What we can learn from the fight for marriage equality

We at What Works would like to join in the world’s biggest wedding toast, and raise our glasses to the US Supreme Court, on its momentous decision to legalise same-sex marriage across all 50 states of the US.

What shone out from the pages of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s Majority Decision Statement, was the constant connection made between ‘rights’, and notions of dignity, respect and decency, most beautifully sumated in his closing paragraph: “They ask for dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right”.

We in the violence against women and girls sphere have the same ambition, to create a world where everyone is treated, and treats others, with the same level of respect, irrespective of their gender, sex, or sexual preferences.

This win reminds us, that goal is absolutely achievable, but it comes on the back of a million acts, large and small, to keep pushing for a change.

In his statement, Kennedy gave a synthesised history of the US LGBTI rights movement that kept pushing, and in a later address, Obama also recognised the efforts of millions of individuals over the decades. What was not mentioned, is that this is, and always has been, a global movement for change.

The first community group openly dedicated to campaigning against LGBTI discrimination was the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, formed in Berlin in 1897, which in turn inspired similar groups in other parts of Europe. Archived letters show that in the 1960s, long before the advent of the Internet, activists in Australia, the US and Europe were sharing their ideas and strategies for political action. In the 1980s, HIV/AIDS was a global epidemic that drew a globalized response that saw medical bodies connecting with community groups, connecting across the world. And now, following this win in the States, other countries will find inspiration and practical ideas to keep pushing for equality in the eyes of their own governing bodies.

These global ties have strengthened the LGBTI rights movement, and played a part in making this one of the most rapid evolutions in public and political sentiment in human history – less than a generation ago, it was still illegal to be gay in Australia, last Sunday, 26 million people around the world changed their Facebook pictures to rainbows, in support of LGBTI equality.

To build the same kind of momentum behind the movement to end violence against women and girls, we need to adopt the same approach to sharing our information and strategies with each other globally.

We have struggled with this, partly because of the perception that violence against women is a problem that results from crazed lone men and dysfunctional couples. It’s hard to build a social movement around something that is seen as an individual’s problem. But, this is a societal problem that requires a societal response.

Evidence shows us that rates of violence against women are higher in communities where it is acceptable to hold sexist attitudes or beliefs. Evidence also shows us that, by working in and with communities, we can dismantle these beliefs, and reduce the rates of violence. In Kampala, Uganda, Raising Voices SASA! has done this by building community groups, developing soap operas and connecting people around plays and events that challenge ideas around sexism and violence. And, it’s an approach that has worked. In the areas where they worked, SASA! managed to half rates of violence between couples, in less than a generation. That’s right, in less than a generation!

As with the LGBTI rights movement, we are achieving success through community action. But it’s happening in pockets. To take it to the next level, to achieve the same sort of resounding, worldwide shift we have seen in perceptions of LGBTI issues, we need to learn from last week’s win, and start building our mechanisms for sharing information and strategies across borders.

The What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls Global Programme wants to create the connections to make that possible. Over the coming years, we will be developing cross-country, comparative research on programmes that are working to stop violence against women from happening. In the meantime though, if you’re working on a programme, or want to be involved in stopping violence against women and girls, get in touch with us. Send us an email, drop us a line at Facebook, or say hi over Twitter. Tell us about the work you’re doing and what’s working for you.

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