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Throwing a light on the dark side

Our attitudes to family violence have to change. The Victorian Government’s recent campaign to raise awareness and change attitudes towards family violence presents a huge challenge.


In response to the Royal Commission into Family Violence (and its 227 recommendations), the Victorian Government commissioned The Shannon Company, in partnership with BehaviourWorks Australia, to develop a public education campaign aimed at moving family violence to the forefront of things we have to deal with as a community.


But with something like this, where do you start? Unpack and understand, then trial and trial again


Let’s unpack the words ‘family’ and ‘violence’. A domestic dispute may conjure images of a couple arguing at home (often dismissed in the past as “just a domestic”), which can downplay the seriousness of the violence taking place.


Family, on the other hand, acknowledges it’s not just intimate partner violence that’s the serious issue and may include the many permutations a family can be; couples, siblings, inter-generational relationships or blended families.


And while violence can be physical, the way we think about it needs to expand; violence can also be emotional, financial and psychological abuse, including controlling and coercive behaviours (such as the growing phenomena of technology-facilitated abuse via smart devices and social media).


Eighty per cent of reported violence is perpetrated by men. While this is the starting point for the campaign – male perpetrators abusing their female partners – we need to realise it’s just the start of a longer shift in attitudes; by reinforcing respect and equality, the campaign aims to build an environment in which both women and men feel comfortable to seek help.


Towards respect and equality 


For many police, the majority of their shift is responding to family violence call outs. They’re at the business end of a national problem – in Queensland, for instance, police handle some 25,000 family violence matters per year.


There are a number of steps involved in any social program of behaviour change. In this case, the goal of raising the profile of family violence means raising awareness so that it’s front of mind (and in need of action), increase knowledge so that people realise it’s not just physical abuse, and then begin the process of changing attitudes towards it. 


The phrase ‘For our children’s future’ was tested and resonated strongly with focus groups. It’s a powerful means to get men to reflect on the damage that violence can do, as well as suggesting generational change; our children don’t have to grow up witnessing acts of control and violence which they believe is acceptable. “I’m not condoning it, I’m just saying…”


So, what are the attitudes needing to shift? 


According to the 2013 National Community Attitudes Towards Violence Against Women Survey (NCAS), those holding violence-supportive attitudes don’t necessarily use or condone it themselves, but they can normalise it through a culture of passive acceptance or private agreement. 


Some justify violence against women if it’s within an intimate relationship (e.g. “she knows what he’s like”), some excuse it by blaming external factors such as stress or simply “boys will be boys”, some trivialise the impact of violence (eg. “They can’t call the cops for that, can they?”), or minimise it (e.g. “Give it a couple of weeks, everyone will have forgotten about it.”), and some people shift the blame to make victims wholly or partially responsible for perpetrators actions.


If enough of us hold, share, or don’t speak up and challenge these views – that in certain circumstances, we can excuse family violence – it will continue to be normalised. The campaign is attempting to shift the way we think about family violence from any form of acceptance (implicit or explicit) to “This is not acceptable, full stop.” 


Because so much of the community is affected by this messaging, it’s intended that the topic never really disappears for the duration of the campaign.


With literally hundreds of recommendations to address, it’s a long term, collaborative framework in which the various players and target audiences will work together to change the wider community’s attitudes.

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The Big Picture


These attitudes aren’t located to one problem area, social class or particular ethnicity. By highlighting something any community finds unacceptable – the devastating effect violence can have on female victims and the children witnessing it – the campaign targets all Victorians across rural, remote and urban areas.


It’s also expected that initially, reports of violence will increase as people feel more comfortable in reporting something they may have been denying or making excuses for. This is part of the process – raising the issue makes it front of mind so we will see and hear more about it in order to address it.


Longer term, further goals include changing perpetrator, victim and bystander behaviour and providing information such as:


– seek help if you are concerned about your own behaviour.

– report someone if they abuse others.

– speak up when you know it’s going on.


This is what social norming means; behaviours that are no longer exceptional, they’re expected.


Other initiatives include the respect agenda in schools, increased awareness of safe houses, education programs for first responders, night courts and special family courts. As the NCAS reports notes, “there is a long road ahead”.


For BWA and The Shannon Company, results aren’t expected until late 2017. Let’s hope – for our children’s future – this dark subject has some light at the end of the tunnel.


Images with thanks to The Shannon Company.