Earlier this year I wrote on the insidiousness of domestic violence and its impact on student learning. I was inspired by The Age newspaper journalist, Annabel Crabb, who had herself written a moving piece on how in her early days as a print journalist been caught up in the damaging absence of coverage given to this tragic behaviour that was becoming all too prevalent in our society. I concluded my piece with the following:
‘Schools can do a lot, but not enough. Let’s not look for quick non-fix solutions like more training for teachers. A whole of society approach is what is required to tackle domestic violence. Making mums safe in their homes is a great first step in developing the whole child.’
A reader challenged me to articulate a vision of what a “whole of society approach” to dealing with domestic violence might look like, adding that worthy though my sentiments were, they had heard it all before and matters weren’t improving. I knew that my reader was spot on with her observation and the feeling it left with me was most uncomfortable to say the least.
Domestic violence is one of our most serious societal issues, one which leaves us all scarred and simultaneously incredibly difficult to reduce if statistical evidence means anything at all.
For example, in our state alone, Victoria, police were called out to 65,393 domestic violence incidents in 2013-14, twice as many as in 2009-10. It is true that that victims are reporting more frequently, but women’s services say the actual rate of domestic violence is also increasing, as is the severity of physical attacks.
Disturbingly, police estimate that they are only called out to between 40-50% of cases.
So what could a “whole of society” approach look like?
To begin agreement on the root causes would be a helpful starting point. To this end, the example of Dame Quentin Bryce, former governor-general is noteworthy. Dame Quentin’s starting point is the identification that here in Australia we have a cultural and attitudinal problem based in rigid gender roles and stereotypes.
Central to this viewpoint, as Bryce observes is, “The truth that domestic and family violence is caused by unequal distribution of power and resources between men and women.” It is unsurprising then that some men would view women as their possessions rather than as equal partners, and the slippery slope is beckoning!
Education is one weapon in the fight to redress such attitudes and gender inequality. Men who say enough is also helpful. The example of White Ribbon – an organisation established by men to fight domestic violence against women – takes the battle to men by their gender colleagues, a potentially powerful approach.
On an individual basis, the extended and ultimately successful campaign by Phil Cleary, a former champion footballer, politician and media personality, to have the arcane law of provocation removed from the statute books in Victoria, demonstrates that we can change things.
Research dollars are badly needed to evaluate the growing number of campaigns to reduce domestic violence.
Whilst the figures remain gloomy, despite numerous anti-domestic violence strategies exist both here in Australia and internationally, governments need complement their rhetoric with substantial increases in the funds available to design and conduct evaluative programs that will identify approaches that give substance to the ambition to reduce domestic violence.
This will not be easy, quick or cheap – rigorous, longitudinal studies take time and plenty of resources, but we are serious we will demand it of our governments.
This is not to say that our federal government has been sleeping at the wheel – we do have a National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022, but we can and must do more.
One of the main reasons women, who are the victims of domestic violence, do not leave abusive partners is fear and this is coupled with lack of support. We need to provide that support in meaningful levels to demonstrate that gender inequality must be smashed for once and for all.
Quentin Bryce is of the view that Australian society has lost “a lot of neighbourliness and community engagement”.
To what extent this observation is accurate is questionable, nonetheless, we could do worse than focus our energies on strengthening the bonds and understanding between us.
We are, after all, a nation of diverse ethnicity and the scourge that domestic violence is scars us all.
Schools can also play their part - educating our children on the importance of gender equality, community cohesiveness and shared responsibility for dealing with social ills such as domestic violence must be sustained.
Henry Grossek is the principal of Berwick Lodge Primary School in Melbourne.