Building an alliance against violence

Today is the National Day of Action against Bullying and Violence, so it’s a good time to stop and consider the leading preventable cause of death, disability and illness in Victorian women aged fifteen to forty-four: domestic violence.

And a time to reflect on one critical word that can often get lost in the reading of that sentence and which appears regularly in anti-violence campaign material. That word is ‘preventable’.

For the last few months, I have been investigating violence against women, and reporting on initiatives to combat its devastating impact on Australian lives. The project, in cooperation with Melbourne University’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, aims to highlight an issue that is responsible for the death of one Australian woman on average every week, killed by her intimate partner or former partner.

In part, it draws on the family violence sector for direction in determining how the issue can best be reported and which aspects warrant greater media attention. From talking to those who have worked on this issue for decades, it seems that one of the aspects people working in the field say they are frustrated by is a lack of coverage on the causes of such violence and how it could be remedied.

Violence against women has been proven to be caused by three things: gender inequity, violence supportive attitudes and a rigid adherence to gender roles. Put simply, the more sexism and gender inequality that exists in society, the higher the levels of violence against women.

So, not only do we know what causes such a blight we also know conversely how to work toward eliminating it: reducing sexism and gender inequality across society. All we need is the public commitment and political will to do so.

In recent years, we’ve seen many high-profile people, including the Victorian Premier Denis Napthine, urging us to ‘say no to violence’. Yet, those advocates don’t really seem inclined to make a public stand against sexism and gender inequality by committing to the steps needed to reverse it – steps laid out by the feminist movement decades ago.

And frankly, trying to stop violence against women without feminism is like trying to fight cancer without oncology – it’s not going to work.

Another frustration for those working in the sector is the frequent sensationalising of the issue in the media as well as the over-representation of ‘stranger danger’ incidents, both of which work to distance readers.

Whenever I mention to people that I am looking at violence against women, the frequent response is along the lines of ‘Yes, how horrible is what is going on in India?’ or ‘I was just reading about honour killings in Jordan!’ Often, they mention Jill Meagher and wonder at the ‘psychopathy’ of Adrian Bayley.

The pattern in all of these responses, of course, is that the violence cited is somehow disconnected to those in the conversation, something out of sight and committed by ‘others’. These others are often perceived as ‘psychopathic’, ‘evil’ or ‘cruel’, or sometimes ‘ethnic’ or ‘foreign’.

But, in working on this project, I have come to see how intimately connected each of us are to this issue, how deeply embedded it is in the fabric of our relationships, everyday interactions, consumer habits, and political choices. Violence against women is a problem that sits not outside of ourselves, but within.

I say this not only because one in three Victorian women with an intimate partner have experienced violence (and so each of us will likely have been touched by it through our own experience or through that of someone we know) but because of its root causes.

When I asked Emily Maguire, a leading expert in the field of women’s health and violence prevention, to explain the nature of the sexism and gender inequity that causes violence against women, she characterised it thus: ‘women being valued less . . . paid, heard, respected less’, or as any kind of unequal power between men and women.

In other words, violence against women is not caused by something unknown or ‘foreign’ or ‘evil’. It stems from the very same sexism and gender inequality that Australians see and experience every day – in the street, our homes, our workplaces, in pop culture and in politics.

Maguire explained that one of the hardest things for people to understand is that the link between gender inequity and violence works on a cultural level rather than an individual level.

‘We’re not saying that if you hold these attitude you’re going to perpetrate violence,’ she added. ‘What we’re saying is that, in a patriarchal society where people think women and men should and shouldn’t do certain things, and where there’s a culture where violence is tolerated, individuals who live in that world are more likely to perpetrate violence [than they would if things were more equal].’

What this means is that all of us, every day, could be contributing to a culture where violence against women is more likely to be perpetrated. What this also means is that we all have the capacity to contribute – through our interactions, relationships and political choices – to building a world where violence against women is greatly reduced.

