing up against violence against women. It works with government institutions (including the police) to sensitize them to gendered issues like domestic violence and rape. The message may be simple, but part of the campaign is to get men talking about violence against women, understanding that it’s neither inevitable or acceptable. Sometimes, of course, they’ll have to ring an actual doorbell. Sometimes the doorbell will be metaphoric: Some man will be boasting in conversation about how he keeps his woman in line, and Our Decent Man will scoff and say that only cowards hit women. Dutt told me that to date, their campaign has reached about 200 million. That doesn’t mean that one-fifth of India has completely transformed its view of treating women. But changing a culture has to begin somewhere.

Women have no chance without larger norm change. I just love the campaign, which has been endorsed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, has expanded to Vietnam, China, and Malaysia, and is one of the pet projects of the Clinton Global Initiative.

We need to move from a rape culture to a respect culture. Do you have stories about how you or some organization you know are making that happen? Please let me know

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