Sixteen Days in Cambridge: A fresh face for activism?

Image credit: Sixteen Days in Cambridge

Activism runs rampant in Cambridge. A week at The Cambridge Student brings reports of protests pouring in, reporters sent running to catch a photograph before they dissipate and Opinion articles lined up to discuss the issue itself. Much of the time, it can seem endless, and almost meaningless. It’s refreshing, therefore, to hear of someone taking a completely different approach, and coming up with an idea that tackles a key issue, without becoming just the next wave of trendily-dressed students with whiteboards on King’s Parade.

Sixteen Days in Cambridge is a project to raise awareness about gender violence in this city, and I’m lucky enough to get a chance to speak to the project’s founder, who has chosen to remain anonymous. “It’s designed to be a platform to allow people [to share their] thoughts and experiences about the issues that gender violence raises, expose the many different forms it take, as well as our preconceptions, and highlight that it has affected everybody in some way. The idea is that people can contribute in whatever form they wish.”

Why sixteen days specifically, I ask. “The campaign started on 25 November, which is International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and ends on 10 December, Human Rights Day. The idea of the campaign is to raise awareness about gender-based violence as a human rights issue.”

As for the choice to remain anonymous, she tells me “mostly, it was because I was very reluctant for this project to be defined by any one person, least of all me. If I’m honest, I was also informed by the vitriol that women who do put their name to big public projects like this get. Just look at the rape threats that Jessica Ennis got on Twitter after [saying], you know what, Ched Evans has been convicted of a crime too awful to justify his return to football’s level of status and wealth. Or the bomb threats that a female journalist at Cherwell got last year. I find that horrifying.”

In terms of her own experiences of gender violence, she tells me her role as a Women’s Officer whilst at Cambridge was formative. “[It] meant I often heard stories about gender violence, and it left me feeling helpless. I did not receive anywhere near enough training for me to be able to say confidently that I could counsel people effectively. That wasn’t CUSU’s fault; it was a reflection of the fact that with issues as big as the ones I was being approached with, you need certified counsellors who could do more than simply listen and point [people] in the way of potential contacts.”

“I found it interesting that when you did chat to people about things like sexism, being a woman at Cambridge, feminism, whatever, that when the conversation turned to gender violence, it was usually implicitly understood as rape against a woman. The reality is that there are many types. The extent of domestic abuse in student populations is enormous – but too often it wouldn’t be defined as such. “Her boyfriend, or his girlfriend, treats him or her really badly” – that’s not good enough. We should call it out, and not be afraid to define that kind of behaviour for what it is: violence.”

It can sound like an insurmountable challenge, but she assures me that this needn’t be the case. “I want this project to hammer home that gender violence is not just a feminist issue. It’s a social issue. Once individuals have read [a post], that shouldn’t be the end of the story. I want them to go away and chat to their friends about the stories they’ve read, and talk among themselves about whether there’s anyone in their lives who they think might be experiencing [gender violence].

“When you’re witnessing someone touching someone in a club in a way which is clearly unwanted; when you see a group of drinking society lads harassing a girl on the way to a swap or the Hawks’ Club – this is violent behaviour. In witnessing the event, we are bystanders, and we owe it to others to intervene and call them out. We’re the solution.”

It can occasionally seem, though, that with endless feminist forums and groups campaigning, particularly in a ‘liberal’ University city like Cambridge, what good yet another campaign can seek to do. Sixteen Days’ architect doesn’t agree, understandably. “I think gender violence is a conversation that needs to take place outside of forums like CUSU Women’s Campaign and Cuntry Living.

“I’m not knocking them; they’re useful spaces. But they do have a particular perception among some people as just being spaces for women, or just spaces for a particular brand of radical feminism."

By way of conclusion, I ask what the long-term goal of such a project might be in the face of such challenges. “We probably won't see full gender equality or a genderless society in our lifetimes - but that shouldn't mean we can't work towards it now to improve our present circumstances.”

Sounds like a reasonable goal to me.

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