One way the family violence sector does this is through ‘respectful relationships’ education programs. These programs, which take place mainly in high schools, teach young people how to analyse the world around them through a gender lens and how to build skills to engage in respectful, gender-equitable relationships.

Around for more than a decade, these programs have been shown to reduce gender inequitable attitudes, and have since been implemented in many Victorian schools.

Experts say that in order to fulfill their potential, these programs would need to be rolled out in every education year level, from early childhood to tertiary, at every school across the state. For this to happen, a firm commitment from government is needed. So why is the Victorian government allocating significantly less money for this kind of work than in the past?

There is no better time to think about the potential of these programs than today, the National Day of Action against Bullying and Violence. With the state election looming, it’s a good opportunity to consider whether our current state leaders really are doing all they can to ‘say no to violence’, particularly the gendered violence responsible for the death of more than 50 Australian women every year.

Bec Zajac has been working on a project coordinated by Melbourne University’s Centre for Advancing Journalism reporting on violence against women. She has produced a multimedia package about respectful relationships education programs. Her stories, including ‘Power and gender: how schools are taking a lead in the campaign to end violence against women,’ can be read at The Citizen.

Bec Zajac

Bec Zajac is Overland’s publicity officer. She is also a Master of Journalism student at the University of Melbourne and a broadcaster at 3CR community radio. She has published in Overland, New Matilda, Brooklyn Rail and The Age.

More by Bec Zajac ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. Bec, thanks for drawing attention to the issue of family violence, which as you rightly point out is still very much a hidden problem, and is perpetuated by a whole range of cultural norms. Even in the pages of Overland, it doesn’t get as much attention as it should.However, as someone who works in the area of family violence, I do have questions about school-based programs that emphasise respectful relationships. I’d be interested in the research you may be able to point me to that demonstrates that “programs have been shown to reduce gender inequitable attitudes.” I’m interested in how those attitudes were measured, over how long, and whether they were shown to be retained over time. While I support such programs in schools, I think there are a couple of dangers in relying on them as major vectors of change. First, I think there are special difficulties in promoting such programs in institutions (schools) that are fairly rigid and have powerful and subtle mechanisms for marginalisation and exclusion, and second I get worried by implied attitudes that if we can get children ‘early’ then partner and family violence can be reduced. I have a concern that this depoliticises family violence and locates it entirely in personal behaviour rather than in the ways that gender is sanctioned and reinforced by economic and social forces. Last month I spoke on a local panel on family violence for One Billion Rising. I was a little dispirited that after an exhaustive discussion of how family violence is played out, and the ways in which gendered masculinities shape and create violence, talk about solutions rapidly focussed on ‘getting kids early in schools.’ The idea that violence might be wired into perfectly acceptable gendered attitudes of entitlement and so forth, seems to really struggle to get traction. (For example – one of many – recent studies on depression in men and women seem to be showing that men and women get depressed in equal numbers, but that depressed men tend to blame others, but women blame themselves – a situation ripe for intimate violence.) That neoliberal capitalism might have a role to play in supporting those attitudes also struggles for air. The fact is that the extent of the problem is not acknowledged, and there are not anywhere near enough resources put into supporting women and children who have lived with violence, or into identifying and intervening with men who use violence. Bullying and interpersonal violence is a national problem, as you point out. (Question Time on Parliament is an appalling demonstration of the many ways of bullying.) But it has deep social roots, and I get worried by expectation that school-based programs can carry the weight of resolving it.

  2. Hi Stephen,

    I really appreciate the distinction you made between the way men wand women experience depression. I think the gendered experience really REFLECTS something more about subjectivity though, rather than means that it predisposes or locks people into these naturalized ways of experiencing power, violence, their bodies and relationships. I wasn’t quite sure whether you cited this distinction to underline the way that gender normativity produces or perhaps underscores this violence, complements it but also offers a possible site of change or resistance (the locus of change being in the fluid concept of gender or the way we experiencing our sex) or whether you were simply saying that this requires an intervention or “explains” these patterns. I agree with you on much of what you said but I think it’s much more complicated than being a “national” problem. To suggest that there are borders to gendered violence seems to err on the simplistic a bit….Wherein do you locate helpful sites of resistance or change to this phenomenon?

