The unravelling of White Ribbon Australia

By Peter McDonald

Posted in News

Emilia and Peter after White Ribbon Rally 2014.


A close friend of my daughter was at home when her father beat her mother to death. I have vivid memories of that night as my wife and I sat on the end of Emilia’s bed and answered her questions about why this happened. My daughter was in Grade Three.

I have told this story many hundreds of times as I’ve been invited to speak at local community groups, sporting groups and conferences, many arranged by White Ribbon Australia. Also within my own workplace, I speak at staff inductions as Uniting Communities provides social services to women who experience violence as well as to men who use violence. With the assistance of White Ribbon my story has reached many, many people.

What’s the point?

Getting men to talk to each other about our use of violence is the aim. At the conclusion of my presentation I am often approached by men who want to discuss or challenge me about the message that men are responsible for their use of violence against women. There have also been women who thank me for staying to discuss this with their male work colleagues. I’m guessing, in that moment I am a practical face of prevention. What Ambassadors are doing is talking to men about our use of violence against women. 

White Ribbon Australia acted as a facilitator to make this opportunity happen. I was able to speak to many men inside their work places, sporting clubs and recreation groups about prevention of male violence against women. White Ribbon interviewed and provided resources for Ambassadors. It made sure I had what I needed to be a competent speaker and was able to tell my story as part of the larger story of hope and change. Without White Ribbon I will not have the same access in the future to employers and sporting groups who want to see a reduction in the rates of male violence.

There have been some critics of White Ribbon who have claimed that donning a ribbon and signing a pledge is meaningless. White Ribbon’s message was clear and consumable for a wide audience. It took a complex issue and rewrote it into a language that many could understand and join. It was agnostic as to our age, our political allegiance and our sporting codes. It was designed so that any coach or leader of a community group could make a commitment to oppose men’s use of violence against women, and then share that commitment with boys and young men around them.

Violence against women is a men’s issue. There is no longer any place for sexist jokes nor any other type of violence against women. It also means that the defensive retort ‘that we are being too politically correct’ no longer cuts the mustard. With the collapse of White Ribbon we no longer have a national body which plays a role of connector and facilitator in the community. It is all too cynical when academics disregard the commitments men have made to be the hope and change required of us.

Communicating a complex social construct for change

Another criticism of White Ribbon was that it expected too little of me as an Ambassador; hat all we were doing was promoting a most basic civil trait of not beating one another. The commitment of no violence against women was a simple phrase which was never the be-all and end-all of the message from Ambassadors. White Ribbon provided extensive resources on their website including academic work from sociologist Dr Michael Flood and others who made the links between individual behaviour and dominant social constructs which socialise violence against women. I made it clear to my audiences that I would assume that we were all opposed to violence against women. And that my presentation would be discussing how men’s privileged position was working against us and against the safety of women and children we loved; that we needed to understand how our individual behaviour and the messages from the world could be undermining our intention to work toward equality.

Both White Ribbon and the Ambassadors who took their roles seriously understood that they had to understand and communicate a complex social construct for change to those who were listening and engaging with us. It is disappointing that this solid and complex contribution is being misrepresented. 

We have all heard about the wayward White Ribbon Ambassadors. With such a large number of men and women willing to get on board White Ribbon, there  was always  the risk of recruiting a few egotistical males as Ambassadors who were not willing to stay on message. I had to reapply and be reinterviewed as part of White Ribbon tightening up their standards for Ambassadors. On this I find that White Ribbon are rarely given credit that they tightened up their processes and standards in a timely manner and reduced the number of Ambassadors as a result.

White Ribbon had more than its fair share of detractors. As well as angry men from the far right, it also wore attacks from the far left. Some academics have called White Ribbon simplistic, tokenistic and ineffective. White Ribbon wrestled with how to capture the attention of everyday Australians who think their lives are already too full to engage in a topic that deeply challenges the family’s and friends’ circles and patterns of life. And it did that through some cheesy slogans and memorable sayings.

White Ribbon understood that it needed to reach a broad audience to be effective. And to that audience it offered a positive, constructive and non-judgemental way to reduce the rates of violence against women. Sometimes perfection is the worst enemy of the good, as natural allies who also want to see the end of violence began criticising White Ribbon for their easy to understand messaging. White Ribbon took a complex matter and turned it into a clear call to action which those outside the academic community could understand and get on board with. 

Credit where it’s due

As an accredited workplace, Uniting Communities was audited against White Ribbon standards designed to ensure our employees understood the prevalence of men’s violence against women. It ensured that our managers were trained and understood that amongst our staff it was likely that some are experiencing violence in their own lives at any given point in time. We wanted our staff to know that if they disclosed to us that they are experiencing violence, we would listen, believe them and offer assistance. While some of the audit tools were rigid and cumbersome, it was our view that the public change agenda was more important than our criticisms of a bureaucratic audit function.

I’m proud to have been part of White Ribbon because it spoke to the whole of the community. To label all of White Ribbon as ineffective does not acknowledge the good work of the staff and many women and men of goodwill across many fields of work and play who are committed to the prevention of violence against women.

November 25 is still the United Nations Day of the Prevention of Violence Against Women and I invite you to consider holding an event which is focussed on the prevention because this work is vital to see any lasting change.

So with the demise of White Ribbon, who will gain the confidence of the wider community so that together we can work toward the end of men's violence against women?


The Adelaide White Ribbon Breakfast is still going ahead this year on Friday 22 November. Find information and tickets here.



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