EVAW Day and the Bristol City Council

This is a guest post by Sian Norris


On the 25th November, the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Girls was celebrated by the Bristol City Council with an exhibition of art and writing created over a series of women-only workshops by survivors of male violence against women. Events turned sour however when the head of the council, Barbara Janke, questioned why the art on display was only by women, before arguing that the UN day ignored male survivors. When the organiser of the exhibition explained that this day is designated by the UN to recognise that levels of violence against women and girls now constitute the biggest human rights crisis of out time, Ms Janke chose to complain that the exhibition was ‘exclusive’ and walked off without even looking at the art.

Her colleague, Councillor Guy Poultney, was overheard asking why women victime and survivors needed a day at all, yet did not see his confusion as a reason not to have his photo taken by the press. Mr Poultney’s presence in itself was controversial. In his capacity as head of the licensing committee he recently granted a licence to a Hooters restaurant in Bristol, and voted in favour of a licence for a lap dancing club, an application which, in the end, was defeated. Many of the women in attendance felt his presence at the event was hypocritical. When the links between sexual objectification and violence against women are so obvious and so strong, (American Psychological Association) it was very concerning that a councillor who professes to support the aims to end violence against women and men, is happy to license properties that encourage an atmosphere that fosters violence. Like his colleague Ms Janke, he also did not seem to want to engage with the art on display, leaving the women in attendance with the impression that his main purpose in attending was for the press photo opportunity.

When we wrote to the councillors to ask why they had been so hostile to an event focusing on women survivors, by accusing the work of being exclusive and discriminatory towards men, we received no reply. It was with some surprise then, that on the 3rd December, we learnt that Barbara Janke had accused us in the local press of being ‘hysterical’ when we had tried to talk to her about the reasons behind the event.

I am writing this to explain our side of the story, and why we believe in the importance of the 25th November as a day to recognise women victims and survivors of male violence.

The reason only women survivors were represented at the exhibition is because the 25th November is the one day of the year when we are asked to stop what we’re doing and recognise the need to end violence against women and girls. It is the one day in the year that women survivors and victims are given some focus. All too often, women are silenced when it comes to violence. They are silenced because the police don’t believe them when they are raped. They are silenced because their partner may threaten them if they speak out. They are silenced because no-one has ever been convicted of committing FGM in the UK, even though we know that 6500 girls are at risk. They are silenced because they are murdered by johns, partners, ex-partners and strangers. They are silenced because violence against women and girls is so common, it is not even considered to be news.

The UN Day to Eliminate Violence against Women and Girls is not intended to ignore male victims of violence. An exhibition of art by women survivors does not deny that men are survivors and victims too. To suggest this, as Ms Janke did, is ridiculous. All the UN asks, all these women ask, is that we dedicate one day to remembering them, listening to them and recognising that violence against women and girls is happening, every where, every day.

In her statement to the press, Ms Janke went on to accuse the organiser and her colleagues and friends that they did not believe men were needed to help end violence against women and girls. This is simply not true. This event was never about excluding men. We need men and women to work together to end violence against women and girls. We need men to challenge sexist assumptions, challenge male privilege, and speak out against violence. It is very, very troubling that Ms Janke interpreted a woman only exhibition as a suggestion that we believe the war against violence can be won by women alone. It is ludicrous to suggest that the aim of the exhibition was to exclude men from joining the fight.

She went on to accuse us of being unable to hold or listen to any other opinion. But her argument that the UN day excludes men would suggest that it is, in fact, her who was refusing to hear an alternative opinion: the view that it is important to dedicate one day to speaking out about male violence against women. She refused to listen to or attempt to understand why this day was important, and as a result, refused to engage with the art created by the women of the city she is supposed to represent.