    1. Alicia, I’m not sure I fully understand you on the ‘reflection’ stuff, and if I do, I’m reasonably sure I don’t agree. But either way, I think one of the issues with family violence is that it is generated at least partly by rigid gender boundaries. That’s where it sits. Most violence against women, children and men is carried out by men. That’s not negotiable. And men who are abusive and violent often have rigid ideas of gender and sexuality. There’s a hard and very un-fluid border there that needs to be acknowledged.
      By ‘national problem’ I merely mean that Australians are the ones who have to develop strategies and methods for addressing violence in Australia, and that it is ‘national’ in that it is endemic to Australian historical identity.
      I don’t want to speak directly about possible sites of resistance. There are many reasons for that, that I don’t want to go into. However, given that everyone has to engage with and inhabit gender and sexuality, one doesn’t have to go very far to find such a site. In fact, one doesn’t need to go anywhere at all.

  3. I don’t think your response in any way permits or exposes the possibility of change, then. Suppose sex IS fixed (and there has been debate about this of late, and I’m not going to launch into a “what makes x=x” debate because that we take things for face value is part of how we understand the world- eg. a chair as a chair) but you can’t limit aggression and violent behavior to men. You can’t say that ONLY men are instruments of this type of behavior because so too do women at varying degrees (in fact, the ways in which we negotiate our sexuality AS women disempowers others- necessarily! But this a product of hierarchy which stems from ideology. That “un-fluid” border you refer to IS gender and gender is fluid (eg. there’s room for optimism because gender changes and is a locus FOR change!). Patterns should be acknowledged in order for us to assess what things we might chance, but there’s certainly no point in essentialising or reducing violence to “Yep. He’s a man and that’s just what men do. Particularly ones who aren’t educated or aren’t given new ways of thinking about or responding to (their) sex.” Because that sort of attitude means that ways of destabilizing gender doesn’t have far-reaching consequences. You assume here that to dissolve gendered violence, everyone needs an education. Do they? Or is it possible to imagine a system in which this sort of “naturalized” behavious is rendered redundant?

    It’s far more than a national problem. I don’t think addressing it at a national level (like trying to cut out a tumor when you have cancer of the blood) is the best possible way of confronting the problem.

    Why not speak “directly about possible sites of resistance”? I think not to is just lazy.

    I’m sorry if this seems inflammatory- I respect your view point but I think it’s important to exist not with hope for the future, but with a will to change things! (And I usually like your writing and learn a lot from you, so I am curious as to how you defend comments like these)…

    1. I’m not saying that gender is fixed,, but that the idea that it is fixed is where the problem lies. I thought I was quite clear on that. Neither am I saying that ‘men are the problem’ but that sanctioned definitions of masculinity are. That’s a different position altogether. Of course gender is fluid, but an abusive masculinity can’t accept that. That’s why abusive men are so difficult to work with, because the idea of a negotiated gender role or boundary makes no sense to them or is very threatening.
      Working with abusive men is also difficult because one is attempting to enable an individual to tin some sense understand and take responsibility in response to structural issues and because one is advocating change to someone who in response to a challenge to his non-fluid ideas of gender will then go and hurt someone.
      I don;t think your tumour analogy really holds. If it did there would be no point in developing national strategies to address DV or having a national conversation about it.
      Alicia, there could be many reasons that I don’t want to be discussing sites of resistance on a comments thread. I think there are many possible sites, and I work within several half of each week. But you could allow that I might have reasons other than laziness.

  4. Any orchestrated sites of resistance automatically become marginalised and ineffective if gendered violence is not addressed at a national systemic-structural level to begin with.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.