Let’s not pretend things are simpler than they are…

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DVRCV's CEO Emily Maguire responds to the recent commentary that specialist family violence practitioners and advocates are not doing enough to end violence against women.

As someone who has worked towards ending violence against women for the last 15 years – and who has been fortunate enough to learn from women who were doing this work decades before me – I have been somewhat perplexed by the recent commentary about why men perpetrate violence against women, and what can be done to stop this incredibly prevalent form of violence.

In recent weeks, I have seen incredibly simplistic articulations of complex public policy and reform in this area – “until we change attitudes, close the gender wage gap, and achieve greater gender equality, domestic abuse will continue to thrive” – that don’t represent the evidence nor the work of those in my field.

“I have witnessed the approach articulated by specialist family violence practitioners and advocates – all with a lifetime of experience – being reduced to the simplified narrative that “changing sexist and violence supportive attitudes are the [be all and end all] cure” to men’s violence against women.”

And, most recently, I have seen suggestions that there is a belief in this country that “reducing violence against women is something that can or should wait decades”.

Nobody I have ever spoken to through my work – politicians, advocates, practitioners, and those working with men who use violence – has ever suggested that reducing violence against women is something that should wait decades. I don’t believe that anybody currently working in my field thinks we can wait even one more second to do better at preventing violence against women and supporting the thousands of women who experience it on a daily basis. Advocating for this after all, is a core part of our work.

What we are all struggling with is the very real complexity of this issue and how to communicate about it, and how to articulate it in public policy and legislative reform. We are also struggling to address the resistance and backlash to this issue that comes from many quarters and, as always, we are struggling with a lack of ongoing, adequate funding to support prevention, early intervention and response.

The work of Our Watch is focused on preventing violence against women before it even occurs by addressing the structures, norms and practices in our society, our institutions, our organisations and even in our relationships and families. Our Watch’s Counting on Change document helps people understand how long primary prevention work takes and what it costs, as well as how to build awareness and understanding of the complexity of the issue and the sustained effort that will be required if we are to see a tangible and sustainable shift to the prevalence of violence against women in Australia.

Counting on Change articulates only the time it will take to reduce violence against women if primary prevention efforts are supported, funded and sustained. But primary prevention is only a third of the puzzle. It was never designed to articulate how long reducing (and ultimately ending) violence against women would take if we had the three magic elements:

  1. primary prevention activities that reached every member of the Australian public
  2. early intervention efforts for women and men who were at high risk of experiencing/perpetrating violence
  3. a connected, well-resourced response system that wraps around both victims and perpetrators.

It’s also important to remember that the whole puzzle would comprise of many different pieces including:

  • specialist support services for women, children and young people who are victims of violence
  • activities that are designed to hold men to account for their violent behaviour and support them to change
  • an effective justice system that supports perpetrator accountability and prioritises the safety of women and children
  • a well-resourced housing system that means both victims and perpetrators have somewhere suitable to live
  • human services supports to address the mental health and physical health impacts of violence for both perpetrators and victims, and
  • longer term supports (such as education, social connection, universal health care) that enable Australians to be healthy, safe, secure and thrive.

The problem is, doing all these things together – prevention, early intervention and response – is incredibly complex, incredibly expensive and something that is as a result, hard to sell to the voting public. This doesn’t excuse politicians – many of whom have shown significant leadership in this space – from action but it does show why many have been reluctant to play the leadership role we need them to.

The most unhelpful thing we can do at this critical point in time when it finally feels like we have social and political momentum – not only around ending violence against women but in addressing gender inequality, sexual harassment and gendered discrimination – is to pit the work of those preventing violence against women with the work of those who are supporting victim survivors, holding the perpetrators of violence to account and supporting them to change their behaviour. It doesn’t support our cause, inadvertently or otherwise, to undermine the efforts of those who have been working for so long (and with significant success, I might add) to support women, to increase funding, to achieve social and cultural and structural change.

I am not suggesting we all sit down, shut up and be grateful for what we are given as feminists, advocates and social campaigners. But I think it’s important to remember that where the pace of social change is slow – just like it was with smoking rates, and reducing the road toll – that it’s only by being in this together, no matter where you live, what you look like, how much you earn or who you vote for – will we actually achieve any real change.

We owe that change to the women who have been murdered; to those who have narrowly escaped murder; to the children and teenagers where family violence is the undercurrent of their lives; and to all the women who are, as we speak, living with or experiencing the impacts of men’s violence.


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