Australian Government endorses national plan to tackle violence against women

Australian Government endorses national plan to tackle violence against women

The Australian Government is to immediately progress 18 of the 20 recommendations of the Time for Action plan of the National Council to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children, and will consider implementing the other two.

The Time for Action plan of the Council was released today. Its recommendations were:

Recommendation 1
That the Australian Government commit to a vision for Australia where ‘women and their children live free from violence, within respectful relationships, and in safe communities’.

Recommendation 2
That the Australian Government support the realisation of this vision for Australia’s women and children through a long-term, strategic and sustained commitment.
This commitment would be effected through a series of three-year implementation plans to 2021 to be developed in partnership with government, business and the community, built on research and evaluation, and that will incorporate the outcomes of measures already implemented.

Clear outcomes, strategies and actions

Recommendation 3

That the Australian Government agree that realising this vision requires that:
Communities are safe and free from violence
Relationships are respectful
Services meet the needs of women and their children
Responses are just
Perpetrators stop their violence
Systems work together effectively.

Recommendation 4
That the Australian Government accept that the strategies developed by Council under the six outcomes are based on research, best practice, and community feedback; and that these strategies must underpin any effective response. The Government should also acknowledge that these strategies alone may be insufficient, and that new strategies may be required over time.

Recommendation 5
That the Australian Government note that the Council has identified a set of actions for the next 12 years aimed at achieving the Plan of Action’s outcomes and executing its strategies, and agree to:
urgently implement the priority actions that the Council considers represent the minimum investment to effect change;
start work on the other early actions identified in the first three-year implementation plan;
review all actions in developing the second and subsequent three-year implementation plans.

A national response through the Council of Australian Governments
Recommendation 6

That the Australian Government recognise the critical role of State and Territory governments in reducing violence against women and their children; that it refer the Plan of Action to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG); and request that COAG develop an integrated, comprehensive response endorsed by all levels of government by early 2010.

Recommendation 7
That the Australian Government acknowledge the social and economic costs of inaction; and that it encourages Commonwealth, State and Territory ministers and agencies to take action consistent with the Plan of Action’s outcomes in advance of the integrated, comprehensive response being developed by COAG.

Recommendation 8
That, following referral to COAG, the Australian Government pursue the development of a whole-of-government approach that:
builds on the vision, outcomes, strategies and actions identified by the Council;
aligns all Commonwealth, State and Territory governments’ plans, policies, procedures, and practices with those agreed to by COAG;
includes a robust system of regular reporting, independent monitoring, and comprehensive independent evaluations that will develop a strong evidence base to measure the impacts and outcomes of actions.

Recommendation 9
That the Australian Government work with State and Territory governments through COAG to ensure the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children meets the needs of children who witness and experience domestic and family violence.

Continued community engagement on action
Recommendation 10

That the Australian Government recognise the critical need to provide a multi-layered, phased, and cohesive approach to public awareness and discussion about violence prevention and behavioural change over the Plan of Action’s lifetime; and agree that the Commonwealth Minister for the Status of Women will lead the development of a social marketing strategy in partnership with State and Territory governments and the community.

Recommendation 11
That the Australian Government accept the vital role of the community in helping reduce violence against women and their children, and agree to:
work in partnership with other levels of government, business, and the community sector;
provide opportunities for individuals, business, community, and other institutions;
build bi-partisan support at the Federal, State, Territory, and Local government levels to support the broad directions advocated in the Plan of Action;
extend the role of the National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, or similar body, to one of helping to implement the Plan of Action.

I have set out below the key outcomes in the report:

Outcome 1: Communities are safe and free from violence

Focus on prevention
Violence against women must stop – their safety, and that of their children, is not negotiable.
The Plan of Action starts where we can have the greatest impact: with what communities can do to reduce and ultimately stop violence against women and their children. Communities, from across Australia must be willing to tackle the problem as no amount of legislation, policy or policing in isolation will eradicate this violence.

For our communities, the first step must be to acknowledge the nature of the problem. Women and men in our society have unequal access to social and economic power. The evidence demonstrates that while there is no single cause of sexual assault or domestic and family violence, many risk factors associated with these types of violence can be influenced by obvious and covert expressions of inequality in the community.

