A national survey of community attitudes around violence towards women was launched this morning in Melbourne. Among its many findings are that in 2009, one in 20 people believe women who are raped “ask for it”.

This is quite a change from 1995, when one in seven people held this view.

The survey, involving about 13,000 people, was funded by the Federal Government, and led by VicHealth, with the Social Research Centre and the Australian Institute of Criminology as research partners.

The piece below is based on a speech at the launch by Todd Harper, CEO of VicHealth and White Ribbon Ambassador. He writes that it’s time for men to challenge violence against women:

“Why should men get involved in what many have called a “women’s issue?”

It’s simple; domestic abuse and sexual assault against women are community issues impacting our wives and partners, mothers, daughters, friends – everyone.

One in three women over their life times will be physically assaulted. One in five will be sexually assaulted. The cost of domestic violence to the Australian economy was $13.6 billion in 2009.

The statistics are simply devastating, and demonstrate the very real need for changes in behaviour among Australians. We also have to change those aspects of our environments that tolerate an approach to women that promotes inequity, indifference or profound disrespect.

Understanding these community attitudes can help us learn from and understand what people think about violence against women, so that we are better placed to know how to prevent it.

Changing Cultures Changing Attitudes A National Survey on Community Attitudes To Violence against Women 2009 was launched in Melbourne today by the Hon Tanya Plibersek, MP, Federal Minister for the Status of Women. (It can be downloaded here)

The research, undertaken by VicHealth in conjunction with the Social Research Centre and the Australian Institute of Criminology, builds on a 1995 survey and establishes a benchmark against which changes in attitudes can be more closely monitored over time.

The National Survey involved approximately 13,000 men and women from across Australia. It included Indigenous Australians, people from culturally diverse communities and a sample of sixteen and seventeen year old respondents.

We know from the results that Australians are gradually changing their attitudes. Most believe that violence against women should not be a private affair, to be swept under the carpet and managed in the confines of the home.

The majority (98%) of people now recognise that domestic violence is a crime.

93% of people agree that forced sex in an intimate relationship is a crime.

Less than one in twenty believe that women who are raped ask for it, compared to one in seven people surveyed back in 1995.

So that’s the good news.

The downside is this.

Half of those surveyed believe that most women could leave violent relationships if they really wanted to, with eight out of ten finding it hard to understand why women stay in violent relationships.

13% of people still agree that women ‘often say no when they mean yes’ and roughly one in six (16%) agree that a woman ‘is partly responsible if she is raped when drunk or drug-affected.

Confusion still reigns over what constitutes sexual and domestic violence, if and when it can be excused, and who is most likely to be a victim of it.

Much of this rests with men and young people.

Based on the survey’s findings, men and boys are more likely than women and girls to hold attitudes that support violence.

They are less likely to believe that ‘controlling a partner by denying them money’ is a form of domestic violence.

They are also less likely to agree that ‘controlling the social life of a partner by preventing them from seeing friends or family’ is domestic violence.

The findings from this survey confirm the need for national leadership in coordinating a national violence against women prevention agenda.

The Federal Government has already announced an initial investment of $41 million in primary prevention activities including education strategies to change attitudes that condone and support violence against women.

A national plan to reduce violence against women is due to be finalised this year.

Last year, in Victoria, Premier Brumby released A Right To Respect – which provides us with our own State Plan for getting busy on prevention action.

I have no doubt that this kind of action by Governments is not only a good thing, but is in fact essential.

But the findings also confirm why men should step into what is seen as a ‘women’s issue’.

As a man, I know that not all men are violent.  But many of us have observed incidents that degrade or disrespect women.  We all need to speak up when this occurs, and to speak up against violence against women if we are to create an Australia where equal and respectful relationships between men and women are valued.

We can all play a role each day in communicating to other men, about our beliefs and values in relation to the women around us.

Very few men can put their ‘hand on heart’ and say they’ve never stood silent, perhaps even laughed awkwardly at jokes or comments made at women’s expense, or had a male friend make disparaging remarks or treated their partner in a way that made you feel uncomfortable.

The fact is that these moments, strung together, form part of the culture we are trying to change.

The good news is that change is indeed possible.

But it will take real action, from all of us – as well as governments – to re-set social norms and to change our cultural environments in ways that start to turn prevalence rates around.

We know that much of this depends on generational change, that will depend on programs and initiatives that can help to build our individual and collective skills in understanding how to develop, build and maintain relationships based on equality and mutual respect.

We need to work with those that can make this change in the places we occupy each day – in our workplaces, local government areas, schools, relationships, and in our homes.

I urge Australians, particularly men to read Changing Cultures Changing Attitudes, and to talk about the issues raised in the report with your sons, grandsons, nephews, fathers and footy mates.

Because it is only by understanding how we think and act, that we can truly begin to change our behaviour.

For the sake of the women in our lives.”