Originally posted on the BBC Media Action Insight blog by Josephine Casserly, Governance and Rights Adviser on December 7 2016 - In the UK and South Africa, two dramas illustrate how stories can help people better understand gender-based violence. Yet despite early signs of promise, we need more evidence on how effective media programmes are at changing patterns and perceptions of violence against women and girls.

Saturday is International Human Rights Day and will also mark the end of 16 days of activism to protest violence against women and girls. In a world where one in three women are the victims of physical or sexual abuse in their lifetime, the 16 Days Campaign is immensely important. Yet despite being so prevalent, violence against women often isn’t visible. Getting societies to grapple with an issue that has been kept behind closed doors for generations will require creative solutions.

Through resounding with people on an emotional and personal level, drama can help people engage with this issue and even rethink their attitudes about it. 

Uneven progress

Gender-based violence has deep roots and gains in the battle against it are long fought for but quickly lost, easily snatched away by a crisis or conflict. Fifteen years of data from over 40 countries paints a decidedly mixed picture on spousal violence. The phenomenon of online abuse of women on social media is a further reminder that progress may be more superficial than we often imagine, leaving some not only unrepentant but vocal about their prejudices.

Changing laws is one tool for combatting violence against women but doesn’t always get to the heart of this very social problem. So how can we reveal and challenge these deeply ingrained biases and prejudices, which we might not even know are there?

Do be so dramatic?

One potential answer to this conundrum is drama. Few things explore human relationships quite like it. Drama allows audiences to see inside characters’ heads, delving into their deepest fears and motivations. Fiction can portray nuance and draw out consequences of actions. Where violence is swept under the carpet by a culture of silence, drama can provide a safe space to speak about the unspeakable.

This is exactly what BBC radio drama The Archers has achieved with the story of Helen and Rob over the course of nearly three years. Rob’s abuse begins slowly and subtly. He refuses to eat a meal Helen cooked for them both; he stops her wearing a dress he deems too revealing. Little by little, the abuse intensifies as he increasingly undermines, criticises and controls Helen, eventually slapping her.

The plot reaches a crescendo when Rob goads his pregnant wife to stab him – "it's your choice, but it's the only way I am ever letting you go". We hear scuffling and a knife fall to the floor – Helen has stabbed Rob.

The slow build-up of this story so accurately reflects the nature of abuse and conveys critical messages, debunking misconceptions about intimate partner violence in the UK. Both the violence and its perpetrators might not look how you would expect. Violence can be subtle and psychological, imperceptibly escalating over the course of many years. Perpetrators might seem like nice guys or even local heroes, as in Rob’s case. And delving into these issues through fiction seems to have struck a chord – calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline increased by 20% over the course of a year of the story unfolding.

A private affair made public

Another good example of drama tackling violence against women comes from South African TV show, Soul City, which features a character named Matlakala, who is subject to brutal violence at the hands of her husband, Thabang. The scriptwriters cleverly subvert the norm that women must tolerate violence. For example, Matlakala’s friend, Sister Bettina, turns a Zulu saying that translates as “you must sit on hot coals” on its head to urge her that “you can’t sit on hot coals and pretend you’re not on fire”.

Soul City also challenges the idea that domestic violence is a private matter. At first, their neighbours turn a blind eye. But as the abuse escalates, they take action. One night when sounds of violence fill the street, the neighbours bang their saucepans together to express their disapproval of Thabang and their solidarity with Matlakala. The story inspired communities across the country to take similar actions to break the silence. Audience members were more likely to say domestic violence wasn’t a private affair, and that women shouldn’t put up with it, than those who hadn’t watched the programme. 

These are promising examples but we need more evidence about how effective drama can be at preventing violence against women and girls. Other types of interventions, such as education in schools and relationship counselling, have been subject to many evaluations in a range of different contexts. We know much less about how, when and where media can change attitudes and behaviour around this pressing issue.

As the 16 days of activism come to an end, the spotlight may not remain on violence against women and girls. Our ongoing challenge is to create compelling and creative dramas that challenge violence – and for us to prove that these programmes about real-life issues can have real-life effects. 

Josephine Casserly is a Governance and Rights Adviser at BBC Media Action.

This article was written as part of the BBC’s 100 Women season. Join the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram using the hashtag #100women.


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Image credit: BBC 

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