For example, community and societal ideas of what it means to be a man and to be a woman can contribute to the problem of violence by supporting the traditional gendered power-imbalance. Attitudes and beliefs about gender are learned, and society often teaches deeply held sexist views. Evidence shows that communities increase the risk of violence against women when they allow norms that support men’s controlling attitudes and behaviour over women, or attitudes that support the notion of male privilege. These norms include:
‘macho’ constructions of masculinity;
ideas that ‘a woman’s place is in the home’;
notions that men should ‘wear the pants’ as heads of the household and wage-earners;
standards that segregate male drinking and encourage excessive or binge drinking;
standards that create peer pressure to conform to these ideas of masculinity and male behaviour.

Notions of masculinities and violence
The glamourising and normalising of violence and aggressive male stereotypes in the media and on the internet also perpetuate negative attitudes and behaviour towards women. Many studies have identified a relationship between tolerance for physical or sexual violence and an exposure to sexist imagery in television, film, advertising and electronic games. These studies conclude that excessive consumption of imagery which idealises an aggressive, insensitive notion of masculinity, is likely to enhance violence-supportive attitudes. This is even more evident in the case of pornography (most of which overtly portrays women in an unequal role to men). This is concerning given evidence that a substantial proportion of Australian boys are regular consumers of X-rated video and Internet pornography.

Specific attitudes about gender-based violence also play a strong role. Violence is enabled when local communities:
view sexual assault and domestic and family violence as ‘invited’ by the victim/survivor;
fail to intervene when they see violence because it is considered a private matter or part of a ‘culture’;
accept violence as a legitimate means of settling conflict.

In the case of sexual assault, community members may accept such assault as a rite of passage, or something that ‘just happens’ (normalising behaviour). Communities also may tacitly support violence by failing to provide alternatives or failing to explicitly oppose it.

‘There are two very important messages to consider when thinking about the violence and abuse women and children experience in our society. The first is the profound and long lasting impact across all domains of development, throughout the life course and across generations. These experiences can deprive women of their potential, fragment families and shatter the dreams of our children.
The second message is that it is entirely preventable. In this modern era we have the means and political will to change the future. We can develop respectful relationships, restore hope for a just society and bring to fruition a Nation based on equality and equity for all its citizens.’
Aboriginal Medical and Dental Health academic Western Australia

Communities can help stop the violence
The evidence suggests that if communities work in partnership with governments and the non-government and private sectors, they can reduce violence against women and their children through their collective actions to:
understand, discuss and explicitly condemn violence against women and their children;
promote women as equal and active participants in intimate relationships and public life;
ensure women have equal access to secure employment, salaries and financial independence;
reject definitions of ‘being a man’ or notions of masculinity that are associated with violence;
promote notions of masculinity that are non-violent;
intervene where violence against women and their children is witnessed or suspected;
provide information about, and links to, available support services;
render assistance to victims when formal services are limited;
hold perpetrators accountable and challenge their use of violence;
provide services to perpetrators to help them change their behaviour;
address factors that contribute to violence in the wider community by encouraging the responsible service and consumption of alcohol; addressing the abuse of drugs; discussing the nature, causes, and impacts of violence against women; and enforcing demanding media and internet standards to prevent glamourised violence and negative sexualisation and denigration of women;
promote education respectful relationships.

If the longer term goal is eradication of violence, then society needs to dramatically increase its understanding of why violence occurs in the first place. International evidence suggests that primary prevention strategies that work across many levels (such as the attitudes and behaviours of individuals, the way people operate in relationships and families, the way they engage as communities, and how social structures and institutions are regulated) are the most effective.

The evidence also suggests that social marketing campaigns that promote gender norms against violence, combined with approaches that mobilise communities to stand against violence, and programs based in education and sports settings, are more likely to produce cultural change that reduces tolerance for violence against women and aids prevention in the first instance.

‘Some of the issues start in early childhood with boys being allowed to be ‘rough’ [boys being boys] and told to be tough [not show emotion]. This is an issue for the way some women parent boys as much as their male role model.’
Child psychiatrist Western Australia

Community programs that address violence-exacerbating behaviour must also be supported. These include: efforts to address violent male-on-male behaviour in situations such as sporting environments, or gangs that legitimise the use of violence as a means for addressing grievances.

