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India's "Ring the bell" is global call to stop wife-beating

NEW DELHI/NEW YORK (TrustLaw) - A middle-aged man cleaning his motorcycle in a quiet Indian neighbourhood is distracted when he hears the repeated cries of a woman being beaten by her husband in a first floor apartment nearby.

An artist applies makeup before the start of a street play, as part of a campaign for the safety of women, organised by police in New Delhi June 19, 2006. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Unsettled, he walks into the building, climbs the stairs and nervously rings the doorbell of the apartment the cries are coming from. The screams stop and the husband opens the door.

“May I use your phone?” he asks the husband. Just then the mobile phone in his shirt pocket rings -- making it clear the Good Samaritan had used the phone as an excuse to intervene.

As the one minute television advert ends, a male voice says: “Bring domestic violence to a halt. Ring the bell.”

This simple, subtle yet powerful advert is part of a campaign to end domestic violence which began in India five years ago and has become so effective that it has gone global -- already adapted in China, Pakistan and Vietnam and to be launched in Brazil and South Africa on International Women’s Day, March 8.

“For all of us, the role of men in ending and preventing violence is key. It’s absolutely vital. We feel the time has come to ramp up that call,” says Mallika Dutt, president and CEO of Breakthrough, the charity behind the “Ring the Bell” (“Bell Bajao” in Hindi) campaign.

“South Africa and Brazil are emerging as very important countries, not just regionally, but globally,” she said, adding that Breakthrough will be working with Sonke Gender Justice in Johannesburg and Promundo in Rio de Janeiro.


According to the United Nations, up to 70 percent of women will face violence at least once in their lifetime.

The most common form of abuse is domestic violence, inflicted by an intimate partner, involving women being beaten, coerced into sex or mentally tortured. In India, around 37 percent of women have experienced some form of abuse by their husbands - pushing, slapping and hair pulling, punching, kicking, choking or burning - according to the government’s last National Family Health Survey (NFHS).

Activists say the real figure is likely to be much higher as few women are willing to speak out, despite greater awareness and more gender-sensitive laws.

Even more worrying is the acceptance of such abuse. The NFHS said that 51 percent of Indian men and 54 percent of Indian women found it justifiable for a man to beat his wife.

Breakthrough campaigners say the idea of tackling domestic violence started in 2006 when India enacted a law to protect and compensate women facing abuse in their own homes.

“While there was a law, we felt there was an acute need for engagement with the public -- who are silent or in denial about domestic violence -- and bring them into the conversation,” says Sonali Khan, Breakthrough’s country director in India, who has seen through the campaign since it began.

“We also understood that there was a need to engage men -- in a positive and proactive manner -- so that they were a part of the solution and not just seen as perpetrators.”

Based on research which showed that people see domestic violence as a “private affair” and with free support from advertising agency Ogilvy , Breakthrough launched a campaign in 2008 with the door bell as a metaphor -- a call to action -- to help break the silence surrounding intimate partner abuse.

Bollywood actor Boman Irani, who features in the first advert of the man cleaning his motorcycle, gave his support to the campaign, drawing in much attention given the popularity of India’s film industry.

The campaign featured six video ads - in which neighbours are seen ringing the door bell using different excuses to stop a man hitting his wife - to reach the public through mass media such as television and the internet, as well as radio and newspapers. It also involved a grassroots approach to engage people at a local level with Breakthrough using video vans in Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka states to target men and young boys -- not only showing the videos but also using street plays and games and inviting discussion.


The government directly sponsored the mass media aspect of the campaign, spending nearly $5 million on spots on popular news channels and during commercial breaks between soap operas and cricket matches to get the message out.

“That’s why it got the kind of visibility because of the ministry of women and child development,” says Khan ” ... and the results have been amazing.”

Surveys done by the Centre for Media Studies and the International Centre for Research on women show the campaign -- which has won 25 awards including two Silver Lions (advertising and film) at the Cannes Film Festival -- has had a significant impact in both Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka.

Awareness of the domestic violence law has increased by more than 10 percent, the number of women not ashamed to seek legal recourse for abuse has risen by 8 percent, and increased discussion of the issue has shot up by over 20 percent.

More significantly, the campaign has inspired others to “Ring the Bell”. From housewives to school girls to young male students, there are many stories of people ringing the door bell after hearing a woman in distress - using excuses such as looking for their dog, or asking for tea leaves or directions.

The campaign has reached out to 240 million people across India, and their video vans have covered more than 7.5 million kilometres. It is being expanded to Orissa, Bihar, Haryana and Jharkhand as well as overseas, where a similar campaign is being run by Half the Sky in China. Pakistan and Vietnam have adapted it in local languages.


Breakthrough president Mallika Dutt says campaigns like “Ring the Bell” can easily work in other countries.

“It’s very important for us to realise it’s happening in every corner of the world. The problem of violence against women is a global problem of patriarchy. It just manifests itself in different ways,” she says.

Breakthrough is launching a new campaign, “One million men. One million promises,” on March 8. Between International Women’s Day and International Day to End Violence Against Women on Nov 25, it is inviting men to record pledges on their website to take steps to end violence against women.

“Now, we’re moving beyond domestic violence and connecting the dots between what’s happening in the home to what’s happening on the streets,” says Dutt. “We are focusing on men and boys making specific promises. We want men to step up. We want men to be clear and accountable about what they will do.”