Happy woman with her child

Helping the Woman Behind the Happy Face

Lessons learned from a municipal human rights initiative in the EU remind us that we are each responsible for combating gender-based violence. Calling it out at every turn is one way to help the invisible survivors in your life.

In 2019, the city of Andalusia, Spain launched an anti-domestic abuse campaign that featured stock images of women smiling. The images were paired with tag lines such as: “she has suffered abuse, but life is always stronger”. The purpose was to highlight the importance of encouraging women to report instances of abuse to the police.

This campaign received criticism for trivializing the seriousness of domestic violence and placing the responsibility on women, not their abusers. This does not address the roots of gender-based violence and domestic violence. It is difficult for survivors to go to the police or a trusted confidant; they fear not being believed, being re-victimized through the reporting process, and the retaliation of their abusers. 

Moreover, the juxtaposition of smiling women placed next to text encouraging women to reach out to the police creates a false narrative of what it is like for survivors to flee abuse. 

Ultimately, the campaign was harmful because it put a happy face on abuse, downplayed the seriousness of abuse and created a narrative in which the abuse women experience must not be “that bad.”

The Reality for Survivors Fleeing Domestic Abuse

 Although survivors often associate deep shame with their domestic abuse, they  may present a happy exterior on social media ( i.e. posting happy family pictures). 

This extends to the way survivors present themselves in the world. They often continue caring for their children, going to work, and carrying out their day-to-day responsibilities. Leaving an abusive situation can also be dangerous. 

The most dangerous time for an individual in an abusive relationship is in the lead-up to terminating their relationship. On average, it takes a survivor seven times to leave their abuser. This can be for several reasons including, but not limited to fear of retaliation, the fear of losing custody over their children, lack of means to support themselves, lack of resources and knowledge surrounding their options, and unsupportive friends and family.

In abusive relationships, the abuser often isolates the survivor from their friends and family through coercive control tactics. It takes an incredible amount of courage to reach out to family or friends for help. 

After reaching out, some are met with disbelief or even encouraged to stay in the abusive relationship. This leads to the survivor becoming more isolated, feeling increased feelings of shame, and declining to ask for help again. Ultimately,  it increases the risk of escalated violence.  

Women are unlikely to report their abusers. We must encourage a no-tolerance approach to gendered violence by calling out instances of abuse in our everyday lives.

Call it Out on Social Media

Social media is one of those places where calling out misogynistic behaviour and language is incredibly important, as women and girls disproportionately face technological abuse

By calling out violence and abuse on platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, we can normalize calling out online gender violence, and continue working to build a culture where we prevent instances of abuse from continuing to occur through our own actions, instead of blaming those affected.

Want to help?

There are many ways to help those experiencing abuse. From volunteering, donating, joining our campaigns or just spreading the word – you can help make leaving abusive homes easier.


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