Thursday, December 3, 2009

Joanne Sandler, Deputy Executive Director, Programme of the United Nations Department for Women (UNIFEM)

Joanne Sandler is a ray of light walking across the Liz Claiborne showroom to my little blogging table, windows looking over a bustling Times Square. She has a broad smile and a warm demeanor as she shakes my hand. She doesn't have the look of a woman who has been working on the issue of domestic violence since the movement began in the mid-seventies. She looks positive, encouraged and really happy to be at the New York nexus of discussion today. As she sits down across the table from me, I like her already.

"In 1975, when I started this work," she tells me, "shelters were at their incipient stage. Hotlines were just beginning. There was little governmental support and even less public awareness. For the first 5 years, all we did was try to convince leaders and people in power that this was a public health issue."

And now?

"Sure, there have been changes, good changes," she smiles. "You'd be hard pressed these days to find a politician who will tell you that this isn't a public health issue. And that's a far cry from the seventies. That's the good news." I sense the approaching caveat. "But this isn't an easy issue. It isn't purely a public health issue. It requires a huge, multi-sectoral response. Every single part of our society needs to be working on this. Parents and teachers are on the front line, there's no question. But we need a major, coordinated response: law enforcement, public health officials, anthropologists, star athletes, presidents and prime ministers--everyone needs to be working on this. Everyone needs to be directing messages to young people about this. And right now, they're not."

Why not?

"You know, I think most of us who work on this issue believe the data we have--while shocking and awful--is inaccurate. This epidemic is so pervasive, crossing every possible line, that it's kind of hard to talk about domestic violence or violence against women and girls without addressing the culture of violence we inhabit. More poverty means more violence. More unemployment means more violence. Less education means more violence."

Does the media perpetuate this "culture of violence?"

"The media definitely gives confusing messages about this issue, about how men should treat women and how women should expect to be treated. We need to make girls and young women understand at a fundamental level that it's not OK, it's not acceptable to live with violence," she pauses, reflecting on what she's said. "Basically, you have to unpack masculinity--you have to redefine what it means to be a man."

Before I can turn the conversation into a media-trashing diatribe, she reminds me of the power the media has to do good. "We had a real breakthrough with a public service announcement campaign in India, called Ring the Bell or Bell Bajao, reaching out to men and boys. It's been very effective and it's reached over 150 million people in India. Basically, it encourages people--men--to get involved. It helps them understand that they do have power to help stop the violence."

"It's pretty clear what we need to do, but the focus, the money, the determination that this is something we can do something about still needs to coalesce. We need that pivotal moment--that Al Gore "Inconvenient Truth" moment that tips the scales of public awareness and determination. Something that says, 'Look, we know that this is a problem. Now is our moment to solve it."

Who should make that movie?

She smiles, "I don't know. But maybe because of today's conversations, someone will start working on it."

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