Violence against women: how can it be ended?
By Kath Gelber
How does the community react to seeing national sporting heroes on posters declaring, "Real men don't bash", or the backs of buses adorned with "Read my lips — No means No"?
These messages form part of a campaign aimed at educating the public that violence against women and children in our society can no longer be ignored. Governments, non-government organisations and community groups are taking up the challenge and initiating projects designed to raise awareness about the need combat violence where it most occurs — in people's homes.
A number of projects currently exist. On the federal level, the National Committee on Violence Against Women released, in 1992, its National Strategy on Violence Against Women.
A documentary, Deadly Hurt, was subsequently produced by Don Parham and screened on SBS television in May. It attempted to examine the ideology behind the National Strategy and, from its rather anti-feminist perspective, challenged the government's initiatives to combat domestic violence.
Thirdly, the Women's Coalition Against Family Violence has released a chilling book, Blood on Whose Hands? which details the killings of women and children in domestic homicides in Victoria and the risks for women who remain trapped in abusive situations.
These three initiatives form only a sample of those currently being undertaken to combat this widespread problem. They are a contribution to the debate about how to solve it. In the spirit of such initiatives, it is useful to examine these projects in a little more detail.
Blood on Whose Hands? outlines how current support services fail to prevent violence against women in the home, and further, fail to stop it resulting in domestic homicide. The personal accounts in the book tell of the failure and inadequacies of the police in violent situations and the legal system in preventing further occurrences.
"Each year in Victoria between 30 and 40 women and children are killed by their husbands, de factos, boyfriends, ex-partners, fathers and sons". The majority of these are "domestic homicides".
At trials, relatives of murdered women have been prevented from detailing the history of violence. Courts have ordered that violent fathers retain custody and access to their children, in some cases even after the children have watched their father kill their mother. Children have been murdered by violent fathers on court-ordered access visits.
These horrific stories make clear the need for immediate action.
The National Strategy broadly analyses the extent of the social and economic costs of violence against women in Australia, and proposes strategies to combat it.
Its stated aims are: to provide services to victims escaping violence, to empower women through their attainment of equal rights and to promote a thorough-going change in attitude within Australian society. The National Strategy argues for a community which is intolerant of violence against women, and that men, in taking responsibility for their own violent behaviour, must choose to stop being violent.
The National Strategy identifies a number of components to assist in achieving these aims. They include: law reform, police practice, research, consultation with the community, education programs and awareness of the special needs of groups such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and women from non-English speaking backgrounds.
The National Strategy recognises that a wide range of social factors contribute to a "social system which assigns a subordinate status to women". It is this social system which is regarded as the fundamental cause of violence against women: " ... the origins of violence against women do not lie within individuals or relationships", and "individual men are not responsible for the way masculinity has been constructed, nor for women's subordinate status".
However, it goes on to contradict itself by pointing to one factor as primary in ending violence against women: "The National Strategy requires that men stop their violence against women"; men "should be accountable if they maintain and support violent or oppressive practices", and, "all men need to take responsibility for men's violence against women by challenging the existing construction of masculinity".
It is this emphasis on men's behaviour as the chief cause of violence against women which has been challenged by, among others, Don Parham's documentary, albeit from a perspective which was, arguably, anti-feminist.
Having an emphasis, as the National Strategy does, on the need for men to take responsibility to end violence against women is, of course, important; men do have to stop being violent towards women. However, the more fundamental question which must be asked, is how? Knowing what causes violence will surely help to eliminate it.
On this crucial question the overwhelming consensus of the National Strategy is that the violence will only stop when men choose not to be violent. In other words, while the National Strategy says that violence against women is a broader social and economic question, the strategy it ultimately proposes is that men change.
Don Parham's documentary adopts an either/or approach to combating violence against women — either you support the National Strategy in its entirety, or you chuck it out altogether as a feminist plot designed to pit men against women.
The opening sequences of the documentary spelled out Parham's objectives. They featured a statue of Mao Tse Tung and quotes from the Chinese government's 1966 campaign for "the purification of the Chinese mind". He says this is "happening [again] now".
The documentary interviewed a psychologist who placed most of the blame for one domestic homicide on the murderer's mother. It also interviewed a therapist who was critical of the National Strategy for the lack of attention given to therapeutic services for men who wish to stop being violent. Parham also included comments by the arch-conservative broadcaster Terry Lane in which he railed against feminists, and in true backlash fashion, challenged the National Strategy's statistics on violence saying he didn't believe so many men could possibly be violent!
The issues raised by the documentary were debated in an SBS follow-up program. The debate featured Kate Gilmore, spokesperson for NCVAW, Moira Rayner, former Victorian Equal Opportunity Commissioner, a representative from Men Against Sexual Assault, film maker Don Parham, and interviewees from his film.
Rayner described Parham's documentary as a "brilliant piece of wickedly-cut propaganda", which contained a core of truth and fluffed out with much persuasive hyperbole. Besides exposing the shortcomings of Parham's piece, the debate touched on some of the weaknesses of the National Strategy.
Rayner pointed out that although violence does occur across all classes, it is also true that people who are under stress and marginalised will tend to act out their oppression in ways in which, under different circumstances, they would not.
While the National Strategy opens with the acknowledgment, "For Australian society to be responsive to changing economic and social needs [as outlined by the OECD], it is imperative that barriers to women's contribution be removed", it does not go on to address this crucial question in any significant way.
In order to break down these barriers and ensure that women are able to participate as equals with men, issues such as the unequal distribution of wealth and equal opportunities, has to be examined
But the National Strategy specifically rejects the pressures of unemployment, wage differentials, poverty and other socio-economic factors as significant in the context of a strategy to overcome violence. It argues, rather vaguely, for women's "attainment of equal rights ... regardless of ... economic or political considerations".
This begs the question: how can equal rights for women be achieved if socio-economic factors are not central to that struggle?
Socio-economic pressures are a contributing factor to violence. This does not downplay the importance of men changing their behaviour, or imply that men on the lowest socio-economic level are largely responsible for violence against women. Neither is it an attempt to find an excuse for the violence. Rather, it helps to explain that violence, as a social phenomenon, has a very real material base and it is only when the material factors are changed that social behaviour can also.
Given that the National Strategy was commissioned by a federal Labor government which has, over the last decade, presided over a massive redistribution of wealth in favour of the rich, perhaps report's focus on men, rather than government policies, is not all that surprising.