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Dec 9, 2014

Violence against women and star power: Does their magic wand work?

Amit Sengupta

Posted Dec 8, 2014 by Amit Sengupta

I am sure you must have seen or heard the speech made by actress Emma Watson of the Harry Potter series fame a couple of months ago at the UN headquarters in New York. Even as many of us in India are struggling to check the social acceptance of violence against women and girls, her words find a strong resonance.

For the uninitiated, here is what Emma said: “Today we are launching a campaign called HeForShe.I am reaching out to you because I need your help. We want to end gender inequality—and to do that we need everyone to be involved.....In 1995, Hilary Clinton made a stirring speech in the Fourth World Conference in Beijing about women’s rights. Sadly many of the things she wanted to change are still a reality today. But what stood out for me the most was that only 30 per cent of her audience was male. How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?

In fact, this is what Hilary announced at the Beijing conference: “It is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights.” 19 years since Hillary’s speech, very little progress has been made to reduce the increasing gap of gender inequality. Not surprisingly, the recent World Economic Forum Gender report 2014 puts India to shame. India has fallen behind its south asian counterparts – Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh - on vital parameters such as economic participation, political empowerment et al.

Given this seemingly deteriorating situation, increasing awareness on reducing violence against women becomes a daunting task; more so, in a huge and diverse country like India. Here’s why I think the voice of popular public figures, political leaders and celebrities makes a difference. Their roles have become increasingly vital to the core of campaigning and advocacy on social issues.

The power of their speech, the emotional appeal it carries, the star aura all sways their fans and creates an impact. Fans tend to believe more what world leaders and popular actors and musicians say, rather than act on a government advertisement or a news report asking them to commit to a just cause. The innate sense of persuasion they have on their fans is impeccable. And people look up to them as one of their role models. Look at the number of celebrities endorsing anything from a soap to a polio eradication campaign.

Star power is not a recent phenomenon, of late we are witnessing lot of international actors queuing up as good will ambassadors for international non profit organisations and even the UN agencies. We have Angelina Jolie’s work as UNHCR’s ambassador visiting refugee camps and Nicole Kidman working with UN Women to reduce violence against women. Oxfam’s global ambassadors include the likes of Desmond Tutu, Helen Mirren, Kristin Davis, Leymah Gbowee and Rahul Bose..

There’s nothing wrong in getting them onboard for a socially just cause. They are helping us amplify the messages of our advocacy and campaigning after all.

This is what actress Teri Hatcher, said in support of UN’s 16 days of activism campaign “I am one in three, and I will be the one who yells from the rooftops, until those numbers change.”

There are also sports stars such as David Beckham, Lionel Messi among others who have been championing the cause of human rights through their profession and reaching out to millions of their fans and followers.

But is it enough? Do people take them seriously? Are they using their stardom to change the situation at the grassroots? How much time they are able to devote to advocacy and campaigning on critical issues that affect women and girls?

Well, given the recent trends, it seems yes. People take them seriously, to a large extent.

Says Julie Thekkudan, lead specialist, gender justice, Oxfam India: “There’s no denying the fact that they act as powerful role models. Lots of young people look up to them. When they give their voice to a campaign, it definitely helps the social cause. This has tremendous potential.”

While we have a plethora of international celebrities jumping onto the nonprofit bandwagon, we hardly have any of their Indian counterparts making use of their star power to reduce social injustice, gender inequality and discrimination. Nevertheless, there are few who stand out for their outright support towards a cause.

Yes, we have actor and musician, Farhan Akhtar recently joining UN’s He for She campaign in increasing awareness of women’s rights and reducing violence against women. Ace tennis player, Sania Mirza has also joined the UN platform to raise awareness on this vital issue. Oxfam also has its fair share of good will ambassadors who we call brand ambassadors. We have actors of repute such as Rahul Bose, Colin Firth among others who help us amplify our messages around rights for all.

In many of Oxfam India’s campaigns, Rahul Bose has effectively voiced concerns about gender inequality and the need to reduce social injustice. There’s a certain sense of credibility and believability in the messages shared by people like Rahul Bose or Farhan Akhtar. While it’s good that celebrities like Farhan Akhtar and Sania Mirza use their star power to further such causes, there is a need to go beyond tokenisms and engage more deeply on issues such as gender inequality.

As Julie Thekkudan rightly puts it, “There is a fundamental difference between celebrity endorsements and good will ambassadors. Celebrities have a very consumerist aspect to their existence. For them to champion a social cause, it has to be a delicate balance between their ‘consumerist image’ and their role as activists. Engagements by good will ambassadors have to be at a far more deeper and substantial level. This is all about nurturing relationships.”

Reducing the social acceptance of violence against women and girls may be a first step as we aim for a society free of violence. In this journey we may well need the stardom, charm and mass appeal of good will ambassadors. Bringing them onboard should be seen as a positive fit to our larger narrative on increasing awareness and reducing violence against women and girls.

Let their tribe grow!

The author is with policy, research, campaigns, Oxfam India

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