Violence is not a victims’ problem
Text of speech by Lula Dembele — 25 November 2019 — Delivered at QT Hotel, 1 London Circuit, ACT 2600 at the Domestic Violence Crisis Service lunch for the International Day to End Violence Against Women.
I’d like to thank you for having me here today to recognize the importance of eliminating violence against women. You may be aware of my story as a Voices For Change Survivor Advocate but today I am here to talk you about transforming our thinking and approaches to ending sexual, domestic and family violence — the most common forms of violence against women. I will be looking at how we can make change at the systemic and discourse levels to enable the work being done directly with men to end their use of violence.
Many of the cornerstone statistical statements relating to sexual, domestic and family violence take what can be understood as a gender sensitive approach. They recognize the gendered nature of these types of violence — but predominantly by the gender of the victims. For example:
- 1 woman is killed every 9 days by a partner (AIHW 2019),
- On average, 8 Australian women are hospitalized every day after being assaulted by their spouse or partner (AIHW 2018),
- 1 in 6 Australian women are physically and/or sexually abused before the age of 15 (ABS 2016),
- 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner or non-partner sexual violence (WHO 2017), and
- For Australian women aged 25–44, family, domestic and sexual violence causes more illness, disability and premature death than any other risk factor (AIHW 2018).
Naturally when we hear statistics like these we think about women’s safety, the impact on women’s lives and women’s vulnerability to these types of abuse. But what I’m here to say to you today is that while violence is a problem for victims, it is not a victim’s problem.
When we frame the issue of violence by its gendered outcomes, for example that domestic and family violence is the principal cause of homelessness for women and their children (AIHW 2016), who’s problem are we saying it is? And how does this shape the responses we provide to stop it?
Let me ask the question slightly differently, what are we talking about when we say, ‘women’s safety’? Women’s safety — from what? Violence against women — by whom?
Because violence is not a passive act, someone does violence to someone else. So, who are the people accountable for using violence in these statements? Where are the gendered identifiers of who is using violence? What are we trying to change when we say, ‘reduce violence against women and their children’? Is it women? The victims? No, invariably the part of the problem we aren’t naming is that we are trying to reduce men’s use of violence against women and their children.
Let me offer you some perspectives on why not naming who is using violence, and framing sexual, domestic and family violence as a “women’s issue” through a female-centric victim lens is problematic:
- It obscures the role of male actors and men’s use of violence,
- It minimizes personal and societal accountability for the behavior and its prevalence,
- It reinforces gender stereotypes of women needing protection (instead of men being responsible for and changing their behavior),
- It perpetuates victim blaming by centralizing female victims as the subject of sexual, domestic and family violence, leading to questions of “Was she drunk?” “What was she wearing?” “Why didn’t she leave?”
- It only addresses violence after the harm has been done,
- It reinforces hetero-normative understandings of intimate relationships, and
- It conceals male victims’ experiences.
For while we must recognize the disproportionate impact on women, continue to support and empower them, only addressing the victims does not stop the violence from occurring. If we want to stop, reduce and eliminate violence we need to discuss who is using violence and why.
Which leads me to what is being missed in the current discourse about violence against women — men. Controversial perhaps? But sadly, boys and men are the majority of victims of all male violence (ABS 2016). Boys are approximately 50% of the children experiencing men’s use of domestic and family violence in the home and as the Australian Institute of Criminology has recently documented men accounted for around five in six domestic violence offenders recorded by police (AIC 2019). Often the same man has been both victim and perpetrator.
Research suggests for example that children’s exposure to domestic violence may result in attitudes that justify their own use of violence and that boys who witness domestic violence are more likely to approve of violence (Edleson 1999, in AIC 2011). I am careful not to pathologize victims here, but only to highlight the relationship between childhood experiences, trauma, and learned behaviours (ACT Family Safety Hub Insights Report 2018). The point being we need to include and create connections to male experiences of sexual, domestic and family violence if we want to stop cycles of abuse and see a reduction in the rates of these types of violence.
We must view the problem of violence not only by how it impacts victims, but who uses violence if we want to achieve change. The dominate discourse portraying women as victims, at risk, vulnerable and in need of protection, and men as violent perpetrators does not change the power dynamics of gender relations. In fact it may reinforce inequalities by playing up to gender stereotypes, which evidence has shown is one of the key drivers of violence against women (Our Watch 2015). What we need now are transformative approaches that challenge the status quo of gendered violence.
How differently do we start to think about violence against women if instead of saying one in three women worldwide experiences sexual or physical violence by an intimate partner, we say:
- ‘men’s use of sexual or physical against their intimate partners impacts one in three women worldwide’
- ‘men’s use of violence in intimate, domestic and family settings causes Australian women aged 25–44 more illness, disability and premature death than any other risk factor”
Where do we then focus responsibility and the interventions we choose to reduce it? How do our responses change?
Last year I founded the Accountability Matters Project with the goal of measurably reducing men’s use of abuse and violence in intimate, domestic and family settings by 25% in 25 years. The Accountability Matters Project strategy is informed by an abuse and violence harm reduction principle that seeks to minimize past, present and future harms. Currently, the majority of Australian policies and resources are put towards responding to victims in crisis after harm has been done. Rightly safety is the primary focus, as well as victims’ immediate practical needs. More work is being done nationally to create change in values and attitudes at the population level that are supportive of gender equality — to prevent future harm. But we won’t be able to ever fully keep victims safe or achieve gender equality if we aren’t dealing with the harm being done in the present. We must engage and work with the people using violence against those they care about now to stop cycles of abuse.
One of our key campaigns under the Accountability Matters Project is A Man’s Problem, highlighting who is using violence and why, to shift the lens and burden off victims to stop violence and concentrate on accountability. Our theory of change uses three lines of effort to remove barriers of people seeking help to end abuse, both for victims and people using violence, driving social change.
Firstly — Connection, sharing men’s & boys’ lived experiences of sexual, domestic & family abuse. This helps break down the stereotypes of men as either only as protectors or perpetrators and gives an opportunity for boys and men to relate to these issues in a way they can identify with. We need to start by working with men where they’re at. We know the times of high risk for a man to start using or escalating violence are pregnancy, work/financial stresses, and relationship breakdown. We can all reach out to men in these circumstances to provide better support them, help them feel less isolated and hopefully divert behaviors that are potentially life threatening.
Second — Transform responses. Current zero tolerance approaches that portray men as either good for not using violence, or bad if they do, often does not reflect the victim’s experiences of knowing the whole person and desires for the violence, not necessarily the relationship to end (ACT Family Safety Hub Insights Report 2018). It contributes to people’s sense of shame and keeps these types of abuse hidden. We need to recognize the reality that it’s people we know, like and love who are capable of harming those they care about most.
Third — Accountability. We must focus on who is using violence, why and what we can all do to support that person to stop using abuse and violence — including addressing our own attitudes that minimize or justify use of violence. Sexual, domestic and family violence are so widespread that it isn’t a case of pointing the finger and simply labeling that one individual as having a problem.
While we continue to look at sexual, domestic and family violence primarily as women’s safety issue, we are not addressing where the change needs to be made — with people who use violence. Because while violence is a problem for victims, it’s not a victim’s problem.