Some communities may face problems that exacerbate or enable violence against women and their children. For example, many remote and/or Indigenous communities experience housing conditions (like overcrowding or the presence of violent individuals in the dwelling) that tend to increase the incidence of violence. Several factors can increase the vulnerability of immigrant and refugee women to violence. These include cultural or religious practices that subordinate women and cultural expectations that loyalty to family and community take precedence over personal safety. The circumstances of individual communities must always be assessed and addressed.

Outcome 2: Relationships are Respectful

Violence in relationships remains high in our communities, and most would agree that unless the unequal power relations between women and men are more meaningfully addressed, the incidence will not change. Around one in three Australian women experience physical violence, and almost one in five experiences sexual violence over their lifetime. The majority of violence against women in Australia is committed by men they know.

“Violence against women is illegal, unacceptable and a blight on our community. It’s wrong and it’s got to stop. On the whole it’s us as blokes that do this stuff to our women and our kids but we are committed to change this and we want to be part of the answer and part of the solution. Things will never change unless men work side-by-side with women.”
Graham (Bonny) Gibson, Spirit of Men Murray Bridge, South Australia, 2008

Young men warrant particular attention, given that one in seven young men (aged 12-20) think it is acceptable for a boy to make a girl have sex with him if she has flirted with him or led him on. More than a quarter believe that most physical violence occurs in dating because a partner provoked it. Another study has found that while many males under age 45 consider the use of physical strength to abuse female partners unfair and cowardly, and verbal and emotional abuse damaging, sexual abuse within a marriage proved a grey area for some.

While violence against women knows no cultural or age boundaries, the levels, risk and impacts of violence can affect women differently. For example, despite the increased vulnerability of women with disabilities to all forms of intimate violence, many violence prevention programs have failed to address this issue or their needs. A recent US study found that women with disabilities were 37.3 per cent more likely than women without disability (20.6 per cent) to report experiencing some form of intimate partner violence. 19.7 per cent of women with disabilities reported a history of unwanted sex compared to 8.2 per cent of women without a disability.

Due to numerous State and Territory based inquiry reports and national media coverage, the high level of violence experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and their children is now better, and more widely, understood.

Despite all of this, there is limited uptake of specific violence prevention education programs nationally. Particular challenges are faced in delivering education in remote and rural areas where overall, service providers are scarce.

Outcome 3: Services Meet the needs of women and their children

The current capacity of services to meet the needs of women and their children is compromised across Australia because of insufficient funding. Insufficient funding prevents the widespread implementation and accessibility of services. The difficulties in recruiting and retaining appropriately skilled workers in this area compounds the effects of insufficient funding.
Immediate crisis services and on-going services for victims of sexual assault and domestic and family violence received a great deal of attention in the written submissions to the Council. The Council heard repeated stories about funding shortfalls for services, the lack of services, the inability of services to meet the holistic needs of the victim and her family, over-stretched and stressed services with long waiting lists, and a lack of skill and agency protocols that ensured compassionate, appropriate and timely responses to the requirements of women with more complex needs.

As disclosures and reporting of violence against women increases, the gap between demand and needs being met will only grow. Many in the sector, and the community, hold concerns that under-resourcing is already leading to limited service delivery, so that a consistently professional, high quality, and coherent response to sexual assault and domestic and family violence is, at best, uneven across the nation. Budgetary allocations must match the real size of the problem. Apart from these gaps we need to ensure that a social inclusion approach is taken seriously. Not only is more money needed to address gaps, but we need to find new ways of governing which include rethinking how policy and programs can be delivered across portfolios and between levels of government to wrap services around women and their children.
The ways in which women and their children experience violence, the options open to them in dealing with violence, and the extent to which they have access to services that meet their needs, are shaped by the intersection of gender with factors such as disability, English language proficiency, ethnicity, physical location, sexuality, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander status, and migration experience. These factors increase the vulnerability of women and their children to the risk and effects of violence.

