Unlike COVID-19, we already have a vaccine for violence
Emily Maguire, CEO of Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria looks at what we can learn about public health and the work of prevention in light of the extraordinary events we are all living through.
In April alone, eight women were killed. And while it will take time for data from the coronavirus lockdown period to be processed, decades of statistics show that in the vast majority of cases, women are killed by a current or former partner.
Research shows that family violence can increase 30 to 100 per cent during times of major crisis. This increase likely results from a tendency to revert to stereotypical gender roles during times of uncertainty; such as men taking the role of protectors and decision makers, and women being seen as carers. When these strict norms resurface in the home, out of sight, they limit women's independence and autonomy and can put them and their children at risk.
Research also shows that during times of disaster or emergency, there is an increased tendency for people to dismiss or downplay a person's experiences of violence, or 'excuse' it with statements like "he's just stressed".
Financial, employment and housing insecurity coupled with sustained periods of time families spend together at home, while isolated from other people, may also exacerbate violence against women. Often, women living with violence will blame themselves for what's happening to them and may be reluctant to tell anyone.
Those delivering essential services can be on the lookout for warning signs. However other members of the community can also play a critical role in identifying warning signs – like fear when a partner is mentioned, or anxiousness to please or appease a partner – and providing support. There may also be physical signs of abuse – like bruises, cuts or other injuries, with unlikely-sounding explanations or none at all.
While being in lockdown has exacerbated some of these risk factors, it also represents an opportunity for us all to make a conscious effort to build the foundations of a better, safer and more equitable world for women and children when we all re-emerge.
Parents can do this by modelling equality at home, for example by showing children that women can be excellent financial managers, and men can be caring nurturers. Homeschooling gives parents a chance to reshape old narratives by making sure both sexes are represented equally in all kinds of learning content.
Similarly, now that many of our interactions have moved online, all of us can help reshape conversations to address the drivers of gendered violence. This may be as simple as challenging problematic comments in online conversations.
An 'eye roll' emoji at a sexist comment, or a thumbs up in support of a person speaking up against inappropriate behaviour can be enough to reshape a conversation into one that promotes equality.
For some, it may even feel less awkward to speak up online than it might in a face to face interaction, and if you suspect behaviour in a group chat has hurt a participant, you can always check in with them discreetly via direct message.
Beyond COVID-19 and lockdown, however, we must renew and strengthen our commitment to sustainable, ongoing work that will prevent violence before it even occurs by addressing its key drivers.
Over a decade ago, after years of advocacy from violence experts, Australia developed an approach largely based on the principles of 'primary prevention'. Primary prevention means challenging and changing the structural, social and cultural conditions that enable men's violence against women. This approach is embedded within the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children 2010-2022.
The primary prevention approach has a strong global evidence base that identifies four key, gendered drivers of violence against women and their children. They are:
- the condoning of violence against women
- men's control of decision-making and limits to women's independence
- stereotyped constructions of masculinity and femininity
- disrespect towards women within male peer relations that emphasise aggression
These drivers are woven into the fabric of our society. They often appear to us as 'normal'; things which we see in our families, our communities, our workplaces and on our screens.
Addressing them requires hard work and ongoing commitment over time by individuals, institutions, the media and governments. But just as millions of us have respected lockdown laws – prioritising the long term safety of our communities, even if it means short term challenges for us – we must take a similar approach to how we address the gendered drivers of violence.
The good news is we already have the 'vaccine' for violence. We already know the cure. Those solutions may be much harder to administer than their medical counterparts, but we know they work.
We must educate our children, modelling equal relationships in every aspect of our lives, and continually reinforcing the importance of treating everyone – regardless of their gender – equally, and with respect.
We must continually re-evaluate and improve our systems, from our workplace standards all the way up to our laws and policies that govern and guide how we live and work.
We must continue to send the message to our politicians that this is important to all of us, and keep gender equality on the agenda at every election, local, state and federal. And our politicians must keep listening.
We must trust the evidence and the experts on this.
Just like all the measures we've implemented to stop COVID-19, this work needs everyone on board for the long haul. If we quit too soon, we won't succeed.
Losing our focus on violence prevention now would be a death sentence for countless women, pandemic or no pandemic.
We have put together a series of tip sheets with examples of what these behaviours and comments look like in the real world, and helpful ways to address them. Visit the Partners in Prevention website to download them.