Purple and orange: framing the global campaign against gender-based violence

miraball sisters celebration

“They knew society’s expectations, but they knew what they needed as well. They were young when the old were in control. They were women in a patriotic society. They were repressed when others had the resources to create change. They reflected on their situations and realized if change was to happen, they needed to be the catalysts.”

These are the words that Dédé Mirabal, who died this year at the age of 88, used to recall her sisters, Patria, Minerva and Maria Teresa. Also known as Las Mariposas/The Butterflies, the three women were assassinated in the Dominican Republic on November 25, 1960. In 1981, Latin American feminists claimed the sisters’ anniversary as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women; it was officially adopted by the United Nations in 1999.

November 25 was also the date chosen by participants in the Women’s Global Leadership Institute at Rutgers University, New Jersey, when they began the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence, back in 1991. The campaign ends with International Human Rights Day on December 10, underscoring the link between women’s rights and human rights. Between these days fall International Women Human Rights Defenders’ Day on November 29 (unofficial), and Canada’s National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, in memory of the 14 women who were shot dead at the École Polytechnique in Montréal on December 6, 1989.

We’re now halfway through the campaign, and for the past week, I’ve been surrounded by a sea of purple and orange. The purple represents the original 16 Days campaign, which is now a global phenomenon. It also has a historical resonance, as it was used to symbolise dignity in the movement for women’s suffrage. The orange stands for UNiTE to End Violence against Women, an international campaign by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. UN Women states that the colour was chosen “to symbolise hope for a future free from violence against women and girls.” Some famous buildings in New York may have glowed orange for November 25, but many local organisations, including Women’s Aid in Ireland, are sticking with the traditional purple ribbons and balloons they’ve always used to highlight the prevalence of violence against women in the here and now.

The more I see of it, the more the orange and the purple seem to represent not just two different campaigns, but two different worlds. The United Nations has celebrity ambassadors, orange fund-raising bracelets, and a social media campaign focusing on women overcoming obstacles and being empowered within the school, community, or marketplace. The official 16 Days campaign is more ambitious in scope, as is reflected by its slogan, From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Let’s Challenge Militarism and End Gender-Based Violence! The organisers argue that military spending (in place of investment in health or education) and the associated culture of masculinised violence and impunity is allowing violence against women and communities to spread unchecked. They make a point of singling out violence perpetrated by state actors as a key area of concern.

Despite the fact that the UN is promoting the 16 Days campaign, the part about militarism and state violence appears to have got lost along the way. Neither the Secretary-General nor the Executive Director of UN Women made direct reference to militarism in their speeches on November 25. The Secretary-General did say that violence against women escalates during conflict, and he also emphasised women’s role in preventing war and building peace. However, by failing to problematise women’s agency in conflict, he left intact the gendered assumptions about women and peace, and men and war. By calling on men and boys to stand up against violence against women, he left unchallenged the broader norms around masculinised violence – norms which allow gender-based violence to flourish. Reading his statement against some of the 16 Days blog posts by women’s rights activists – from Egypt, Tunisia, Mexico, Sudan, India, Pakistan…the list goes on – it begins to seem that the UN is failing to see the wood for the trees.

This disconnect between the United Nations and grassroots women’s organisations is not new. The problem is captured particularly well in an academic article by Sheri Gibbings, who conducted research on Women, Peace and Security at the UN several years ago. She found that cultural norms within the organisation did not allow for “angry women” to have a voice. Specifically, she discusses how Iraqi women who spoke out against the 2003 invasion of their country were a source of embarrassment to some of the gender advocates who had invited them to speak in an informal meeting at the UN. By denouncing imperialism, the two women contravened norms around both gender and politics. From that point onward, speakers were briefed on how to frame issues around peacemaking and post-conflict reconstruction in a positive manner.

The purple and the orange remain symbols of how far the transnational feminist movement has come, and how far there is left to go. There is something incredible about a grassroots campaign that has managed to win the endorsement of inter-governmental organisations and political actors. Arguably, that success is being exploited by women’s organisations to their advantage. Yet there’s something discomforting about the way in which the UN has taken selectively from the 16 Days campaign in order to fit its own agenda. There’s something discomforting in the way the UN ignores the voices of women whose political analysis stretches beyond the boundaries of the village or town, offering a critique of patriarchy and militarism, of nation-states and fundamentalism. It’s so discomforting, it makes me want to shrug my shoulders and just let the haze of colour pass me by.

And then I think: in Georgia six weeks ago, Maka Tsivtsivadze was shot dead by her ex-husband in the hallway of the university where she lectured. In Germany, a young woman, Tuğçe Albayrak, has just died after standing up against public violence against women. In the USA, Marissa Alexander (who fired a single warning shot into the ceiling as her husband threatened to kill her four years ago) is still in jail and could face a further five years of prison time. Women have the right to be angry, and angry women have the right to be heard. A system that silences or sanitises their stories, while offering paper promises about empowerment, is a system that needs to be constantly questioned. Cooperation with the UN may be inevitable or even desirable in some cases, but I’m thankful the feminists I know haven’t traded purple for orange just yet.

Note: for a pink alternative, see the Women Peacemakers Program’s excellent resources on Gender & Militarism, and read about May 24 – International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament.