Can we stop family violence in my lifetime?

Changing the patterns of family violence in our community requires as much effort as has been devoted to other prevention efforts such as wearing seat belts and reducing smoking rates. Chloe Shorten  believes it not only can, but must be done.

Whenever I drop my kids off at school or go to the shopping centre these days I can’t help thinking about what the family violence statistics we hear about really mean.

In familiar places, it’s chilling: one in four suffering, one in four perpetrating; children being traumatised.

Watching little families, I wonder can we stop family violence in my lifetime; not just reduce the statistics but prevent it occurring in the first place?

“A national effort to implement primary prevention strategies must start now.”

Right now across the country, limited resources are directed to the services most in-demand.  We rightly prioritise helping those suffering family violence, primarily women and their children who are exposed to things no person should ever have to experience.

Australia-wide, there have been 78 women killed so far this year compared with a previous annual average of 52 women per year.

So great and growing is the need, and so limited are the resources that rarely do we have the opportunity to proactively pursue primary prevention strategies. Yet never has the need been so urgent.

A national and concerted effort to implement primary prevention strategies must start now, as there is no evidence that the queues of women waiting to get access to emergency services are getting any shorter. If this scenario played out in a workplace where people were dying and were being injured, there would be preventive risk strategies, health and safety training, and capital investment.

Gender inequality must be redressed

We know that children exposed to violence are more likely to become perpetrators than those who have not witnessed it– their behaviour is learned.  And of course there are power imbalances that result from cultural and social norms.

In families and social groups where strong patriarchies exist or men dominate physically, economically, and politically over women and children, those women and their children are at greater risk.

Gender inequality has its roots in history when laws constrained the rights of women.  In centuries gone by, marriage meant that women relinquished their rights and became the property of their husbands.

Today, gender inequality is maintained and perpetuated through attitudes, hierarchies, policies, legislation and institutional and organisational structures, meaning economic social and political power is not evenly distributed.

In many instances women are still paid less for performing the same role as their male counterpart, and they do not enjoy equal representation on boards, in parliament or across society.

Studies by the United Nations, European Commission, World Bank and World Health Organisation all state gender inequality is the necessary pre-condition for violence against women. That doesn’t mean that all women who are treated unequally will suffer violence, but it does mean that all family violence sufferers have experienced gender inequality.

This month in a world first, Australia, Our Watch, the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth) and Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) launched a framework for a consistent and integrated national approach to prevent violence against women and their children: Change the story: A shared framework for the primary prevention of violence against women and their children in Australia.

This framework is a game changer. It seems obvious, but now we have the weight of international evidence to show that gender inequality is the core of the problem. Gender roles allow family violence to thrive. And evidence shows that family violence will stop when gender equality starts.

In short, the key to preventing family violence is to redress gender inequality.

The framework identifies five essential actions we can take to respond to the gendered drivers of violence against women:

  1. Challenge the condoning of violence against women
  2. Promote women’s independence and decision-making in public life and relationships
  3. Foster positive personal identities and challenge gender stereotypes and roles
  4. Strengthen positive, equal and respectful relations between and among women and men, girls and boys
  5. Promote and normalise gender equality in public and private life. 

These actions need to be undertaken across the nation by a diverse range of people – just as we have done with other prevention efforts such as wearing seat belts and reducing smoking rates.

“Australia is well positioned to lead the world in this social transformation.”

Looking around those same schools and shops, I imagine how powerful it would be to engage young people through formal and non-formal education, in nationwide programs that teach students about respectful relationships, conflict resolution, and the unacceptability of family violence. Whole-of-school programs have a multiplier effect as they involve students as well as teachers, parents and the local community.

Powerful too are parenting programs that can build men’s and women’s skills in non-violent and gender equal parenting, thereby providing role models for the next generation. Programs that mobilise and support communities to redress family violence are proven. And media outlets are well positioned to promote gender equity in newsrooms and through the responsible portrayal of women and girls.

I’m always deeply thankful and encouraged by the continued leadership of White Ribbon Australia in primary prevention and in breaking the silence around violence against women. Through their programs, change is happening – in workplaces, schools, sporting clubs and the community.

I’ve also had the opportunity to familiarise myself with the remarkable work undertaken by women’s health services such as Women’s Health West near Bill’s electorate which has led the Preventing Violence Together regional partnership.

“The good news is that family violence is preventable.”

Family violence is everyone’s business. Data released this week shows that violence against women costs $21.7b annually with victims bearing the primary burden of this cost.  Add to that a further $7.8b each year borne by federal and state governments to provide health and social welfare.  If no further action is taken to prevent violence against women, it is estimated that costs will accumulate to $323.4b over a 30 year period from 2014-15 to 2044-45.

Australia is well positioned to lead the world in this social transformation and in prevention research and implementation…if we choose to do so.

Australia has already committed to the elimination of violence against women as a specific target of the new United Nations Sustainable Development Goals; it’s time we led the way in implementing proven primary prevention strategies.

This week around the country thousands of people were involved in activities for White Ribbon Day and for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

But the campaign and effort against family violence needs to happen every day of the year.

It must start now, because the good news is that family violence is preventable.

I look forward to the day that my children and their children talk about how Australia led the way on stopping family violence.

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