Outcome 4: Responses are Just

‘… States should pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating violence against women and, to this end, should: … exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate and, in accordance with national legislation, punish acts of violence against women, whether those acts are perpetrated by the State or by private persons.’

Article 4 of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1994, unambiguously states the premise on which our legal response to violence against women should be based.

Violence against women and children is a fundamental violation of their basic human rights. States are therefore obliged to prevent violations of human rights in the private sphere; to regulate and control private actors; and to investigate violations, punish perpetrators and provide effective remedies to victims. States may be held responsible for private acts, such as domestic and family violence, if they fail to act with due diligence to prevent, investigate, or punish acts of violence, and for providing compensation.

In 2009, Australia became a party to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The Optional Protocol enables women in Australia to make a complaint, after other legal options have been exhausted, to the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women about alleged violations of Australia’s obligations under CEDAW.

‘Acceding to the Optional Protocol will send a strong message that Australia is serious about promoting gender equality and that we are prepared to be judged by international human rights standards.’

The Hon. Tanya Plibersek MP, Minister for the Status of Women Joint Media Release with the Hon. Robert McClelland MP, Attorney-General 24 October 2008

Outcome 5: Perpetrators stop their violence

Violence against women and their children will not stop until perpetrators cease being violent.
The Council is resolute that perpetrators of violence against women must be held accountable for their use of violence and challenged to change their behaviour. Accountability means ensuring that consequences follow if violence against women is perpetrated, and that this occurs at the individual, community and system levels.

We know little about the ways that the many different sectors and professions involved with perpetrators can complement and enhance each other’s work, and what sort of social policy will facilitate this endeavour. The Plan of Action offers strategies and actions to progress this work. Although the best means to undertake specific interventions requires future research, the Council believes approaches to perpetrators must:
ensure that women and their children are protected and safe;
hold perpetrators to account and ensure they take responsibility for their violent behaviour;
stop perpetrators’ violent behaviour and change their violence-supportive attitudes;
sustain positive change in perpetrators’ behaviour and allow them to redefine themselves as non-violent; and
subject to considerations for the safety of the victim/survivor, allow perpetrators to re-enter the community and engage in positive ways.

There are many ways the justice system can respond to perpetrators of violence. The likelihood of recidivism can be reduced through deterrents such as sentencing, through community restraints such as parole, through incapacity such as prolonged incarceration, or through effective rehabilitation. There is limited evidence that the prospect of imprisonment alone deters violence against women and their children that convicted perpetrators change their violent behaviour without, or even through, court-mandated programs, or that the adversarial nature of Australia’s legal system does not inadvertently encourage perpetrators to deny and avoid responsibility for their violence.

Further research is needed to look specifically at the effectiveness of incarceration, deterrence and community restraint in reducing recidivism in cases of violence perpetrated against women and their children.

‘Locking up the perpetrator at least gives the family a break from the violence and a chance for them all to get a good night’s sleep for a change. But something needs to be done to change his behaviour or it just becomes a repeating pattern – and that’s really a pretty hopeless outlook.’
Police officer in regional Australia, 2008

Australian and international research shows that rehabilitative programs can be effective in reducing recidivism. In Australia, the majority of responses to perpetrators of sexual assault and domestic and family violence attempt to place them into some form of rehabilitation program. The Council’s Plan of Action explores strategies to improve the effectiveness of rehabilitation programs to change men’s violent behaviour.

Outcome 6: Systems work together effectively

A central objective of the Plan of Action is to establish and foster a coherent response to the problem of violence against women and their children.
Responding to violence against women requires high-level input from practitioners across a range of disciplines to ensure a holistic and adequate response, including from the police; state, territory and federal courts, and other elements of the justice system; health, community and government services working with women and their children; and those working with the perpetrators of violence. While services and programs are in place across all Australian jurisdictions to respond to violence against women and their children, commonly the responses are fragmented, with varying degrees of coordination across service sectors and between different levels of government. This is frequently the result of services having being designed to respond to single problems and the establishment of organisations which were targeted at particular client groups. This results in gaps in service provision, on the one hand, and duplication of services on the other.
This absence of systems that can mesh effectively has a real and profound impact on women who experience violence.

For more about the report, click here.

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