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Australians still trivialise and excuse violence against women

One in five Australians believe violence can be excused if the offender later regrets it. craigsmith0423/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

The latest National Community Attitudes Survey on Violence against Women (NCAS), released today, shows that most measures of community understanding and attitudes on violence against women have not improved in Australia in almost 20 years. In some areas, they’ve worsened.

The survey involved 17,500 phone interviews with a cross section of Australians aged 16 years and older. It’s the third such survey, so we can compare the responses with those in 1995 and 2009.

Sadly, violence against women in Australia, over their lifetime, is not declining. Two out of every five women experience some form of physical or sexual abuse. And nearly half have experienced sexual harassment since the age of 15.

Few Australians openly support violence against women but many others subtly endorse it by trivialising and excusing acts of abuse.

Subtle endorsements

There is tendency for Australians to minimise the impact of living in an abusive relationship. Despite efforts from organisations such as White Ribbon, VicHealth and Amnesty International to dispel the myths, three-quarters of Australians find it hard to understand why women stay in abusive relationships. And half of all Australians believe that women could leave if they really wanted to leave.

One in five Australians believe violence can be excused if the offender later regrets it. Fans of Australian hip hop artist MC Eso, for instance, seemed to accept his apology for posting images simulating abuse of women on his Instagram account.

MC Eso’s apology.

The supportive comments on MC Eso’s Instagram feed also illustrate just how common it is to excuse abuse as “a joke” which further minimises the impact of violence on women.

Despite community education and law reform in Australia to promote a model of consent based on mutual negotiation and respect, one out of every ten Australians agree that “if a woman does not physically resist – even if protesting verbally – then it isn’t really rape”.

Twice as many people will excuse sexual assault if the woman is affected by alcohol or drugs at the time, a view shared by American singer Cee Lo Green, who recently tweeted: “People who have really been raped REMEMBER!!!”.

A culture of denial exists in Australia, with more than one in three people believing women make up false claims of rape. We’ve also seen a significant increase in Australians who further excuse and explain rape by believing it results from men not being able to control their need for sex.

Finally, the report shows a concerning rise in the number of Australians who believe that both men and women are equally responsible for partner violence. In reality, most adults who have experienced violence since the age of 15 experienced violence from a male (78% of those reporting partner violence and 95% of those reporting all forms of violence).

It’s not all bad news

Australian governments have invested heavily in campaigns and plans to reduce men’s violence against women over the past ten years and there have been some rewards.

More Australians recognise that violence and abuse includes coercive and controlling behaviour, in addition to physical and sexual abuse. (Although we still have a way to go in recognising emotional and financial abuse. Just 70% recognise that denying a partner money in order to control them constitutes abuse.)

Amnesty International has campaigned to raise awareness about violence against women.

There is also greater recognition that women should be supported when escaping domestic abuse and should not have to sort things out for themselves.

A majority agree that men who are violent toward their families should be made to leave the family home (if they still live together) instead of the woman and her children being forced to leave.

Increasing numbers of Australians also understand the barriers women with disabilities face in reporting violence.

While young people under the age of 25 are one of the groups least understanding of violence against women, attitudes of young men have significantly improved since the last survey in 2009. This shows that targeted work can have an impact in changing attitudes.

Why community attitudes matter

Community attitudes on violence against women are an important barometer on gender relations. They illustrate the way people respond when they witness violence, whether victims feel confident to seek help, and whether perpetrators are likely to be excused or held to account for their actions. Changing attitudes is crucial to preventing crises in the longer term.

Community attitudes shape the way we respond to domestic violence.

The fact that the survey finds negative change in some areas, clear misconceptions around the facts of violence, and only modest progress in other areas, shows it’s important to maintain our efforts to prevent and reduce men’s violence against women, including strengthening community attitudes.

There would also be benefits in targeting future activity to environments that shape knowledge and attitudes, including popular culture, social media and news media. The newly formed Australian Foundation to Prevent Violence Against Women has already started, launching the Our Watch campaign to drive changes in culture, behaviours and attitudes that underpin and create violence against women and children.

Ending violence against women

The Australian National Plan to reduce violence against women and children sets out a 12 year agenda to do just that. This includes funding information and support services and investing in research through Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS).

But there is no single answer to ending violence against women and children. Multiple approaches need to be layered together.

Along with changing community attitudes, we need to support women and children to recognise abuse and seek help. This involves training workers across multiple disciplines to recognise signs of abusive and controlling behaviour, to know how to ask questions about abuse, and to know what to do with that information.

Women leaving abusive relationships also need more accommodation options. Ideally, the abusive man should be removed from the home so women and children can live safely in their home if they want to, but we also need more options if they need to relocate.

To prevent violence, we need to hold perpetrators of violence to account.

This article was co-authored by Kim Webster, a freelance writer and project manager.

The National Sexual Assault, Family and Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.

Read the other articles in The Conversation’s Domestic Violence in Australia series here.

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