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Violence against women: prevalent, serious and preventable

Kate Hauser from Women’s Health West, the women’s health service for the western metropolitan region of Melbourne, explores the implications of VicHealth’s recently released National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey.

On Wednesday 17 September, VicHealth released the third National Community Attitudes towards Violence Against Women Survey (NCAS). The key determinants of violence against women are the unequal distribution of power and resources between men and women and adherence to rigid gender roles and gender stereotypes (VicHealth, 2014). The survey results serve as a powerful reminder that actions to transform attitudes towards gender roles and relationships are critical in fulfilling our commitment to prevent violence against women before it occurs.

Violence against women continues to occur at unacceptably high rates in Australia:

  • 1 in 3 Australian women (34 per cent) have experienced physical violence
  • 1 in 5 Australian women (19 per cent) have experienced sexual violence
  • 1 in 4 Australian women (25 per cent) have experienced emotional abuse from a partner
  • 1 in 5 Australian women (19 per cent) have experienced stalking (ABS, 2012)
  • 1 woman is killed every week by a partner or ex partner (AIC, 2013)

Experiences of violence have a profound effect on the health, wellbeing and safety of women. This includes patterns of social, financial, verbal and psychological abuse that are not captured in national prevalence data. Violence is the primary cause of women’s homelessness, and is the leading contributor to death, disability and disease for women aged 15-44 years old – (VicHealth, 2004).

While 95 per cent of Australians recognise violence against women as serious (no change since 2009), many continue to hold attitudes that minimise, trivialise, excuse and justify violence. Since 2009, there has been an increase in number of people who believe rape results from men’s inability to control their need for sex from 35 per cent to 43 per cent. There was only a slight decline in the belief that domestic violence can be excused if the perpetrator later admits regret, from 25 per cent to 21 per cent. Anger and loss of control as an excuse for violence saw no significant change, with 22 per cent still holding this belief.

There has also been little change since 2009 in attitudes which shift blame away from the perpetrators of violence, with 19 per cent of respondents stating that if a woman is raped while drunk or affected by drugs she is at least partially responsible; 16 per cent agreeing that women often say no when they mean yes; 12 per cent stating that a woman is at fault if she is raped after going alone into a room at a party with a man; and 11 percent believe that domestic violence can be excused if the victim is heavily affected by alcohol.

These attitudes foster a culture in which men who choose to use violence as means of asserting control over women feel freer to do so. It also means that individuals, organisations and communities are less likely to respond readily and appropriately to the survivors of violence when they seek support i.e. blaming women for the violence and ultimately that women are more likely to remain silent.

Importantly, 79 per cent of the variation in these types of attitudes can be explained by differences in respondent’s understanding of the nature, prevalence and causes of violence against women and in their level of support for gender equality. This underscores the prevalence of myths across all demographics, the need to improve understanding on the root causes of violence and the importance of challenging gender inequity at all levels of society.

Encouraging results are already beginning to show in relation to shifting violence supportive attitudes among young people. While acceptance of violence among young people remains an area of concern, the 2013 survey showed a 7 per cent reduction in attitudes that demonstrate extremely high support for violence, with a notable 10 per cent reduction for young men. VicHealth advocates for a sustained commitment to including youth targeted respectful relationships education with a strong focus on gender equity, and states that this is an important strategy in long term efforts to prevent violence against women.

Monitoring change in national attitudes towards violence and gender equality is a critical element of long term efforts to prevent violence against women. These efforts rely on sustained and informed action at an individual, community and society level. This means holding perpetrators to account for their actions, engaging in critical conversations to challenge harmful gender stereotypes and power differences between men and women, and action to redress gender inequity across all areas of society.

Kate Hauser, Women’s Health West.