Battle against violence can never end
Concern over the public health impact of domestic violence is behind a new push to tackle the problem. Health editor Adam Cresswell reports
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‘‘‘‘ONNA Zander knows exactly how deep the roots of domestic violence run — and how common attitudes keep those roots well watered. Quite often you find people come out with beliefs such as there’s something about her that allowed it to happen’, or that ‘ he just lost his cool’, or that she provoked him’,’’ says the anti-violence educator. These are not very helpful to women and children who are trying to extricate themselves, because often the offender is saying it’s your fault — if you’d had the dinner ready on time, or if you hadn’t been nagging me, I wouldn’t have lost it’.’’
But Zander also knows how hollow those excuses really are.
She is, in her preferred term, a ‘‘ survivor’’ of domestic violence herself, and now devotes her energies to demolishing some of these myths about the causes of domestic violence — such as the notion that it only happens to the less well-off — and who is really at fault: the perpetrator.
Such attitudes are extremely common and she says they are held by professionals and others right through society.
‘‘ There are many examples of women who have come from quite well-to-do homes, and I was one of them,’’ she says. ‘‘ People look for reasons (for abuse) outside the reality . . . certainly men who choose to use violence are choosing to use violence because it makes them feel better. What I’m aiming to do is challenge some of those commonly held beliefs.’’
To illustrate that domestic violence is not the minor problem that some people appear to believe, Zander cites the examples of Donna Carson, who was bashed, doused in petrol and set alight by her then boyfriend in 1994. In another case, a 16-year-old girl was attacked after breaking up with her boyfriend, and is now in a wheelchair and communicates through an artificial voice synthesiser.
The push to combat domestic violence is gathering considerable momentum, after the Victorian Government last week committed $810,000 to 29 separate projects that will trial different approaches to prevent violence against women.
Some of those projects may be picked up nationally.
A landmark study by VicHealth showed that intimate partner violence was the leading cause of preventable death, disability and illness in Victorian women aged from 15 to 44 — a greater burden than that caused by either heart disease or smoking.
VicHealth chief executive Todd Harper said an Access Economics study from 2004 showed violence against women cost Australia as a whole $8.1 billion a year.
While a VicHealth study on community attitudes last year found that most Victorians thought women should be free from violence, nearly 25 per cent of respondents also believed domestic violence ‘‘ could be excused if it resulted from people temporarily losing control, or if the perpetrator genuinely regretted what they had done’’ afterwards.
Such beliefs cut no ice with Zander, who says the issue has a ‘‘ huge impact on women’s health’’ and that she was herself diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression after leaving her husband and moving into a refuge in 2000.
She is determined to challenge what she sees is the blind eye that a significant slice of society turns towards domestic violence.
‘‘ One in 11 women is affected by breast cancer, and one in three women is affected by domestic violence,’’ she says. ‘‘ If we said to women affected by breast cancer that you have to leave your home because you are not safe, we would think that was disgusting.’’
A report by the federal Parliamentary Library last year made clear the scale of the domestic violence problem.
Based on 2005 figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the report showed that 363,000, or 4.7 per cent of all women experienced physical violence in the previous 12 months, and 126,100 women (1.6 per cent) experienced sexual violence.
The ABS found over 2.5 million, or 33 per cent of all women, had experienced physical violence since the age of 15, and 1.5 million (19 per cent) sexual violence.
There had been some falls in the rates between 1996 and 2005, but these were modest: 443,000 women or 5.8 per cent experienced violence in 2005, compared to 490,400 in 1996.
A previous partner was the most common perpetrator, accounting for about 50 per cent of cases.
Many of the projects funded by the VicHealth grants focus on educating people in different walks of life — schools, ethnic groups, workplaces, and men and boys. Many will challenge the common notions that it is acceptable for a man to violently lose his temper occasionally — or, even worse, the nonsensical idea that doing so makes him more of a man.
‘‘ In the last survey I looked at, about onethird of boys thought it was totally appropriate to be physically violent with women for sex,’’ says Mary Crooks, executive director of the Victorian Women’s Trust, an independent organisation that seeks to improve conditions for women in many different ways.
‘‘ There’s so much of an emphasis on men being strong and courageous. But you can be strong and brave without being violent — in fact you are a stronger and braver man because you don’t have violence in your life.’’
The Trust’s program, called Living in a Man’s World, takes a different tack from existing campaigns, such as the federal Government’s ‘ Australia Says No’ series of advertisements and supporting materials.
Instead the Trust’s campaign will, in Crooks’s words, ‘‘ foster understanding of how you can live a decent and honourable life as a man, without violence playing any sort of role’’. The campaign — which may be taken up nationally if the pilot is successful and further funds can be raised — aims to develop a set of materials that men can draw on to challenge some of these old-fashioned ideas about gender-based violence.
This could be relevant either in casual conversation — for example if a man overhears others making inappropriate comments — or in more formal teaching settings.
‘‘ The materials that we develop are looking to support men in their community, to assist young men and boys to understand that there is no role for violence in relationships,’’ Crooks says.
‘‘ It’s about harnessing the leadership capacity of men to play a lead role with young boys growing up, other than just being dads — whether the men are in the soccer club or the football club or the scouts, so they feel confident going in on the front foot.’’
Doctor Michael Flood, a sociologist at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University, agrees programs like this are sorely needed, because much of the attention to date has been directed at responses — looking after women who have already been abused, and dealing with perpetrators.
Flood says the majority of Australians — many of them women — hold ‘‘ violencesupporting attitudes’’, which unless challenged can reduce individuals’ willingness to be supportive or intervene, and increase a society’s tolerance for violence generally.
If men hold such attitudes it greatly increases the chance the man will be violent, for example if the man believes that in some situations a woman wants to be raped, or deserves it.
But these attitudes can also greatly slow a woman’s recovery from a violent relationship, whether held by others or the woman herself.
‘‘ A woman with violent-supporting attitudes is more likely to blame herself (for being attacked), to feel guilt and shame, to not seek help or not report the violence she has experienced,’’ Flood says.
‘‘ She might think ‘ he was my ex-boyfriend, I shouldn’t have had a drink with him’, or ‘ I shouldn’t have been wearing a miniskirt’, or ‘ I shouldn’t have been dancing’.’’
The third impact of violence-supporting attitudes is on friends and bystanders, who if they hold such views might react in less than supportive ways even without knowing it.
This might involve asking an assaulted woman what she was wearing at the time, or what she was doing being in the place where the attack happened.
Flood says primary prevention programs generally have been overlooked, and the Victorian programs put that state well in the lead nationally in responding to the violence problem.
‘‘ There’s well-documented evaluations of these kinds of policies internationally, and they show that well-designed programs can improve community attitudes, and lessen men’s and women’s tolerance for violence and increase their willingness to intervene,’’ he says.
Crusader: Donna Zander talking to Senior Constables Paul Griffiths and Liz Joyce at Eltham Police Station in Melbourne