Google searches on domestic violence have dramatically increased, and there are concerns around unplanned pregnancies as a result of domestic violence and reproductive coercion, which particularly impacts young women. To add to this, we have seen five reported murders of women in Australia at the hands of their partners or family members over the last month. COVID-19 has not created the problem of domestic and family violence, but it has seemingly exacerbated it.
The domestic and family violence sector recently welcomed the much needed injection of funding for frontline women’s specialist services and men’s referral services during this period. But as we move into the recovery phase of the crisis, we must turn our attention to the drivers of gender-based violence and what our governments, our communities, and us as individuals can do to prevent this violence.
May is Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Month, where advocates raise community awareness about gender-based violence and promote gender equality. This month is our chance to refocus on prevention as a key strategy in ending the domestic and family violence pandemic.
Our Watch and the women’s sector in Australia have been contributing to the international evidence base to further our understanding of the gendered drivers of violence. The answer as to what drives this violence is as simple as it is complex and overwhelming – gender inequality.
Addressing gender equality and preventing gender-based violence requires systemic change, policy shifts, and long-term investment at all levels of community. Critically, it also requires everyday action from us all.
Preventing gender-based violence is about understanding and addressing the small and seemingly harmless things that lead to women, or anyone with feminine characteristics, being treated with less respect, where they do not feel safe leaving the house at night, or often at home either, and where men’s violence against women is excused, minimised and even condoned.
Here are four ways you can play a part in preventing gender-based violence and promoting gender equality, even while you’re isolating at home.
Be a positive bystander
It’s our responsibility to speak up when we see or hear something that is sexist, abusive or discriminatory. We need to be positive bystanders for the seemingly small stuff because it’s these attitudes and behaviours that lead to a culture of excusing and condoning disrespect towards women.
Did your colleague say something inappropriate in a Zoom meeting? Set firm boundaries and let them know then and there, or message them afterwards explaining why it was inappropriate. Engage with your peers who saw this and reach out to HR.
Did a mate send through another sexist meme to your Whatsapp group as a ‘joke’? Call them out – tell them it’s not ok and you don’t want to see that crap anymore.
We also need to be positive bystanders for the more immediate stuff too. When we’re all back at the pub and you see a young woman being harassed, will you step in, let the bar manager or security know, or walk away?
Did you hear something coming from next door that made you worry about the safety of those in there? Call the police. A woman was murdered in South Australia just weeks ago and although people heard screams for help, no one did anything.
While these situations are different, they are all part of the same continuum of inequality and disrespect that leads to the prevalence of gender-based violence.
Finally, positive bystander action is not just for sexism. Racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of discrimination all intersect with gender inequality. If we don’t call out all forms of discrimination then, in the words of intersectional feminist Kimberle Crenshaw, “some of us, the most vulnerable, are going to fall through the cracks”.
Challenge gender stereotypes and celebrate diversity
My mentor recently said to me, “to achieve gender equality, we need to dismantle and re-frame countless systems and we can start by letting little boys cry”.
Our Watch’s research showed that one of the four key drivers of gender-based violence was gender stereotypes and adherence to rigid gender roles in societies, communities and relationships.
The damage done by stereotyped tropes like ‘boys will be boys’ or ‘stop acting like a girl’, and a plethora of familiar but unrealistic expectations about what it means to be a man is far more severe than we might realise. And it’s harmful for men and boys too.
Researcher Michael Flood says “there’s literally decades of research pointing to the fact that conformity to traditional masculinity is associated with poor health among men, high levels of suicidal thoughts and behaviour, poor relationships and parenting, and involvements in violence against women and other men.”
Conversely, stereotypes about women being weak, image-conscious, passive homemakers seep into our cultural psyche, our jokes and our expectations, disempowering and limiting women from the moment they are born. A number of studies show that when women are assertive or display stereotypically masculine traits they are viewed negatively and receive backlash, particularly in the workplace. The low value we place on feminine traits contributes to a society where women and their work are less valued.
To challenge gender stereotypes, reflect on your own use of language with your friends, your family and your children. Have important conversations with them about gender-stereotyped characters in movies and explore why they are characterised in that way. Encourage people in your life to be whatever they want to be in the face of these stereotypes. Celebrate and respect diversity in all its forms
Reflect on your own attitudes and behaviours
Not one of us can claim to be completely free of unconscious biases about gender, race, religion, disability, sexuality, age, or other factors. Many of us may have unintentionally used language that has been offensive to others. Many of us have privilege and power in different ways that others do not, and that we did nothing to earn.
It is important to recognise that we’re all on a learning journey and we don’t know everything. What matters is that we become aware of our own biases and privilege, learn more about the issues and what actions we can take. Maybe someone called you out? Thank them, admit when you’ve got it wrong and commit to doing better next time.
Become a vocal advocate for gender equality
Openly advocating for gender equality in the workplace, in your community, or at home is crucial to creating change.
Do your part in supporting women’s leadership in your workplace. Encourage your employers to take up gender equity measures like targets, quotas, or training and education opportunities on areas like unconscious gender bias – these are all very achievable measures. Campaign for your workplace to have dedicated domestic violence leave, appropriate paid parental leave that men are encouraged to take, and flexible work options.
Urge your local, state and federal governments to take community-wide action on gender equality. The National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Children has always included prevention as a key pillar. As we move to new National Plan in 2022, prevention must remain on the agenda and be sustainably funded.
As a young women’s organisation, YWCA are seeing the impact this crisis is having on young women including long term economic, health and employment consequences. Young women are overrepresented in the casualised workforce and on the front line in health care and education roles, while often being primary carers for small children, or facing limited access to reproductive health.
You can help address this issue by pushing for a re-valuing of women’s work, both in the home and in the workplace, so that these young women don’t become part of the growing cohort of older women facing homelessness and financial insecurity.
Arm yourself with evidence and information and help others understand the issue. Have conversations with your mates or your family, support campaigns like #HeForSheAtHome that encourages men to challenge gender roles and share how they are taking on domestic roles at home, and openly support the work of gender equality organisations and campaigns.
Right now, we need to invest in critical crisis services for people experiencing gender-based violence, including domestic and family violence. But with the cost of violence against women in Australia estimated at $21.7 billion each year and growing, we also need critical investment from government, communities and individuals to prevent violence from occurring in the first place.
We all have a role to play for the benefit of our whole community, our families and ourselves. Most importantly, we need to do it for those people whose future is yet to be shaped, who could grow up in a world where men can cry, women can be safe and gender diverse people can be their authentic selves without fear of harm.