On average, at least one woman is killed every week at the hands of a current or former partner in Australia. Last month, the numbers were even more alarming. Nine women were killed in October - seven allegedly in the context of a current or former intimate relationship, the other two also suspected to have died at the hands of male perpetrators.
While these deaths are a disturbing reflection of the pervasive nature of violence against women in Australia, they have largely gone unnoticed. Aside from a small number of female journalists who called on Australia’s leaders to address the crisis, the media more broadly, as well as governments and the wider public, have mostly remained silent.
These recent incidents raise questions around the effectiveness of awareness and educational campaigns developed under Australia’s National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children, released in 2011 to improve the country’s response to domestic violence.
How well are current awareness campaigns faring?
Research suggests that campaigns aimed at raising awareness about domestic violence, such as the federal government’s “Let’s Stop it at the Start” campaign, can increase public understanding of gendered violence and the types of support available for those affected.
Evidence of this can be seen in the substantial increase in calls to police and applications for domestic violence protection orders following the roll-out of awareness campaigns in recent years.
However, efforts to change public attitudes towards domestic violence, especially attitudes ascribing blame to victims, have been less successful. The National Community Attitudes Survey shows persistent victim-blaming attitudes in society when it comes to this issue.
What do current campaigns get wrong?
Part of the reason why current campaigns have been ineffective at changing public attitudes may lie in how they frame the issue of domestic violence.
Campaigns need to go beyond communicating what constitutes domestic violence in intimate relationships and where to get help. They need to explain how and why this type of violence can affect anyone. And they need to illustrate how perpetrators control their victims and manipulate those around them.
By failing to do so, we allow domestic violence to remain an issue solely of concern to victims, making it less worthy of public concern.
A narrow focus on victim experiences and awareness creates a false and dangerous sense of security among the general public. It also perpetuates the assumption that domestic violence only impacts those who make “poor relationship choices”. And it implies that a woman’s choice in partner or her behaviour in a relationship plays a role in the domestic violence she experiences.
Research clearly shows the behaviour of victims has little bearing on the likelihood of domestic violence in intimate relationships. Domestic violence can happen to anyone, regardless of age, race or socioeconomic status.
Highlighting how perpetrators manipulate their victims can be effective in bringing this to light. Perpetrators tend to be charming, manipulative and extremely skilled at image management. They are rarely openly abusive from the start. By the time their abusive behaviours become obvious, they have frequently isolated their victims and manipulated others into perceiving them as a good partner.
What can we do better?
Awareness campaigns should reinforce why domestic violence is everyone’s business, not just a problem for those directly affected.
Men play a crucial role. While men living in Australia are far less likely to be killed by an intimate partner, especially if they have never been abusive to that partner, women have a one in four chance of experiencing emotional, physical and/or sexual violence in at least one of their intimate relationships.
Instead of responding to awareness campaigns with questions about why male victims are overlooked by society, men need to become a voice in this fight.
For those unsure how or why, activists like Jackson Katz offer compelling reasons and strategies. As role models, men’s voices are crucial in calling out violence against women.
Some campaigns are starting to hold the general public accountable for violence prevention. Queensland’s #dosomething campaign, for example, emphasises that domestic violence is a societal issue that impacts everyone.
Victoria’s “Respect Women: Call it Out” campaign specifically highlights the role of men in preventing domestic violence and offers user-friendly examples of how it can be done. More importantly, it removes some of the concerns that bystanders have when trying to help or speak out against this type of violence.
In order to make domestic violence everyone’s business rather than an issue solely for women, awareness campaigns need to follow these examples. More importantly, they need to address how perpetrators manipulate victims, their families and their communities, and how we all play a role in speaking out against such violence.
If we aren’t able to do this, women’s deaths will continue to be met with silence and Australia will continue to tolerate the alarming prevalence of domestic violence.