The term public education refers to programs and activities on local, state, national, or international levels to disseminate information about interpersonal violence that raises awareness, challenges stereotypes and misinformation, and ultimately may change behavior about violence. Public education activities may include ongoing programs to speak to civic groups about interpersonal violence or may be organized media campaigns using more than one strategy or vehicle for reaching a specifically targeted population or the public in general.
Public education is necessary because the social norms surrounding interpersonal violence have condoned the use of violence by one family member against another. Before the recognition that interpersonal violence was a major social problem, many people believed that what goes on behind closed doors was a family matter and societal institutions did not have the right to interfere. Furthermore, this norm was supported by the notion that parents and husbands have a right to physically discipline their children and their wives. Myths such as “women liked to be beaten” or “women secretly want men to rape them” served to condone violence by placing the blame for the violence on the victim. The past and current unresponsiveness by society institutions to consider interpersonal violence as a social, criminal justice, and public health issue is often traced to these norms. To counteract these long-standing norms and myths, organizations and activists in the interpersonal violence field worked to develop and disseminate consistent and factual messages about abuse.
Public education campaigns can also serve as primary prevention strategies. Taking a public health approach, primary prevention messages are aimed at persons who have not yet experienced interpersonal violence. By providing information about the risk factors of interpersonal violence, public education efforts seek to empower persons to avoid potentially abusive relationships.
According to Julia Coffman of the Harvard Family Research Project, there are two types of public education campaigns. One campaign strategy relies on social marketing to influence the beliefs, knowledge, attitudes, and behavior of individuals in a targeted population. Activities typically undertaken in such a campaign rely on public service programming and advertising on television, radio, Web sites, and in newspapers, magazines, and billboards. Examples of successful public education campaigns to change individual behavior include antismoking, seat belt usage, and drunk driving. Within the interpersonal violence field, the Family Violence Prevention Fund’s Coaching Boys to Men campaign specifically targets adult males to teach young boys about how to treat women and girls with respect.
The second type of public education campaign is aimed at creating public will to motivate public support for an issue. These campaigns are focused at raising awareness about the problem among the public and encouraging the public to do something to support local programs. At the local level, public education programs often involve speaking about interpersonal violence directly to community groups. These groups include civic and service clubs, public school and university classrooms, church-affiliated organizations, and other community-based providers. Public will campaigns help increase political and financial support for interpersonal violence programs and provide a vehicle for recruiting volunteers. By reaching an audience that may have coworkers, neighbors, friends, or family members experiencing interpersonal violence, these presentations may also help increase the audience’s empathy for victims or survivors, thus increasing the social support that victims or survivors may receive.
Topics covered in public education talks typically include discussions about the definitions of interpersonal violence and services available for both victims or survivors and perpetrators. National, state, and local statistics about lifetime and annual prevalence rates help audiences understand the scope of the problem. Local service statistics including the number of persons receiving community-based domestic violence shelter services, the number of domestic violence arrests, the number of child abuse hotline investigations, and the number of women reported being sexually assaulted attests to the impact of interpersonal violence on an individual community. Other presentation topics often consist of discussions addressing the complexity of the nature and dynamics of abuse including why violence is used and why women stay in abusive relationships. Public education presentations often conclude with ways the audience can assist local organizations to help persons they suspect are being abused.
Although public education talks can reach only one group at a time, mass media campaigns can simultaneously reach larger audiences faster. Media campaigns include Web sites, radio and television public service announcements, magazines, and print ads. The Family Violence Prevention Fund’s “There’s No Excuse for Domestic Violence” is an example of a public education media campaign whose slogan also appears on posters, coffee cups, buttons, and bumper stickers. The campaign focuses on changing the social norms that tolerate or ignore interpersonal violence.
Although many public education campaigns target the public, specific populations may also be targeted with culturally specific messages. For example, there are specific campaigns to reach African Americans; Latinos; Native Americans; the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities; specific faith communities; and older adults.
At the international level, efforts such as World Elder Abuse Day or International V-Day serve to raise awareness about interpersonal violence issues in many countries simultaneously. In the United States, national organizations may work in coordination with federal agencies and coalitions of allied organizations to create campaigns such as Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and/or Child Abuse Prevention Month. Efforts to publicize the National Domestic Violence Hotline also serves to raise awareness among the public and serve as a lifeline for abuse victims.
Public education activities of state coalitions of service providers and state governmental agencies often include information clearinghouses, hotlines, presentations, and exhibits at state and local conferences, technical assistance to local community coalitions, and publications such as brochures and leaflets. Community-based organizations and coalitions often sponsor local conferences, Take Back the Night Marches and vigils, showings of the Clothesline Project, and distribute flyers, brochures, and wallet sized cards with information about who to contact if someone or a person someone knows is being physically or sexually abused.
- Coffman, J. (2002, May). Public communication campaign evaluation: An environmental scan of challenges, criticisms, practice, and opportunities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project. Retrieved from http://www.hfrp.org/evaluation/publications-resources/public-communication-campaign-evaluation-an-environmental-scan-of-challenges-criticisms-practice-and-opportunities
- Ghez, M. (2001). Getting the message out: Using media to change social norms on abuse. In C. M. Renzetti, J. L. Edleson, & R. K. Bergen (Eds.), Sourcebook on violence against women (pp. 417–438). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
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