Editorial | White Ribbon Day: Light the way with a bright marker of hope

Its colour speaks to innocence, safety and hope. Its loop reminds the wearer that the quest is never-ending, as evidenced by the tens of thousands of calls made each year to 24/7 hotlines working to abate domestic violence.

But how did a soft curl of white ribbon come to represent an international day of awareness of and action on the hard and ugly reality of domestic abuse?

The use of ribbons for recognition of causes has a long history, dating back to medieval ages when they were given as favours to warring knights; apparent today in medals of service or achievement presented on ribbon.

White Ribbon Day is Saturday, November 25. Photo: Chris Lane

White Ribbon Day is Saturday, November 25. Photo: Chris Lane

The end of the American Civil War in the 1860s saw yellow ribbons tied around trees to send messages of welcome to returning veterans, a gesture repeated in recent decades as US soldiers returned from the Middle East.

By the 1990s, a red ribbon symbolised AIDS activism; then came pink for breast cancer, blue for mental health, green for climate change, and so on: a veritable rainbow of ribbons for so many important causes of the times. The white ribbon became the symbol, and latterly logo, for White Ribbon Day when in 1999 the United Nations General Assembly declared November 25 the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Some say the ribbon movement has made compassion a commodity, that we salve our collective conscience by showing token support without doing anything more than putting a few dollars towards yet another social cause.

But showing support through this particular token can actually do a lot for people living with domestic abuse.

That ribbon says, I see you, I recognise your situation, and I am here to help when you are ready to act.

Our instinct is to tell victims of abuse that they need to leave. Their instinct, warped by verbal, physical, even financial abuse, is to say they can’t. To try to take charge of them can lead them to a deeper sense of disempowerment.

We can repair low self-esteem by reflecting on their worth as a person, and their ability to make decisions about who they are and how they live. We can mentally list the refuge, welfare and justice agencies who will have the answers to their questions and help map their way towards freedom.

And we can pin that ribbon to our chest to show we stand gallant in this battle.