Family violence – a public health issue.

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Jenny Begent.

men against violence against women.
Marshall Center walks to stop domestic violence, George C Marshall European Center for Security Studies, flickr cc.

Seventy-six women are dead from violence this year.

Seventy-six women.

It’s unbelievable, and yet all too true. I am so enmeshed in the family violence sector that when the news of yet another family violence homicide is reported, I find it increasingly difficult to believe that, despite the advocacy, money, and political will invested in preventing family violence in the last two years, I wonder if we will ever see the end of this blight on humanity.

Despite the tragedy of those lives lost, there is still some good news, good news which rarely hits our media outlets. Stories of victims who have been able to escape and live a life free from abuse, who have been able to provide their children with the tools to live lives that don’t make them future perpetrators or victims, those who have gained an education and a job, those who are no longer afraid and who use their voices to speak on behalf of others.

In October this year, the Victorian Crime Report published data suggesting an increased number of family violence victims were gaining confidence to come forward, and that those particular reports had doubled in four years.

The latest crime statistics show there were 70,906 family violence reports in 2014-15, up from 40,733 in 2010-11.

Police Minister Wade Noonan told reporters, “Very clearly there is a growing confidence obviously over the last number of years in relation to reporting family violence… We want people to have the confidence to come forward and report.”.

I suspect the increase is due to several things, including escalating violent crime over the last two decades, policing techniques, and incarceration policies. I would suggest, however, that there have been large societal changes, including the growth of prevention programs which have heightened awareness, and the increasing effectiveness of services available to victims and potential perpetrators. Over the past year, the topic of domestic violence has come forcefully into the public consciousness, spurring national conversations on the need to break the silence around intimate partner violence.

love is not abuse
Kaiserslautern Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Herald Post, flickr cc.

Significantly, I would add, high-profile celebrity individuals, in particular men and sporting teams, have led the charge of saying NO to family violence. The footage of rugby league legend, Hazem El Masri (himself a White Ribbon Ambassador) being charged over an alleged domestic violence assault on his new wife, caused many celebrities,  athletes, and community leaders  alike to speak publicly on the need to eliminate violence in our communities and simply to talk about it at our schools, in our churches, at the local footy, at the café.

The problem is bigger than a single act of violence, and this is a challenging national conversation which needs to continue to take place and evolve. Family violence has devastating psychological, physical, and economic consequences for those who experience it, and for children who are exposed to it.

Research shows time and again that domestic violence is central to any discussion of long and healthy life. Its toll on the physical and mental health of survivors and their families is staggering. So much so that it is really time for domestic violence to become a national public health issue, addressed with awareness efforts on par with those around HIV/AIDS, smoking, seatbelt and car seat use, and drunk driving. Using the sophisticated market research, tailored messaging, and multimedia techniques for which the advertising industry is famous, additional high-profile marketing campaigns could sell change in at least three areas :

  • The first is to challenge the beliefs and behaviours of women and men which contribute to intimate partner violence, including cultural messages exalting a macho model of masculinity and celebrating aggressive men as our heroes in popular culture. A public campaign could teach young people that healthy, respectful relationships are cool; violent ones and violent people are not.
  • The second is to educate the public about the common dynamics and patterns of abuse widely recognised by experts but largely unknown or misunderstood by the general public.
  • And the third is to redefine norms of how we bystanders should react, and what specifically we can do when we see signs of domestic or sexual violence.

Domestic violence is a pervasive, complicated public health issue requiring an equally pervasive and multi-layered response. In addition to legislation and survivor support programs, the targeted road-tested messaging of the ad industry needs to drive national awareness and begin the process of transforming attitudes towards survivors and perpetrators of domestic violence. The potential for improving the health, wellbeing, and economic future for survivors, families, and communities impacted by intimate partner violence is too immense to ignore.

Major Jenny Begent is Divisional Social Program Secretary of the Salvation Army, Melbourne, and a Board member of Social Policy Connections.

 

 

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