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5 Questions for...Virginia Witt, Co-Founder and Director, NO MORE Campaign

March 16, 2015

As the United Nations' Commission on the Status of Women meets this month to highlight progress in advancing gender equality, the status of women and girls worldwide continues to be the focus of media coverage, reports, and social media campaigns. But despite progress in areas such as access to education and health care, global statistics for domestic violence continue to alarm: Nearly 33 percent of women in high-income countries, 46 percent of women in Africa, and 41 percent of women in South and Southeast Asia say they have suffered physical or sexual violence, while only 14 percent of cases are reported to the police and the majority of victims do not seek support services.

Recently, PND spoke with Virginia Witt, co-founder and director of NO MORE, a public awareness and engagement campaign supported by an alliance of foundations, nonprofit organizations, and corporations, about efforts to end domestic violence and sexual assault in the United States and globally. Witt has served as a senior executive in a variety of nonprofit and philanthropic organizations, leading strategic initiatives and public awareness campaigns to advance public health, education, and social justice issues.

Headshot_virginia_wittPhilanthropy News Digest: According to a recent report from the United Nations, 35 percent of women worldwide are estimated to have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence — with higher rates in many lower-income countries. What is the connection between violence against women and poverty?

Virginia Witt: Violence against women definitely was an urgent topic at the United Nations Beijing +20 Summit last week, as it should be every week. The UN statistics are very telling in terms of the magnitude of the problem, and we have seen commitments to address the issue building around the world. In many societies, women are not on an equal footing with men, and we know there is a strong connection between violence against women, gender inequality, and poverty. At NO MORE, however, we recognize that domestic violence and sexual assault go beyond gender, culture, race, religion, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status, and that economic empowerment is a crucial piece of the puzzle.

PND: According to the UN report, a "major obstacle to ending violence against women is the persistence of discriminatory attitudes and social norms that normalize and permit violence." To what extent do you think awareness-raising campaigns like NO MORE can make a measurable difference in changing such attitudes?

VW: We know from our own research that simply starting a conversation about these issues can make it easier to help someone. There is so much silence, shame, and stigma attached to domestic violence and sexual assault. When survivors see the conversation opening up, they feel more comfortable about coming forward and seeking help. On our NO MORE Gallery, thousands have come forward — many of them survivors who are sharing their stories for the first time — to say "NO MORE" to domestic violence and sexual assault. NO MORE is a platform for survivors and bystanders to speak out, to feel supported, to feel empowered. We saw with HIV/AIDS that awareness efforts broke down the stigma around the disease over time and opened up new opportunities for those working at the community level to help those affected by the disease. We’re starting to see the same shift happening around domestic violence and sexual assault.

PND: The issue of campus rape — and the lack of accountability on the part of college administrations — has received a lot of attention in recent months. What are your priorities in terms of preventing sexual assault and violence on college campuses?

VW: Campus rape is a top priority for everyone working on these issues — and hopefully will gain even more attention during Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April. Across the country, students at more than a hundred campuses are using NO MORE's tools in their awareness efforts. We're also highlighting the issue on our blog at www.nomore.org, and we're spotlighting the new film The Hunting Ground, which just opened. Everyone should see it.

PND: Did the PSA campaign featuring NFL players and celebrities earlier this year — a campaign that has been criticized in some quarters as being too focused on supporting the victim instead of preventing violence in the first place — accomplish what you hoped it would?

VW: The NO MORE PSA campaign, which was developed by Rachel Howald of Young & Rubicam and produced by the Joyful Heart Foundation and Viacom Velocity, were designed to inform bystanders. It's an audience that is often left out of the conversation around domestic violence and sexual assault, an audience that is often quick to say, "What does this have to do with me? I'm not a victim, and I'm not an abuser." Bystanders have an important role to play in ending physical and/or sexual violence, in recognizing the warning signs and speaking up, and that in large part is why NO MORE is focused on engaging them. The unprecedented and historic opportunity to reach the American public — men and women — through the NFL broadcasts and later through the NO MORE Super Bowl PSA, which was created by Grey Advertising and the NFL, was absolutely catalytic. It helped create a wave of visibility around the issue. It further elevated a conversation about the issue in that has now begun in every sector of society — from sports, to government and the military, to the corporate sector. It helped put us on the road to change, and while the journey is likely to be long and difficult, we are on it together.

PND: How can philanthropy better support efforts to eliminate domestic and sexual violence?

VW: We desperately need more foundations to step forward and join the terrific corporate partners who have long been active in this space — companies like Allstate, Avon, Kaiser Permanente, Macy's, Mary Kay and Verizon — and are supporting groups working hard to end domestic violence and sexual assault. Media companies like Viacom, USA Network, Investigation Discovery, and others also have gotten involved by donating free airtime and making it possible for others to raise  awareness of domestic violence and sexual assault among millions of people. It’s simple really: Philanthropy can help by investing its dollars in prevention, in services, in education and awareness, and in advocacy. In doing that, it will be on the leading edge of historic change.

-- Kyoko Uchida

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