Communications: Changing Dominant Narratives

I have been interested in the rights, lives, and stories of women and girls for as long as I can remember.  I lived in Pakistan between the ages of 12 and 18, at which point I specifically became concerned with the astounding levels of violence that women and girls face around the world.  Since then I have studied or worked on issues around gender-based violence and discrimination in some capacity, both overseas and in the U.S.

I am now serving as a Communications and Youth Advocacy Officer at Together for Girls – a global public-private partnership addressing violence against children, and specifically sexual violence against girls.  This role is something of a shift for me, away from largely programmatic or academic work on these issues, to one much more focused on communications in particular.

I realized not long ago that I am very interested in “narratives,” and how they affect behaviors.  I have always been intrigued by power dynamics – who has power and why – which is what underpins my ever-present focus on gender.  Everything from politics, to economics, to social dynamics and foreign policy decisions – these are all expressions or manifestations of power.   Certainly violence is one very prominent expression of power and coercion.  Challenging both the silence that so often accompanies violence, as well as the dominant narratives around it, became front and center for me, and was thus something I wanted to further explore.

Feminist theory and the many perspectives it has grown to include taught me early on about privilege.  It taught me about “cross-sectionality” – how we have evolved as a movement from focusing on sexism to one that includes and attempts to address racism, classism, homophobia, etc – seeing them all as intersecting and complex systems of oppression.

It is with these lessons on power and privilege that I approach this new space, wrestling with ideas around messaging, story-telling, and evidence-based advocacy.  I am extremely wary of being yet another white, Western woman campaigning on behalf of those who may be perceived as “vulnerable” or “voiceless.”  Instead, I see strong advocacy as ensuring a platform for the marginalized to share their experiences and ideas, without attempting to speak “for” anyone, or reducing entire groups (like “girls”) to a single entity, represented by one or two individuals of that same group.   In addition, it is clear that authentic advocacy must ground itself in facts and data.  For the longest time we simply did not know the extent to which violence against women and children was happening, what the effects were, or why and where it was happening.   Gathering that kind of crucial data is exactly what Together for Girls has and continues to do successfully with its Violence Against Children Surveys, and it is this very data that drives both our messaging and our programming.

Communicating is, in my opinion, one of the hardest things to do – and yet one of the most crucial to do effectively.  It’s an act of translation to take dry-seeming data or research and turn it into something people are willing to pay attention to, care about – and effect policy around.  It takes time, patience, and sensitivity to make sure your information is accurate, and that your message is clear, all the while reflecting the inherent complexity of the issue.  In sum, it isn’t easy, and if we are being honest – especially in the field of violence prevention and response – it can be heart breaking.

But there is a lot of power in narratives, and we are starting to see that power change hands into those of the Malalas, or the Daisy Colemans around the world.  The nuances of individual stories in the past unfortunately haven’t always translated very well into concrete policy or action.  It’s a lot easier to categorize, form teams, find a token spokesperson, and then power forward.  But the paradigm is shifting as more and more people step forward and break silences, often using the technological platforms we now have available to us to amplify their voices.  Those courageous enough to tell their stories are changing dominant narratives.  I am new to the fold, but I hope to help ensure that these history-altering voices are getting the time and attention they so deserve.