Lockdown measures in India have sparked a spike in domestic violence cases, and now more than ever is the time to ensure anti-domestic violence campaigns are not just active but effective in how they address the issue.

Soon after the COVID-19 lockdown began in India on March 25, news about an increase in domestic violence (DV) in households started trickling in. In response to that news, in early April, we saw an anti-DV video by various Indian celebrities. Set in a black and white frame, Anushka Sharma, Vidya Balan, Virat Kohli, and a few other Bollywood personalities encouraged “men to take a stand against” DV and “women to break the silence” around it. This ad aimed to educate viewers about the rising DV numbers and to prompt action against perpetrators. 

More recently, NGO Sneha with the help of several Bollywood actors/actresses took to Instagram to draw attention to the unheard voices of DV victims. As a part of this #LockdownMeinLockup (locked up during the lockdown) campaign, actresses Karishma Kapoor, Bipasha Basu, and others encouraged people to speak up against DV. By empathizing with the victims, they tried to reduce the shame associated with DV.

These two celebrity campaigns, even if mostly on social media, present us with a chance to make the ‘domestic’ problem a mainstream concern. Anti-DV campaigns mainly have three target groups- victims, bystanders, and perpetrators. What should the next steps be? Let us take a close look at some campaigns to answer that question.

Victims: Offer support and encouragement

Take the Chuppi Tod (break the silence) campaign initiated by the Raipur police. This campaign encouraged victims to report any violent misdemeanours at home while police called past complainants to enquire about their welfare. This proactive initiative from the police will help reduce the stigma associated with reporting incidents but also put fear in the mind of the perpetrators, who will know that they are being watched. However, it falls short of providing recourse to victims once a complaint is registered.

Many victims do not report incidents out of fear of retaliation. A campaign targeted at victims should provide information about the support they will get for issues that crop up after they lodge a complaint, such as the provisions available for counselling and/or legal assistance. In that regard, the work by NGO Sneha is notable. They have provided extensive details on how they support battered women.

Perpetrators: Stigmatise the behaviour not the person

The second kind of anti-DV campaign focuses on changing perpetrator beliefs and behaviours. Campaigns that target perpetrators have a difficult task at hand because of the range of issues that needs to be addressed - from condemning a perpetrator’s violent behaviour to providing behaviour change support. Such campaigns targeted at perpetrators of DV are less common. Nevertheless, the Indian Merchants Association and International Advertising Association (India chapter) recently launched a campaign, asking men to help with domestic chores and “beat the virus to pulp, not your wife.”

Marketing in the COVID-19 crisis

This article is part of a special WARC Snapshot focused on enabling brand marketers to re-strategise amid the unprecedented disruption caused by the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Read more

But is it useful to address violence by adopting violent language? Moreover, does shaming the perpetrator lead to behaviour change? Most of the ads targeting perpetrators attempt to make them feel ashamed or guilty. The hope is that this will prompt the individual to change their behaviour. Its effectiveness is still being debated, with such ads are mostly dismissed as a nuisance, and their warnings rejected.

Research suggests that shaming a person might make them defensive and offer them little hope for change. It might be more useful to stigmatise a behaviour rather than the person. Telling a person to change their actions is a difficult yet reasonable demand as opposed to telling them that they are no good and, in turn, providing them no opportunity to improve. 

The non-punitive and educational anti-DV campaign by Freedom from Fear has succeeded in this regard. This decades-long campaign by authorities in Western Australia focuses on providing counselling support for perpetrators to change their violent behaviour. It stems from the understanding that many women might be reluctant to leave their husbands and disrupt their children’s lives. Thus, a change in the man’s behaviour reduces anxieties in the minds of the victims. Of course, a campaign like this needs long-term commitment from all parties involved.

The last and crucial target group are bystanders, individuals who are witnesses to DV. Such campaigns urge bystanders to intervene and offer suggestions on ways they can intercede to stop violence. I have not come across a campaign explicitly targeted at bystanders in the last two months and will instead discuss an old campaign called Bell Bajao (ring the bell). In a series of ads, set in residential neighbourhoods that viewers from different social strata can relate to, individuals ring the bell of a house from where sounds of a man shouting at a woman and breaking household items are heard.

We learn that the act, not the reason, of ringing the bell is vital. In fact, the reasons for ringing the household bell are trivial and made up on the spot (e.g., what is the time now?). The sound of the bell breaks the spell of violence and warns the perpetrator that they are being watched. The ads show a sense of urgency in responding to a violent situation immediately, lest it leads to more harm. The strength of the campaign is that it demonstrates ways by which anyone could help reduce violence.

What comes next?

Campaigns need to focus on changing attitudes around wife-beating behaviour and victim shaming. Shocking statistics from the National Family Health Survey suggest that men and women do not find wife-beating problematic. Unless such wrongs (rather than the wrongdoer) are stigmatized, we may not see progress in complaints and reformation.

One way to improve the scope of DV campaigns is by highlighting the violence faced by male victims and lesbian or gay couples. Some news reports of violence against men have emerged during the lockdown. Mass media portrayals usually trivialize violence against men and make them appear as deserving targets of violent attacks. The “deserving victims” idea then gets entrenched in our psyche. It leads to the transfer of feelings of shame and guilt from the violent perpetrator to the male victims preventing them from seeking further help. 

Moreover, by highlighting the violence faced by male victims, one would also avoid antagonising and losing the support of men otherwise sympathetic to the anti-DV cause. The stigma faced by victims of violence in lesbian or gay relationships is even more. The complete silence on this issue needs to be addressed.

The current campaigns should expand the definition of DV from physical and verbal violence to include sexual abuse. Dentsu Impact and My Choice Foundation took the first step in this direction on Mother’s Day by pointing out that some women may have been forced to become mothers by violent means. Finally, we need to change the existing imagery around DV victims. Take any news report on DV, and one will see images of a helpless, passive, and submissive victim. Strong representation will help to reinforce and strengthen positive words (e.g. Avon’s #IsolatedNotAlone anti-DV campaign).

Figure: Images collated from various national newspaper reports on DV during lockdown

It is well-established that domestic violence hurts the victim’s mental and physical health, their career and ambitions, and relationships with others. The cost of this is transferred to the children and the public as well. The momentum on this issue has been built mainly by individuals, a few private organizations, and NGOs through small campaigns. Public and private organizations should seize this opportunity and launch large-scale campaigns to amplify the message.