Senior staff within the anti-violence against women group have criticised its leadership’s focus on business and celebrity at the expense of its cause. By Jill Stark.

Exclusive: White Ribbon splits on direction

It was a potent spectacle: a Hercules airlifter thundering above the lawns of Parliament House, a white ribbon painted on its tail, a breakfast of politicians gathered below. The air force flyover made headlines on every news bulletin that night – as did White Ribbon Day, which the stunt was celebrating.

A display of military might at the epicentre of political power is perhaps a counterintuitive way to honour Australia’s leading program for the prevention of violence against women. Yet for many, it was a symbol of how things have gone awry at this once revered institution. 

White Ribbon has become a household name, commanding the ear of government on one of the most complex social issues of modern times. But at what cost?

Ahead of White Ribbon Day this Friday, The Saturday Paper can reveal significant tensions inside the organisation, with accusations it is more focused on branding than meaningful cultural change.

There are also concerns White Ribbon’s awareness-raising juggernaut is dominating an underfunded sector, taking resources from front-line services struggling with soaring demand. The organisation’s latest annual report noted revenue of $3.6 million, $330,000 of it from government grants. In a sector defined by budget cuts, White Ribbon recorded double-digit growth.

Senior White Ribbon sources say the organisation has been turned into a business.

“I have watched over the last few years as the executive management of the organisation has squandered the sectoral goodwill that we spent so much time and effort cultivating,” one source said.

“I have argued time and again within White Ribbon that it should be a collaboration rather than a competition. However, the manner [in which they have] approached conflict or competition with other organisations has at times verged on contemptuous. We cannot let this be our modus operandi… It is entirely counterproductive.”

White Ribbon’s chief executive, Libby Davies, rejected the claims as “fallacious, malicious accusations with no basis”.

A perceived failure to adequately address a series of embarrassing misogynistic incidents involving high-profile White Ribbon ambassadors has also led to claims management has abandoned the charity’s feminist roots. 

1 . Mounting pressure

Pressure is mounting on the organisation to take a more critical public stance, not only against wayward ambassadors but towards politicians who use the white ribbon symbol as a fig leaf to obscure a lack of reform.

“The point of engaging men and boys in preventing violence against women is that engagement sometimes needs to be critical and needs to involve feedback to men in positions of power that says, ‘This is not okay,’ ” said Michael Salter, a criminologist from Western Sydney University who works with victims, perpetrators and front-line services.

Salter cites as an example New South Wales Premier Mike Baird, who White Ribbon anointed as an ambassador despite being condemned by the wider sector for his recent funding changes to women’s homelessness services, which advocates claim has left battered women on the streets.

“The concern I think for many is that in exchange for these high-profile endorsements by powerful figures, White Ribbon is losing the opportunity to make constructive criticism and to encourage behaviour change not just on the ground but in the halls of parliament,” Salter said.

White Ribbon has vigorously denied the criticisms, with Davies saying in a statement that 90 per cent of its funding is from non-government sources, and it has advocated for increased funding to front-line services through submissions to inquiries, social media, round tables and discussions with government ministers. 

2 . Internal frustrations

While there is still widespread support for the program, senior figures within White Ribbon have told The Saturday Paper the organisation must change course and they are frustrated with management’s reluctance to listen to criticism or work collaboratively with the sector.

Michael Flood, chairman of the White Ribbon research and policy reference group, said he had encountered “significant disquiet” within violence prevention circles.

“It would be easy to discount that as envy because White Ribbon has a prominence and a level of political support that other violence prevention campaigns and organisations don’t,” Flood said. “But I don’t think it’s envy; I think it does reflect a substantive concern with aspects of White Ribbon’s direction.”

Flood, who has worked with the organisation since its inception in 2003, praised its engagement with traditionally masculine fields such as the military and sport, but said it had to move beyond awareness raising.

While the movement was designed to be led by men, more than two-thirds of White Ribbon volunteers are women. Flood said he was pushing for a renewed focus on engaging men to drive social change and had raised his concerns with Davies, who had rejected them.

His views were echoed by a third senior White Ribbon source who said the chief executive was threatened by competition from other domestic violence organisations, particularly Our Watch: “She is very defensive. I’ve heard her in a meeting dismissing criticism [of White Ribbon] as kind of radical feminist politics.”

Davies said this was false and also denied claims that the organisation was prioritising its brand over engagement. She said there had been a 640 per cent increase in community events since 2010. White Ribbon invests heavily in its acclaimed schools education program, and accredits workplaces that have undergone training in gender equality and violence prevention.

“There is no focus in strategy or operations on ‘celebrity’ endorsements and none exist,” Davies said. “Whilst there are high-profile White Ribbon ambassadors, these undergo the same scrutiny and vetting process as all others.”

The specifics of that process – including how much time ambassadors must commit to White Ribbon – are opaque. But the program goes to the heart of the debate around the organisation’s purpose and principles.

3 . Focus on ambassadors

There are more than 2400 ambassadors, described by the organisation as “trained men who recognise the importance of men taking responsibility and being part of the solution to end the violence, abuse and inequality faced by women across Australia”.

While some ambassadors actively embrace the role, speaking in schools and workplaces and organising events, others show a relatively shallow commitment to the cause, doing little more than donning a lapel pin and posting pictures on social media. At the more egregious end of the spectrum there have been a spate of ugly incidents towards women.

