Next steps to prevent violence against all women

Rain and Steps (Nick Page/flickr)

Rain and Steps (Nick Page/flickr)

It is such a positive thing that violence against women is now more acknowledged, recognised and understood than it has been in the past. At all levels of our community we hear statements confirming that violence against women is wrong and that we should all be working together to address it. This year alone, we have heard positive and strong statements from women and men in powerful positions in government, law enforcement, the military, sport and entertainment.

Certainly, many women who are living with violence at the hands of their partners or family members will take comfort in these strong statements and may feel more encouraged to act. Perpetrators may feel less emboldened. Bystanders may feel more encouraged to intervene. And on a violence prevention level, workplaces and other organisations may be less inclined to tolerate sexist images or comments.

This is a fine achievement (back pat). So what are our next steps? What still needs to be done to further boost awareness about violence against women, and indeed to continue to work toward the ultimate aim of eliminating gender-based violence altogether?

It’s time now to ask some more complex questions that will take our work to the next level: including questions that address the ways that gender-based violence impacts on women who are marginalised by the structures of race, ethnicity, disability, migration status, as well as gender.

Our efforts to date have been based solely on an analysis of gender. This makes sense but also leaves them lacking. What is missing is a recognition of how gender intersects with other factors to create an experience of violence that is different to the ones we have ready to hand – the scenarios that we bring to mind and the situations that we have learned (or are learning) to understand.

Which isn’t to say that we should lose our feminist focus on gender equity as the key to violence prevention. Marginalised women need equity just like everyone else. But gender equity will only get us so far in the fight to end violence against women. Add to the wish list all forms of equality, including equality on the basis of race, disability, class, ethnicity, and sexual identity, and then we see more clearly our next steps.

Diverse experiences of violence require diverse violence prevention approaches. Without a tailored approach to violence against women that takes structural disadvantage into account, we often end up with inappropriate programs that lack meaning and have minimal impact. So while some might say that ‘a punch is a punch’, we also know that gender-based violence is never just a punch. It is a punch in context.

Along with strong statements, we need policies and programs that actively include and support the broad diversity of women’s experience. This inclusiveness goes further than asserting that all women’s experiences are different. We also need tailored programs that take account of those specific experiences. A dual approach that combines mainstream inclusion with specific programs will takes us further towards equity, and significantly add to the impact we will have, not only for some women, but for all.

Engaging men in violence prevention: gender equity in practice

As many of us know, the way to eliminate violence against women is to achieve gender equality. We also know that in order to end violence against women, all of us—women and men—need to work together. What is often less clear is precisely why engaging and involving men in prevention activities is so important to achieving this outcome.

There has been a definite and positive shift in thinking about men’s involvement—the focus is now less on men as perpetrator and more as partners in primary prevention. However, there continues to be confusion and uncertainty about what this looks like in practice. But is this any surprise? If we all agree that gender-based violence affects women disproportionately, and is a result of the unequal power relationships between women and men, simply involving men in a cause so entwined with their privileged gender role, without challenging this role, is going to have its difficulties. Don’t forget the goal is gender equality. But for that to happen, it’s not possible to split the prevention pie in two equal shares. We need to involve men in violence prevention in ways that address the inequality in gender relations and lift away the invisible cloak of gender privilege.

Perhaps it is these concepts of equality (or formal equality in ‘human rights speak’) and equity (or substantive equality) are the real cause of confusion. As we strive towards achieving equal treatment of women and men and equal access to resources and services for all, we also need to recognise that achieving equality involves fairness and justice in the distribution of resources between men and women (equity). More women-specific and culturally-specific programs and policies are required, precisely because there are inequalities that need fixing. Our efforts to prevent violence follows this feminist line of thinking: men need to work with women as partners to advance the work already being carried out by women. In order to do this, they will need to actively contribute to changing and challenging gender expectations themselves.

So, as a first step, let’s always ask ourselves: will men’s involvement here help to transform the structures and processes supporting the violence we are challenging? If the answer is ‘no’ or, even worse, if their involvement will reinforce men’s privilege and interests, then we need to go back to the drawing board. But if the answer is ‘yes’ we can proceed to asking how we can make that happen. Perhaps that’s another issue for another WRAP.