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Gender-based Approach Misses the Mark in Tackling Family Violence

By Roger Smith - posted Thursday, 25 November 2010

November 25 marks another White Ribbon Day and the all-pervasive message condemning violence against women. White Ribbon Day (WRD), like all campaigns that raise awareness of and reduce the incidence of violence, deserves our support and there is no doubt that this campaign has made some otherwise violent men think twice before engaging in destructive behaviour.

However, one of the primary principles of any social movement or NGO activism, particularly applied and used as a point of reference by aid organisations is the Do No Harm rule; that is, at the very minimum, interventions by civil society groups must do no harm in their attempts to do good. While not wanting to denigrate WRD and the good results that it undoubtedly produces in many instances, like any NGO or social movement, it can do better. There are at least a few areas where gender-based anti-violence groups may sometimes be off pitch in their zeal to reduce a particular form of violence.

Firstly, the gender-centric message gives the impression - perhaps unintentionally - that domestic violence and partner abuse is only committed by men. The best evidence suggests that this is far from the truth. When the Australian Bureau of Statistics in its Personal Safety Survey, Australia, 2006 (ABS Catalogue No. 4906.0) surveyed the extent to which respondents had experienced physical assault in the home within the previous 12 months, it found that 60,900 men (compared to 125,100 women) had experienced such domestic violence by a perpetrator of the opposite sex.


In addition, nearly all rigorous peer-reviewed academic population-based studies published in academic journals around the world have found that at least one-third, and often one half or more, of the victims of domestic violence are men. An example in our part of the world is:"Partner Violence and Mental Health Outcomes in a New Zealand Birth Cohort" by Fergusson, Horwood & Ridder published in the Journal of Family and Marriage (vol. 67. no. 5, Dec 2005, pp. 1103-1119).

Its key findings were that men and women have similar incidence of victimisation and perpetration of domestic violence and that the mental health effects of domestic violence are equally as severe for men as for women.

Similarly, the Australian Institute of Family Studies' Evaluation of the 2006 Family Law Reforms, released earlier this year, found that 53 per cent of fathers and 65 per cent of mothers had suffered family violence (physical hurt or emotional abuse) before or during separation (pp.25-26).

If we are serious about tackling family violence, we must not ignore these findings. Tackling two-thirds or one-half of the problem, while ignoring the other third to half, is doing a disservice to Australian families. We need to found the solutions to domestic violence firmly on the evidence base.

Secondly, gender-based campaigns state that the key to tackling domestic violence is to "break the silence". In this they are absolutely right! However, by constantly referring to it as a women's issue or a gender issue, they seem to be unintentionally enforcing silence on male victims - the very thing they claim to be against. The fact that this message is so insistent and that specialist services are largely withheld from male victims of domestic violence means that this group must usually suffer in appalling silence that has lasting health consequences on them, their children and families.

The incessant message that men are perpetrators and women are victims means that men who do have the courage to come forward and make claims of this nature will often be treated as "less than a man" or liars or both. Where are they to turn? Domestic violence policy should not become a weapon for inflicting domestic violence by making this class of victim voiceless.


Thirdly, gender-based campaigners state that domestic violence at its worst often involves the exploitation of power imbalances. Again this is absolutely right. But the message propagated by some of the more strident groups that "domestic violence can ONLY be men's responsibility" in itself creates a very real imbalance of power. It is simply human nature that some women will unfortunately abuse this situation.

Anecdotally, it has led to incidents where women initiate violence against their husbands or boyfriends knowing that he will be the one who gets the blame, especially if he tries to physically defend himself. Some extreme feminist groups assume that women's use of violence against male partners is always in self-defence and therefore always justifiable.

Like the famous line in Frost-Nixon that "if the president does it, it's not illegal", so it sometimes seems that if a woman does it, it's not domestic violence! This is how far the ideology has taken us in some instances. But implied impunity for any group in society only makes the situation worse and will increase the rates of domestic violence and family dysfunction.

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About the Author

Originally trained as a lawyer, Roger Smith lived in Indonesia and East Timor from 1995 to 2004 where he worked in the justice, human rights and trade union arenas.

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