Beyond the Hashtag: Celebrating #16Days and working to end gender-based violence

Woman in an office holding up a sign that says Bring Back Our Girls

You’ve all seen them. Hashtag campaigns that ask people to #endchildmarriage or work to #BringBackOurGirls. But do campaigns like this actually make a difference or do they just add to the noise on social media?

Sometimes, they work and the #16Days campaign is one such exception. Every year, from November 25 – December 10, the campaign encourages people to participate in 16 days of activism, to help prevent and eliminate gender-based violence (GBV). This year’s theme is “Orange the World: #HearMeToo

It may seem absurd that activism on Twitter and trending hashtags can facilitate real policy and social change but they can. The #16Days campaign gains more and more traction every year and is led by organizations and amplified by activists who are on the ground advocating for change. Their work does not end when the campaign ends, they just use the campaign to rally more support and inspire people to get involved in meaningful ways.

Curiosity can lead to education on social media. When a hashtag starts trending, people click on it just to see why it’s so popular. The #16Days feed is filled with informative articles, stories, infographics and resources that can help raise awareness about how prevalent violence against women and girls is and how we can combat it. Once we know better, we’re supposed to do better, right? At least that’s what Maya Angelou had hoped and all of us, who advocate for social justice, hope that’s the case too.

Why focus on gender-based violence?

Because the stats are staggering; one in three women and girls will experience violence in their lifetime (One in two in Canada). But sometimes, it’s hard to connect to numbers. It’s hard to remember that behind those numbers are real women and girls, friends, co-workers, the woman sitting across from you on the bus, your child’s best friend. That’s why people and organizations who advocate for the prevention and elimination of GBV, tell stories.

Stories are a powerful way to connect to an issue and be inspired to take action but it is important to understand that survivors don’t owe the world their stories. When and if survivors choose to come forward, we must believe them, respect them and amplify their voice to shed light on the issue. The #WhyIStayed, #RapedNeverReported and #MeToo hashtags have all worked to expose how prevalent GBV is, put a face and name to the stats and educate people on how we’ve created a culture in which GBV flourishes and hides in plain sight.

Girl standing in a market

“Before I was cut, all I had seen or heard of FGM was bleeding. After I was cut, my life changed.” Beatrice* is a survivor of FGM and early and forced marriage. When she heard about Plan International’s training program, she eagerly enrolled. Now she’s an advocate in her community and raises awareness about the dangers of FGM and child marriage. She successfully protected her niece from FGM after sharing her knowledge with her brother and the rest of her family. (*Her name has been changed to protect her identity.)

Plan International is passionate about ending gender-based violence and advocating for gender equality across the globe. Over the last 80 years, we have been able to meet, support and engage with countless women and girls who experience different forms of violence and oppression. It is a privilege to tell their stories and not only raise awareness about issues like child marriage, FGM and economic empowerment but report back on the type of change that is possible when women and girls are empowered.

Defying today’s ‘normal’ for a better tomorrow

We’ve come to accept gender-based violence as ‘normal’ for women and girls but we must reject the status quo.

A retweet doesn’t make you an activist and it doesn’t change policy. But when a million people become passionate about GBV because a hashtag is trending, that hashtag demands attention and it evolves into a campaign that leads to change. To move the needle on GBV, to change laws and ingrained cultural practices that sustain gender inequality, it takes much more than social media activism.

But we must consider social media as a powerful weapon in our arsenal to fight GBV and gender inequality. If we’re ever going to have a just world where equality reigns, we must take to the streets and march, tweet to leaders, listen to survivors, do research, educate ourselves and commit to doing our part. Sometimes all we can manage is a retweet and that’s okay because it does help.

Together we must Defy Normal and participating in the #16Days campaign is a great place to start.