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A group of people stand in front of a sign that says 'stopping violence is everyone's responsibility'
Tangentyere Women’s Family Safety Group with the new ANROWS report. Provided by author, Author provided (no reuse)

Safe, respected and free from violence: preventing violence against women in the Northern Territory

The Northern Territory has the highest rates of domestic, family, and sexual violence in Australia.

Aboriginal women in the Northern Territory are among the most victimised groups of people in the entire world.

Programs and services in the Northern Territory attempting to address these unacceptable levels of violence must do so with little support and funding.

A recent report evaluated two community projects that aim to prevent violence against women by changing attitudes towards women and girls.

It found these Indigenous-led community projects were having some success in helping to shift attitudes about gender stereotypes.

Read more: Women's police stations in Australia: would they work for 'all' women?

Community-driven prevention projects

The Tangentyere women’s group, a group of senior Aboriginal women from Alice Springs town camps that campaigns against family violence, has run two prevention projects that were recently evaluated: Girls Can Boys Can and Old Ways Are Strong. These projects aimed to increase positive strength-based representations of Aboriginal children and families.

Both of these projects were developed in partnership between the Tangentyere Family Violence Prevention Program, Larapinta Child and Family Centre, and iTalk Studio. The projects were also co-designed with Town Campers in Mparntwe/Alice Springs.

These prevention projects focused on the drivers of violence against Aboriginal women, such as:

• gendered factors, including gender inequality

• the impacts of colonisation on Aboriginal people, families and communities

• the power imbalance between non-Indigenous people and Aboriginal people, including systemic and structural inequalities.

Girls Can Boys Can developed gender-equitable messaging and resources for early childhood educators to be used in classroom and playgroup settings. This messaging aimed to help structure conversations around gender equality and challenge gender stereotypes.

Old Ways Are Strong developed animations to challenge the racist attitude that violence is a part of traditional Aboriginal cultures.

The messages and resources from these projects were distributed throughout the community through workshops, merchandise and posters, as well as across social media and local television networks.

Cartoon images used to promote the Girls Can Boys Can program.
Girls Can Boys Can. Author Provided, Author provided (no reuse)

Read more: First Nations kids make up about 20% of missing children, but get a fraction of the media coverage

How the programs were evaluated

The evaluation of these programs involved 60 surveys with local community members and 16 interviews with project staff. There were also 110 social media surveys, 18 animation audience surveys and 36 training feedback surveys.

The data from the surveys and interviews was compared to the data collected before the projects began (the baseline) to see whether they had any impact on people’s attitudes, beliefs and/or knowledge about gender, violence and Aboriginal cultures. These are three key findings:

1. Violence prevention staff lacks training and funding

The evaluation showed workforce capacity grew considerably through the projects. Most project staff were early childhood educators or working in learning centres, while some worked in specialist domestic, family, and sexual violence services.

Staff knowledge about violence against women, its drivers, and how to prevent it increased dramatically through their work on the projects.

However, the evaluation also found Northern Territory primary prevention work (which focuses on the causes of violence) receives limited funding, and there is also no funding for the workforce itself.

As a result, the staff do this prevention work on top of their usual roles. They were continuing to teach their classes or support women experiencing violence, while also planning and delivering primary prevention workshops.

As an analogy, this is akin to a doctor in the emergency department dealing with car crash casualties while also producing resources that explain the importance of wearing a seat belt.

The project staff essentially learned about violence prevention on the job. They received little or no prior training and received no support outside of the partner organisations. They also reported high levels of burnout and vicarious trauma, and felt unsupported in their primary prevention work.

One key participant reflected:

That’s generally how the roles transpire is that you do end up in a crisis response mode, rather than being given the tools to (actually do) that work.

2. Explicit direct messaging could shift people’s attitudes

A small number of the survey participants, who were mostly from Alice Springs Town Camps, were surveyed at the beginning and end of the evaluation. Although the sample size was small, there was a shift in their attitudes towards gender roles.

In the baseline survey, the respondents said things such as “girls can’t play footy” or “boys can’t cry”. In the survey at the end, 90% of the respondents demonstrated at least one positive shift toward the idea that girls/women and boys/men can do the same things.

The most positive changes were found among respondents who had a high level of participation in the projects. This perhaps shows repeated and intensive messaging is needed for messages to resonate among people.

A person stands with their fist in the air, with the text 'stopping violence is everyone's responsibility'
Author provided, Author provided (no reuse)

Read more: Not all men's violence prevention programs are effective: why women's voices need to be included

3. How ‘jealousing’ is used to justify violence

The surveys also showed a high proportion of respondents justified violence against women in certain situations (44% in the baseline group, and 52% in the post-project group). It’s important to note these groups were made up of mostly different people.

The justification of violence was linked to jealousy or “jealousing”. Respondents were more likely to justify violence in cases or situations associated with real or imagined sexual misconduct, for example, if a woman comes home late or looks at another man. Said one participant:

It’s not alright (to use violence), but a lot of (jealous violence) does happen. A woman shouldn’t be texting another man if they have feelings for her.

The surveys showed how this concept of “jealousing” plays out in gendered ways. For men in particular, perceived sexual entitlement might play a role in justifying violence and coercive and controlling behaviour.

Although the projects were not targeted at the problem of “jealousing”, this finding could provide direction for future work.

How can we improve violence prevention programs?

The evaluation showed the importance of explicit and direct messaging – or “talking straight” as it’s called in Central Australia. Messaging about gender-based violence that was implied but not explicitly stated had less of an impact.

In future projects, explicit and accessible messaging should be used to challenge highly entrenched attitudes and beliefs, such as the misconception that traditional Aboriginal cultures condone violence against women.

The link between “jealousing” and justification of violence highlighted the need for education about healthy relationships in schools and communities. Explicit messaging must challenge the notion that possessiveness is “normal”, acceptable or even “desirable” in a partner.

This is one of the most important and urgent issues for the domestic, family, and sexual violence sector to tackle in the Northern Territory.

Funding for dedicated primary prevention workers is also important. These workers need a commitment from different levels of government to adequately fund, resource, and support their work.

Carmel Simpson, co-coordinator of Women’s Family Safety Group, Tangentyere Council, co-authored this article.

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