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With the Greens securing their Senate inquiry into the gendered marketing of toys, it’s time for a cultural change to prevent gendered violence before it happens. Vernon Area Public Library/flickr, CC BY-NC

‘Toy wars’ a year on: we’re finally recognising the role of culture and attitudes in domestic violence

What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, Greens senator Larissa Waters was publicly ridiculed for suggesting a possible link between the gendered marketing of toys and gendered violence.

Now, a year on, the Greens have secured a Senate inquiry into gender and toys. This will examine the potential for children’s toys to promote gendered violence. The inquiry will also consider the role of entertainment, media and education in sending gendered messages.

Federal MPs claimed in 2014 that Waters lacked “common sense”, or was “drinking too much Christmas eggnog”. Her most prominent critic was then-prime minister Tony Abbott. He dismissed Waters’ support for “No Gender December” as a form of political correctness he did not “believe in”. For Abbott, it was best to adopt an attitude of letting “boys be boys” and “girls be girls”.

Political action is the first step

The Senate inquiry is part of an effort to prevent male violence against women at an early stage. Significantly, the Senate passed the motion without opposition from the two major parties. The lack of political opposition to the inquiry suggests a shift in the approach used to publicly address gender-based violence.

In the same week, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull released the findings of federally funded research into violence against women.

Turnbull described domestic violence as a “cultural issue”, highlighting the role of gender inequality in contributing to gendered abuse. He argues that “all violence against women begins with disrespecting women”. Such an issue thus requires cultural changes.

Turnbull’s remarks, and the creation of a Senate inquiry, hardly amount to a comprehensive account of the entrenched attitudes enabling violence against women to occur. But they do appear to signal a growing recognition among Australian politicians of the cultural basis of domestic violence.

Academic research has long illustrated the link between an adherence to traditional roles and a greater acceptance of gendered violence. Studies consistently show that attitudes supportive of gender inequality and rigid gender roles strongly indicate a tolerance of violence against women, particularly among men.

Drawing on such research, international organisations, including the World Health Organisation, consider that the problem of gender inequality lies at the heart of gendered violence. States are urged to challenge societal norms that define “appropriate” gendered behaviours.

Violence prevention thus needs to be framed through the promotion of gender equality. Australia’s political leaders are finally getting on board with an approach that understands gendered violence as a product of gender inequality – and the cultural norms and products that promote it. This flags a much-needed change that couldn’t come soon enough.

Changing attitudes for prevention

However, if the results of the federally commissioned study are anything to go by, it remains an uphill battle. The study found that attitudes blaming female victims for acts of male violence against them remain “firmly entrenched”.

The report identifies the tendency to excuse male violence as “a rite of passage”. It is a view so established in the wider community as to constitute a “social norm”.

Observing the “engrained nature” of attitudes perpetuating violence against women, the report highlights the need for primary prevention – especially among younger members of society. This is necessary if the problem of gendered violence is to be meaningfully addressed.

The study’s major findings ring true regarding recent sociological work on children’s attitudes to gender and gender-based violence. Research conducted in primary schools across Glasgow found that gender stereotypes were crucial to explaining children’s acceptance – or tolerance – of gendered violence. Researcher Nancy Lombard explains that children:

… justified male violence using expectations of inequality in gender roles.

Thus, by promoting stereotypical gender roles, we may be fostering attitudes that are accepting of – or at best indifferent to – gender-based abuse. Lombard concludes:

When gender divisions and stereotypes are perpetuated, young people are less likely to challenge men’s violence against women.

Australia’s political discourse on male violence against women has come a long way in a year. Discussion is shifting from ridicule and derision towards connections between gender stereotyping in toys and domestic violence.

However, far greater strides will be required in the year ahead if the “endemic levels” of male violence against women in Australia really are to become a thing of the past.

The National Sexual Assault, Family & 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.

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