COMBATING family violence begins with changing attitudes, according to Gippsland Women’s Health chief executive Jodie Martin.
Ms Martin said commonly held views of what constituted male and female roles were a major barrier to reducing family violence.
GWH regional prevention of violence co-ordinator Sarah Corbell echoed Ms Martin’s view, saying family violence was a gendered issue.
“A lot of people will say ‘what about men as victims, women can be violent too’ and ‘statistics only show some of the story’,” Ms Corbell said.
“Or ‘men would be more embarrassed to come forward’.
“As soon as that line comes up ‘men would be more embarrassed’, we dig down at well, why would men be more embarrassed?
“Gender inequality is the root cause of this.”
Family violence is classified as any intimidating, controlling or violent behaviour towards another person, which includes but is not limited to verbal abuse, manipulation, sexual assault and rape including marital rape neglect, financial control, child abuse, elders’ abuse, animal abuse and blackmail.
Ms Corbell said there were times when some perpetrators didn’t realise certain behaviours were deemed as domestic violence.
When reviewing a documented session of a men’s behaviour change group, Ms Corbell said one perpetrator said he felt he had the right to control his partner.
He reportedly said he was shocked when she wanted to go out for a night with friends, as she had a two year old child.
Her role, from his point of view, was to stay home to look after the baby.
“Most often the men in those groups will know that they’re causing fear in their partner but they may not recognise all the other parts of the power tactics they are using,” Ms Corbell said.
“They might not recognise that her not having access to money or not being able to see her friends they might see that as normal behaviour as part of the breadwinner role.
“Often the victim might hold the same values as the perpetrator, so they may be feeling ‘yes he has the right to limit where I can go, when I can go’.
“It is so intermingled with our perception of what it means to be a man, and what it means to be a woman.
“They (perpetrators) often get a bit of a shock when they see . . . what is included under the law as family violence.
“If we’re talking about physical violence and threats, they know they are deliberate.”
Gippsland Women’s Health doesn’t work directly with victims of family violence, but instead focuses on integrated prevention and response strategies.
Family violence regional integration co-ordinator Kerry Hamer focuses on response and early intervention, while Ms Corbell leads prevention strategies and early intervention, working with community groups, politicians and workplaces.
Her team conducts activities aimed to improve gender equality by exploring the underlying causes of family violence.
In some group sessions, they run a bystander activity based on gender imbalance and victim blaming.
Groups are presented with the statement ‘If a woman is dressed provocatively and she is harassed, or assaulted in public, she’s partly to blame’, and participants are asked whether they answer agree, disagree or are unsure.
“Sometimes we get a lot of people agree with a discussion around clothes, but there’s a discussion around that victim blaming,” Ms Corbell said.
“As they go around and around they all in principle agree that a woman should be able to wear what she wants, but underlying, there’s always that sentiment that she does need to be aware that (what she is wearing) could incite violence.
“Both males and females will say that.”
Ms Corbell said people would often say men could wear what they want without question.
“For men, we know they experience higher rates of violence than women,” she said.
“One in two men will experience a physical assault from the age of 15, and one in three for women.
“So overall we do have higher rates for men’s (violence), but we do a lot to address that.“We have CCTV footage, we have street lighting, liquor accords, lock out laws, all around preventing men experiencing violence, because they will experience it in a public place.
“But men are never questioned why they are in that public place and women experience it most often from a partner, former partner, friend, or family member behind closed doors, but we still question — the victim blaming is still there.
“Women are not usually assaulted in public by men, but we blame them when they are, and that stems over into ‘well if she is assaulted in the home, she has to have done something to provoke that’.”
GWH recently launched the web site makethelink.org.au — a marketing campaign which encourages people to make the link between gender inequality and violence against women and challenge traditional male and female roles.
Ms Martin said people now had a better grasp of what constituted domestic and family violence.
But she said people continued to ask, why don’t women just leave?
“We all say ‘if I ever got hit, I’d leave’,” Ms Corbell said.
But she said the line of what was acceptable behaviour often shifted throughout a relationship.
“They will often say, well he’s never actually hit me . . . though she lives in fear that that is possibly what could happen.”
Ms Hamer said when a woman makes the decision to leave, her anxiety levels can soar.
If the perpetrator feels they are losing control, a victim’s safety can be severely compromised.
“Often the woman won’t leave because she’s very concerned that if he has access to the children by himself without her being able to regulate it, he can either hurt the kids or set up fear structures around the kids or manipulate the kids and she can’t do anything about it,” Ms Hamer said.
“So a lot of women will stay because of that.
“Financially is another reason why often she won’t leave, because she could end up homeless.
“Part of the power and control is he, the perpetrator, can often isolate her from her family and friends, so if she leaves, where is she going to go and who is going to support her?
“If she does leave, a lot of the coroner court reviews will indicate . . . she’s been murdered or assaulted during that time,” Ms Hamer said.
White Ribbon statistics show on average, one woman will be killed each week in Australia at the hands of an intimate partner.
Ms Martin said statistics showed about 18 per cent of family violence cases involved male victims however, part of that percentage were homosexual relationships.
“There are very few documented cases of male victims with a female perpetrator, but it does happen and we do acknowledge that that does happen,” she said.
Ms Martin said changing attitudes wasn’t something that would happen overnight, but she hoped by launching makethelink.org.au people might begin to better understand the extended impacts of gender inequality.
“It’s going to take a community response to address the issue.
“I guess our role is to create that awareness and understanding in the community and giving people the skills to do some of those skills as well.
“Because we’re talking about a generational change and attitude shift, like we did with smoking and SunSmart.
“It’s going to take a lot of awareness raising and understanding for people need to make that shift.”
People experiencing family violence can phone the national sexual assault, domestic family violence counselling service 1800 RESPECT.
For immediate, life-threatening situations, phone 000.