Ending violence against women can start at home by addressing how we unconsciously endorse gender inequality, writes Dr Niki Vincent, the South Australian Commissioner for Equal Opportunity.
White Ribbon Day comes around again this weekend. It’s a time when we read the media stories, shake our heads and wonder how the problem of violence against women can still be so common.
After all, millions of dollars have been poured into public education campaigns, new laws have passed to provide more support for victims and workplaces are now aware of the issues. We all know it’s a terrible situation, but what more can be done?
The answer might be found a little closer to home. I’m talking about the role we all play every day in unconsciously endorsing gender inequality, and showing that to our children.
Let’s take a poll. Who drives the car usually when you go out as a family? Do you ever assume the plumber coming around to fix your taps will be a man? Who earns the most money in your household, or works the longest hours? Who does most of the cooking and cleaning up at home? Who stayed home with the kids last time one of them was sick? Who makes most of the investment decisions in your household? Is your favourite sports star a man, or woman?
Years of research have proven there is a link between violence against women and the common views that endorse inequality at home, at work, at school, and in society. It’s this subtle power play in relationships that leads to assumptions about the role of women, how they should act, and, in turn, how they should be treated.
Just a few weeks ago the ABS released a snapshot of just how bad the problem really is in the 2016 Personal Safety Survey. It’s a wake-up call for all of us to do something.
Over the past decade, despite all the work that has been done, the level of domestic violence has remained stubbornly high. One in 6 Australian women (or 1.5 million) have experienced violence at the hands of a male partner that they live (or lived) with, and 1 in 4 have experienced emotional abuse. Figures show on average, over a 12-month period, one woman is killed every week.
Sexual harassment is at an all-time high too, with 1 in 2 women reporting they have experienced the problem in the past 12 months.
The fact is we need to admit we are talking about gender-based violence here. Most of this behaviour is happening to women, not men — at home, at the hands of people they know.
And it continues to be passed on through the generations because gender attitudes are learnt at home.
Children are seeing the way their mothers and fathers interact and that tells them something about the division of power. It normalises commonly held views about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman, and how relationships work. If that isn’t actively challenged in the community or at work or in popular culture, why would individuals be forced to question these views?
A survey by VicHealth (2015) into young people’s attitudes to violence against women is particularly alarming. It found one in five of those surveyed aged between 16-24 believed there were circumstances in which women could bear some responsibility in sexual assault. Around 20 per cent thought violence was OK if it was regretted afterwards, and more than 20 per cent thought men should ‘take control’ in relationships.
It’s clear our children need to grow up learning about and seeing different gender role models.
They should know it’s OK for dad to cut up and take the oranges to the after-school soccer match because mum’s at a work meeting, or to see their dad working part-time or caring for his grandmother, or have mum drive the car when they take a weekend away, or to discuss managing the money.
The media also need to stop their persistent endorsement of traditional role models as well. They’ve tried to change, but women are still celebrated for their looks, it’s still women selling the washing powders and pushing kitchen recipes, and it’s mothers in the commercials for baby headache tablets.
Men have a part to play too in changing perceptions. They have a lot to gain by addressing and breaking down commonly held beliefs about gender roles.
Men can be liberated from the expectation that they always have to be the decision makers, in control and less nurturing when compared to women. Many fathers would relish the opportunity to care for their children more, to have access to part-time work, and to help their partners with the housework.
Breaking down the stigma attached to attitudes of ‘men doing women’s work’ would go a long way to redefining relationships and would show children a new paradigm of real gender equity.
The Australian Human Rights Commission is serious about tackling these problems. Gender based violence is recognised as a form of discrimination, on the basis of sex and gender. The government has also committed time and money to addressing the issues in an effort to come up with effective prevention strategies.
The problem is nothing much will change unless all of us – the innocent bystanders – take on the fight to call out the outdated stereotypes and cultural norms that we see all around us.
We need to do this now because it’s the only way we can build a better world for our sons and our daughters in the future.