White Ribbon not enough: Prevention needed to stop family violence

November 28, 2014
Members of the Maritime Union of Australia supporting White Ribbon Day. Photo: MUA/Flickr

The White Ribbon is a public symbol that family violence is a problem. Women have the right to live a life free from gender-based violence. The fact that White Ribbon Day exists is a tribute to the generations of women and men who have campaigned to have family violence recognised as a crime and a serious problem in society.

The Maritime Union of Australia, with a predominantly male membership, has enthusiastically taken up White Ribbon Day.

Its website features photos of members holding up banners with anti-domestic violence slogans onboard ships. They make the point that it is the responsibility of men to speak up against family and domestic violence and it is their job to change male culture.

The day has become so popular now that most mainstream politicians support the event. It makes them look like they are doing something about sexual and family violence without actually doing anything.

Some of these male politicians advocate policies that lead to violence against women and make it difficult for women to escape that violence.

In Victoria, the same politicians who so proudly wear the white ribbon have either cut funding to women's services or refused to increase funding so services can cope with the large increase of sexual and family violence.

Also in Victoria, both Liberal and Labor governments have been transferring public housing to the private sector, making it more difficult for women to leave abusive relationships.

Tony Abbott had the audacity to support the cause, while his government is trying to pass legislation that will remove Australia's non-refoulement obligations from the Migration Act, forcing refugee women to return to their homelands at significant risk of rape, torture and murder.

Both Liberal and Labor federal governments have cut the single parents pension, making it harder for women to leave violent relationships and neither major party is prepared to fund non-judgmental sex education in schools, which raises the issue of consent.

Women fought over many decades to get police to treat sexual and family violence as a crime. It is positive that the police are now acknowledging that family violence is a big problem through their involvement in White Ribbon. However, some police and judges still have problematic attitudes towards victims of such violence.

The Coalition is manipulating public concern about family violence to sneak in tougher sentences and pursue a law and order approach to the issue. The Coalition is advocating tougher sentences for violent attackers who breach intervention orders.

Tougher sentences for breaches of intervention orders might have the opposite effect and mean that victims are too afraid to make a report because they are worried about reprisal attacks. There is no evidence that a law and order approach is effective in reducing violence against women.

Family violence is at epidemic proportions, with one woman being killed every week in Australia as a result. Something needs to be done, but toughening up the laws is not the way to go. We need social change so that women are not sexually abused or assaulted in the first place. Prevention is the answer, not more laws. There are already plenty of laws against family violence.

The White Ribbon campaign’s recognition of the extent of family violence is a good first step. The next step is to create a grassroots community campaign to force politicians to commit to taking serious steps to prevent violence against women.

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