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Respectful relationships education is not about banning fairy tales

Respectful relationships education is not about banning fairy tales

Image of children's books

By Emily Maguire, CEO of Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria

The evidence is in about what causes family violence – and it isn’t alcohol, drugs, mental illness or angry men.

The global data shows very clearly what violence prevention practitioners have known for some time – that there’s a complex, but real relationship between gender inequality and family violence. We’re never going to stop family violence by only addressing it after the fact, so we need to talk about how we can prevent it. And research tells us that if we address the drivers of violence against women, which include rigid gender stereotyping, men’s control of decision making, limits to women’s independence and condoning or minimising violence against women, that’s the only way we’re ever going to ‘turn off the tap’ and end this sort of violence.

Over the past weeks, there’s been lots of public discussion about respectful relationships education in schools, which is just one of the many approaches being used to prevent violence against women before it even occurs.

Using primary and secondary schools as a site for violence prevention is ideal. Teachers have a captive audience of young people, and they know how to educate and talk to young people in developmentally appropriate ways that will help them understand and critique complex concepts like gender, violence, power and equality. But respectful relationships education is about much more than critiquing gender norms. It helps children – in age appropriate ways – understand what violence looks like and what they can do if they know someone is experiencing family violence. It also gives children and young people the skills to have healthy, safe, equal and respectful friendships and (when they’re ready) intimate relationships.

Respectful relationships education isn’t about shaming children who like Disney movies or read fairy tales. It’s not about telling kids what they can and can’t do – quite the opposite.

What respectful relationships education aims to do is encourage children of all ages to be curious, to think about and critique the images they see and the messages they get from people in their lives, from popular culture, from toy makers and from books and movies. If we can help children understand that gender roles aren’t biologically driven – that there’s no particular genetic makeup required to be a nurse or a truck driver – then we can help them know that their gender shouldn’t limit what jobs they can do, or what emotions they have, or whether they experience violence.

Sensationalising the very real need to prevent family violence with headlines like ‘Dunce upon a time' or ‘Cinderella caught up in jihad on gender norms’ does our children a huge disservice. This isn’t about toys, books or even fairy tales. This is about thinking carefully about the things we can do to create a world where women and men are equal, thriving, safe and respected. And I can’t see what’s so scary about that.