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.
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