Superheroes as rape survivors? Creative ways to fight violence against women

A new comic book with a female rape survivor as its “super hero” has been launched to focus attention on the problem of sexual violence in India. When I first read this my thought was, “Wow, this is really innovative!” For social marketing campaigns in today’s age we simply must learn how to use the tools of popular culture to influence our target audience. Cutting through the clutter to approach an issue like rape, sexual violence and harassment in a way that actually changes behavior demands a great deal of creativity. Which is the goal, right? We are aiming to change behavior of perpetrators, and if not that, at least we can create the conditions that require a community to rethink their role in helping prevent violence.


My second reaction was a depressing “Wow!” We are in a major crisis around the world if the genre of comics and superheroes has moved from the buxomy Wonder Woman to girls who are victims of sexual violence. So long are the days of a warrior princess from the Amazon who fights for justice, love, peace, and sexual equality, using her jewelry as weapons (ladies, let’s be real, who doesn’t want a pair of indestructible bracelets and a tiara that serves as a projectile?). The comic version of Wonder Woman was later turned into a TV show. I fondly remember watching it with my sister in front of the television on Thursday nights in the 1980’s, simply mesmerized, eating our SpaghettiOs while subtly being fed a fair dose of women’s equality at the same time. I won’t delve into the sexism and gender stereotypes surrounding the Lasso of Truth (a weapon wielded around men mostly to force them to confess). The point being, the fact that stories are being created for young girls and boys with messages to either protect themselves against rape, or not be the rapist, is a sad indication of how dangerous the world is for young girls. All things considered, I would prefer our superheroes center around female leaders, not victims.

We have a problem today and problems require innovation

Violence against girls and women feels like it is at an all time high, even if statistically speaking there are many indicators that show women are doing better in the world. Yet, the crisis unfolds in story after story, country after country. In 2014 the world mobilized online against the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria through the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. Months later with 219 girls still held captive, we can see the limitations of online mostly activism. Globally, Afghanistan, Congo and Pakistan remain the world’s most dangerous countries for women due to a barrage of threats ranging from violence and rape to dismal healthcare and “honor killings.” In India, one rape is reported every 16 minutes, which means women are being raped by the minute every hour across the country. In the US, one in three women report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives. Ray Rice, a former NFL running back, brought the issue of domestic violence to the forefront after a security camera showed him knocking his then-fiancee Janay Rice out in a casino elevator.

Georgia DV
“We are together and we are many”, read one of the slogans on posters at a recent rally against domestic violence in Georgia

I spent a great deal of time in Georgia last year where the murder of 25 women in the first 10 months of 2014 (in a country of 4.4 million people), has sparked activism and outrage. The focus on women as victims has led to questions about the impact of women’s low participation in Georgia’s parliament. Would we pay more attention to problems like domestic violence and remedies to prevent violence if more women were policymakers? And the answer is yes, ding, ding, ding! Absolutely!

Let’s keep it simple. Violence against women starts with disrespect for women and girls. Violence against women is a worldwide phenomenon, irrespective of race, class or socioeconomic status. Democracy or no democracy, your country still has a problem with violence against women, just look at the explosion of campus-based sexual violence across American universities for a start.

Rape in places like India is the result of deep seeded attitudes toward women and their role in society. In working with Egyptian activists recently who are leading campaigns against sexual harassment, I was reminded of the roots of violence which first and foremost are about the perceived role of women and girls in society. Egyptians face obstacles not only with the harassers, but the police and everyday men who believe that if a woman is walking alone on the street she deserves “it,” which could mean she deserves anything from unwanted attention, luring looks, being called a whore, groping, and even gang rape. In order to get to the roots of violence, we have to start with changing attitudes toward women by asking ourselves: Are women in my country respected? Will they have opportunities? Do they have equal access to education? Do they control decisions about who they can marry and how many children they want to have? Do they have access to jobs that provide economic independence? Do we value their participation in public life? We can’t resolve the small issues, like walking alone, until we address the larger dynamics around women’s inequality.

So, we have a problem. A problem that demands we work on multiple levels to resolve.

Solutions: Combating Violence, Women’s Political Representation & Smarter Activism  

Creating alternative narratives through popular culture is one path to a solution. Which is why places like India and Pakistan are using the tools of comics to win hearts and minds of younger generations. The Peabody Award winning ‘Burka Avenger’ is another example, based on a mild-mannered Pakistani teacher with secret martial arts skills who fights local thugs seeking to shut down the girls’ school where she works. She has now moved on to fighting polio! Kudos to the men, by the way, who created these campaigns.


With the Disney princess culture across the globe, an anonymous Middle Eastern artist created Happy Never After, to raise awareness campaigns targeting any girl or woman who has been subject to domestic violence. The aim of the poster series is to encourage victims to report their cases.

Another path to reducing violence against women is at the ballot box, one of the building blocks of equality. When women are at the policymaking table issues of violence against women are moved from outside of the shadows and dealt with as public problems, with practical solutions. The evidence is clear. Societies are better off when women are politically and economically empowered. Across the globe we need more women in power (and men, but come on guys, enough of you are there)  who are in touch with the lives of girls and women and working to raise issues of violence prevention to be just as important as inflation, jobs and national security.


We also need to be smart about creative campaigns to change behavior. We need to share ways to spur the conversation with activist tools that are more strategic. Unlike some issues that just don’t translate country-to-country, lessons learned from campaigns against domestic violence apply all across the globe. Download my Toolkit-Domestic Violence Campaigns to find out more about innovative approaches and creative ideas from Serbia to Saudi Arabia.

If engaging in a campaign, first, decide who your target is:

  • Are you trying to motivate the community to act to prevent violence? What is the aim of raising awareness?
  • If you are trying to raise awareness, decide among who you are trying to raise awareness and for what purpose.
  • Are there specific members of the community you are trying to target? Men or women? Family members? And if so, mothers, fathers? Victims?
  • Are you trying to get victims to seek help, the abuser to stop abusing, the community to care, or the government to take action?
  • Then, decide what your goal is and which type of action-oriented communications campaign best supports your goal.

Download the toolkit for more details. For more in the way of TV ads and public service announcements, check out my YouTube Channel on Domestic Violence.

I love the cartoons and comic strips that are helping us change the violent and complex world that unfolds before us on TV every single day. Such campaigns do their part to raise attention to these issues in a way that legislation only or technical support for gender equality can’t. But this alone is not enough. We need more serious attention and more stakeholders involved if we really want to create safety and justice for women and girls. It should not take a Wonder Woman to fight for gender equality, we need Everyday Woman to get organized and say, “enough is enough!” — although a projectile tiara to the head once in awhile could be fun.