In September last year, White Ribbon severed ties with then Northern Territory attorney-general John Elferink, who said in parliament that he was tempted to “figuratively” slap opposing MP Natasha Fyles.

A few days later, Footy Show host and White Ribbon ambassador Billy Brownless came under fire for comments he made while hosting a function at a junior football club. As a mother and her 18-year-old daughter walked past the event, he announced: “Here come the strippers.”

In February last year another ambassador, Tanveer Ahmed – a psychiatrist and columnist who left Fairfax after a plagiarism scandal, and later left The Australian for the same reason – wrote a column in which he blamed radical feminism and the social and cultural disempowerment of men for domestic violence. 

Both Ahmed and Brownless were invited to take part in White Ribbon’s “recommitment” process in order to receive further training on gender equality and the attitudes that lead to violence. An invitation to “recommit” has been sent to all ambassadors following a 2014 review of the program.

Feminist commentator Clementine Ford wrote in response to Ahmed’s column: “It’s disturbing that an organisation whose very existence was made possible by the tireless work of ‘radical feminists’ would consent to being repped by a man so eager to deride them.”

White Ribbon’s corporate partnerships have also proved problematic at times.

During June’s White Ribbon-themed AFL round, Triple M Melbourne commentator and Collingwood Football Club president Eddie McGuire laughed on air about how he would pay to see The Age’s chief football writer Caroline Wilson drowned.

The public backlash was swift yet the station remains a media partner, with White Ribbon issuing a statement that it would be conducting training of Triple M staff, including McGuire.

4 . A ‘difficult journey’

Davies maintains that White Ribbon is a committed part of the feminist movement, reframing masculinity and combating patriarchy, but concedes it has been a “difficult journey”.

“As men have become more prominent in violence against women prevention work in recent years,” she says, “issues about men’s relationship with women against violence services have become a subject of ongoing concern by some feminist anti-violence activists, practitioners and scholars.

“Put simply, there is concern from some that the involvement of men in violence prevention can in fact have the counter effect of complicity, reproducing the very patriarchy that leads to inequality in the first place and men’s violence against women. White Ribbon is always conscious of the need to be accountable in the prevention work undertaken.”

Nina Funnell, a sexual violence survivor and former board member of the NSW Rape Crisis Centre, said the ambassador program was losing credibility because some men who took the oath to “stand up, speak out and act” were directly contravening that promise yet keeping their roles.

“How many chances are they going to get? Is it after they’ve broken the oath once, or twice or five times? When are they going to finally get kicked out?”

However, Channel Seven presenter Andrew O’Keefe, who was White Ribbon’s first ambassador and until recently a board member, believes it is vital to engage men who make mistakes.

“We’re all still learning what it means to be modern non-patriarchal men in a rapidly transforming world,” O’Keefe said, “so if we slip up from time to time, that’s to be expected. You can’t just throw an ambassador to the wolves for making a mistake that society has taught him to make since birth.”

O’Keefe maintains that being an ambassador is more than just wearing a badge but that the ribbon itself is a powerful symbol.

“When a survivor of violence sees that ribbon, it tells them that there are men who value them, who support them and care for them. That knowledge can be critical in giving people the strength to leave violent situations, or to reaffirm their faith in themselves and in the essential decency of humanity.”

Indeed, some in the sector who have concerns about the focus of White Ribbon were reluctant to publicly criticise it, saying that for many women they work with it is a symbol of strength. Some survivors feel so passionately they have tattooed the oath on their bodies.

White Ribbon founding board member Libby Lloyd, who resigned in 2013, said that given the large number of ambassadors there had been relatively few incidents of poor behaviour.

But she had reservations. “It does bother me a bit that you have to be licensed to speak – why? Why on earth do we have to say to people you can’t talk about this unless you’re a White Ribbon ambassador? Everyone should be speaking about it.”

Lloyd said it was unclear why the current board was taking a top-down approach and said she would like to see the community set the agenda, with men rather than management leading the activism.

Women’s rights activist and domestic violence prevention advocate Catharine Lumby said that the media spotlight on White Ribbon in a sector fighting for the crumbs of government funding and corporate donations was to the detriment of front-line services.

“I’ve worked with Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia to try and help them secure private sector funding and the response you often get, although it’s not said publicly, is that’s not really a sexy kind of issue,” Lumby said. “It’s not something a lot of companies want to be associated with but they’re happy to be associated with White Ribbon, which has a sort of corporate brand now.”

O’Keefe acknowledged that the rapid growth of the organisation has led to it becoming a “little corporatised” and he believed it was important for White Ribbon’s future and integrity that it stayed true to its roots.

“Whilst any organisation needs financial sustainability and philosophical consistency, preventing violence against women is a community movement, not a business,” he said.

In a powerful campaign video for this year’s White Ribbon Day, Libby Davies says there is an “epidemic” of gender-based violence in Australia, with on average one woman killed every week. There is widespread acknowledgement that White Ribbon has led the way in “making women’s safety a man’s issue, too”. But as tensions within the organisation continue to simmer, the challenge for the board and the wider sector will be how they resolve their philosophical differences at a time when the pushback against gender equality is strong.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 19, 2016 as "Exclusive: White Ribbon splits on direction".

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Jill Stark is a Melbourne-based journalist and the author of the mental-health memoirs When You’re Not OK and Happy Never After.