The very public death of 33-year-old Fiona Warzywoda, who was stabbed in a central shopping precinct in Melbourne’s western suburbs on April 16, shocked the community. Since then, we have seen a spate of articles calling for tougher punitive measures, more forceful policing and stricter enforcement of existing laws surrounding domestic violence.
But what has been absent from the coverage is the fact that we actually know what is needed to eradicate violence against women: the elimination of sexism and gender inequality across society.
For the past few months, I have been investigating violence against women and reporting on initiatives to combat its devastating impact on Australian lives. The project, in co-operation with Melbourne University’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, draws on the domestic violence sector for direction in determining how the issue can best be covered and which aspects warrant greater media attention.
What has astonished me is that a problem that seems at first to be so amorphous and difficult to fix is actually well understood by those working towards its elimination.
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Violence against women has been proved to be caused by three factors: gender inequity, supportive attitudes towards violence and a rigid adherence to gender roles. Put simply, the more sexism and gender inequality that exists in society, the higher the levels of violence against women.
A report from Unifem, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, plots gender equity and violence from a variety of international sources. Countries with the greatest equality between the sexes — Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden, for example — are among those with the lowest rates of violence against women. Conversely, where the gender gap is widest, such as in Yemen, Pakistan, Chad and Syria, rates of violence against women are highest. Australia ranks mid-stream in much of the data …
What’s important to note about this research is that the sexism that causes higher levels of such violence is not some obscure, alien form of sexism specific only to psychopaths and killers. It is the very same sexism we see every day in the street, in our homes, our workplaces, in pop culture and politics.
It is hard to understand how a tasteless joke at the pub is linked to the death, on average, of one Australian woman every week at the hand of her intimate partner or ex-partner. But Emily Maguire, a leading expert in violence prevention, explains that the link between gender equity and violence works on a cultural level rather than an individual level.
“We’re not saying that if you hold these attitudes you’re going to perpetrate violence,” said Maguire. “What we’re saying is that in a patriarchal society, where people think women and men should and shouldn’t do certain things, and where there’s a culture where violence is tolerated, individuals who live in that world are more likely to perpetrate violence [than they would if things were more equal].”
What this means is that all of us, every day, could be contributing to a culture where violence against women is more likely to be perpetrated. What this also means is that we all have the capacity to contribute — through our interactions, relationships and political choices — to building a world where violence against women is greatly reduced.
There are many ways to increase gender equality in society: strengthening reproductive rights, increasing the number of women in Parliament, giving single mothers access to entitlements and ending wage disparity are just a few of the strategies feminists have put forward in the last year.
In recent years, we’ve seen many high-profile people, including Victorian Premier Denis Napthine, urging us to “say no to violence”. What we have not seen is these same people taking a public stand against the sexism and gender inequality at the root of that violence and in favour of the feminist tactics that work to demolish it.
And, frankly, trying to stop violence against women without feminism is like trying to fight cancer without oncology — it’s not going to work.
One way the family violence sector works toward eliminating sexism is through “respectful relationships” education programs in schools. Around for more than a decade, these programs teach young people to analyse the world around them through the lens of gender and help them build skills to engage in respectful, gender-equitable relationships.
Such programs have been proven to reduce gender inequitable attitudes and have since been implemented in many Victorian schools. But experts say that in order to fulfil their potential, they would need to be rolled out in every education year level, from early childhood to tertiary, at every school across the state. For this to happen, a firm commitment from government is needed.
Ending sexism and gender inequality may seem like a starry-eyed dream, but there are concrete, evidence-based initiatives that have been proven to make this possible. And a society that rids itself of sexism and gender inequality is a society where violence against women ceases to exist.
*Bec Zajac has been working on a project co-ordinated by Melbourne University’s Centre for Advancing Journalism reporting on violence against women. She has produced a multimedia package about respectful relationships education programs. Her stories, including “Power and gender: how schools are taking a lead in the campaign to end violence against women“, can be read at The Citizen.