Thanks to Break the Cycle, teenagers learn to stop dating violence before it starts.
From shopping to entertainment, looking for jobs to learning new skills, countless facets of everyday life have been reinvented by the Internet. Yet, for millions of young people around the world, the most important transformation might involve something entirely different: dating.
Courage Through Noise, Safety Through Action
Photographs courtesy Blank Noise
For years, public sexual harassment of women in India has been dismissed by many as a harmless prank. Over the last decade, though, Jasmeen Patheja has seen attitudes change for the better—and it’s an evolution that the 34-year-old Bangalore artist has worked hard to make a reality.
Patheja facilitates the groundbreaking multimedia initiative, Blank Noise, which she describes as “a community arts collective working with individuals and citizens to take ownership of sexual violence. Blank Noise intervenes to shift the fear-based relationship women have with their cities.” She attended the “Vital Voices of Asia: Women’s Leadership and Training Summit” in New Delhi in 2010.
Blank Noise uses Facebook, Twitter and the Blank Noise blog for purposes like building and sharing testimonials about abuse, reaching out to the community with information and volunteer opportunities and generally spreading a message of courage and respect, but also relies on initiatives that manifest on the streets themselves.
Between 2006 and 2008 in Bangalore, for example, Blank Noise created a campaign called “Being Idle,” which organized female volunteers—dubbed Action Heroes by Patheja—to occupy public spaces, relaxing and making eye contact with people walking by. “In doing so, Action Heroes confront their own fears and assert their presence in city spaces,” says Patheja. “They shift the nature of the place also through collective action, [making] the place familiar and therefore, less fearful through new association.”
Another Blank Noise campaign, “Talk To Me,” took things a step further, earning widespread visibility. “‘Talk To Me’ invited strangers to an hour-long conversation with each other, over tea and samosas,” describes Patheja. The catch? The conversations happen in a Bangalore street known as “Rapist Lane” due to the high number of assaults that happen there. “The event was designed to fight fear, get rid of biases and prejudice,” she says.
Upcoming Blank Noise initiatives include “I Never Ask For It,” a global campaign that will use YouTube, billboards and other mediums to “build testimonials of clothing,” Patheja says. “We’re asking people to send a photo of the clothes that they wore when they experienced sexual violence or intimidation. These garments will be placed on a world map. It’s a participatory, fact-building way to say that there is no excuse for sexual violence.”
The campaign is being designed for a three-year period and will also be used for a mobile installation of garments, Patheja adds. “Each garment is a witness and a rejection of blame. Each garment builds resonance in saying, ‘I never ask for it.’”
Tech-savvy teens everywhere will affirm that texting, social media and other innovations offer exciting ways to connect and have fun. But such tools can also be dangerous, says Jasmine Ceja, and education is key when it comes to dating safety in the digital age.
Ceja works as national youth organizing manager for Break the Cycle, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization that teaches young people to embrace relationships that are healthy and ditch ones that aren’t. “Many people are familiar with domestic violence amongst parents and adults and know what that looks like, but with teens, the issues are very different,” says Ceja. “Digital abuse, stalking and cyberbullying can be real problems if someone you’re romantically involved with tries to control or threaten you using technology.”
Break the Cycle hosts specially-designed workshops with students, teaching them the skills and awareness to stop such problems before they start. “We begin by sharing information about what an issue like digital abuse is,” says Ceja. “We also go over what to do if you find yourself in a dangerous situation, if you see a friend dealing with dating violence or digital abuse, or even if you feel like you’re exhibiting abusive behavior yourself.”
Central to Break the Cycle’s philosophy is the belief that every human being deserves respect. And in the world of dating, knowing how to set boundaries within romantic relationships can help teenagers receive the respectful treatment they need. “It’s okay to say that you don’t want your boyfriend or girlfriend to text you after 8 p.m. because you have to study for an exam,” Ceja says, “or that you don’t want certain pictures of you posted publicly on the Internet. We teach that boundaries must be respected—and that if they’re not, you may need to step back and re-evaluate the relationship.”
To keep their curricula relevant to a young audience, Break the Cycle goes to the experts: young people themselves. The organization works closely with a national youth advisory board consisting of 25 members, all aged between 13 and 23 years. “The board keeps us grounded in youth culture,” says Ceja. “We use media references and popular examples from TV in our workshops to help students identify both healthy and unhealthy, abusive relationships.”
Looking forward, Ceja hopes that Break the Cycle’s efforts will catalyze a bigger movement of young people who will engage their peers and spread the word about healthy relationships. “We want to build a network of regional leaders in every state and city,” she says. “We also have lots of our programs centered around having young people themselves becoming leaders in education. We know that young people will listen to friends and peers more than adults and parents, so we try to make them a focus of our prevention work.”
While stopping digital violence is a key mission of Break the Cycle, it’s far from the organization’s only focus. It partners with the National Domestic Violence Hotline to host 24/7 help services through loveisrespect.org where teens and young adults can call in and speak to trained advocates, communicate with peer advocates via online chat or text for help from their mobile phones. The organization also specializes in training counselors at youth centers and police departments, as well as making available staff attorneys who lend their services to abuse and child custody cases.
Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.
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