To prevent violence against women, we must move away from victim-based responses
Bottom-up, participatory processes can harness place-based expertise and fundamentally shift the way we respond to violence against women.
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In 2019, a series of collaborative workshops with stakeholders in the domestic, family, and sexual violence (DFSV) sector were held throughout Australia’s Northern Territory. The intention was to identify principles of good practice to prevent violence against women (VAW). The workshops culminated in the production of a framework to guide program design, practice and delivery in the Northern Territory. The development of this framework highlighted two necessities: to use bottom-up participatory processes to harness place-based expertise, and to fundamentally shift the way we respond to VAW.
The framework was developed in response to the extreme violence in the Northern Territory, particularly against Indigenous women. The Northern Territory has the highest rates of DFSV in Australia. Aboriginal women in the Northern Territory have been hospitalised at 69 times the rate of non-Indigenous women and have the highest rate of victimisation in the entire world. This violence is both frequent and extremely severe:
“We had one woman come [to hospital] with a huge haematoma on her vulva. She initially said that a chair had been thrown, but she eventually admitted that he kicked her [with steel-capped boots]… One man used a star picket, and impaled [his partner]—she still had it in her when she was admitted—she died… We have a high number of attempted strangulations. … Electronic kettles, frozen water bottles, house bricks—not so much traditional weapons. We see a lot of fractured jaws, broken wrists and arms, a lot of defence injuries here. Dislocated fingers. We had one woman who was kicked in the head and it partially scalped her.” [External Stakeholder 29]
Such extreme violence is compounded by additional regional complexities, including extreme remoteness; high rates of poverty and disadvantage; lack of access to goods and services; a high Indigenous population; and a linguistically and culturally rich context. These contextual factors often mean that mainstream DFSV interventions are inappropriate or ineffective.
VAW is primarily addressed through mainstream interventions developed for wider Australia, which are focused on protective measures and punishment through the criminal justice system and victim-based crisis responses. Criminal justice responses, such as domestic violence orders and incarceration, are reported as ineffective because they do not prevent or deter violence. The ineffectiveness of a purely penal approach is highlighted by the high rate of recidivism in the Northern Territory.
Victim-based responses also place the onus on the woman to flee violence and seek safety at a refuge or shelter. These are life-saving services; however, women must overcome many barriers to access them. Indigenous women often travel hundreds of kilometres away from their country, culture, language, and support networks to reach a shelter. There is an associated monetary cost that is unaffordable for many women and underlying this are additional fears of homelessness and of child removal, to name a few.
The ineffectiveness of a purely penal approach is highlighted by the high rate of recidivism in the Northern Territory.
Women in the Northern Territory also face considerable barriers to reporting violence, seeking help, and pursuing justice. Domestic violence has been recognised as a crime in Australia since 1975 with the Family Law Act, and it has gradually risen in the public consciousness as a public problem. Throughout this time, victim-focused responses to VAW have not been successful, and DFSV continues at a steady level, with some forms, such as sexual violence, increasing.
The longstanding cultural expectation that it is the woman’s responsibility to end the violence she is experiencing has also reinforced harmful attitudes and misconceptions which further marginalise victims. Women are revictimized or even punished by the system that is supposed to protect and support them. It is necessary—and long overdue—to reframe the way VAW is addressed and to develop a framework that focused on risk factors and the choice to use violence.
For these reasons, stakeholders in specialist and non-specialist agencies in the Northern Territory DFSV sector were invited to participate in workshops to select, rank, and justify principles of good practice. Stakeholders also developed indicators for each principle. Through analysis of workshop products, ten principles were identified. These principles, with their individual indicators, provide a framework to prevent VAW in the Northern Territory. The strength of these principles is in their complementary nature. Whilst individual principles may have application and relevance elsewhere, these ten principles of good practice intersect and are intended to be used together.
To prevent VAW in the Northern Territory, stakeholders know that programs must be holistic and address the underlying drivers of violence; community-driven; culturally safe, especially in terms of respecting Indigenous culture; sustainable, supported by long-term funding; educational, to challenge harmful attitudes; involved in promoting accountability, especially for men who use violence; framework and theory-informed; multi-agency partnerships; and finally, strengths-based and accessible.
These principles, alongside their indicators, build a contextually specific framework to prevent VAW in the Northern Territory called "Hopeful, Together, Strong".
The title captures the way stakeholders want to approach violence prevention in the Northern Territory: in a way that maintains hope, with all stakeholders working together, keeping each other strong.
The development of this framework was necessary and important for several reasons: the scale and severity of the violence; the additional barriers and challenges confronting people experiencing violence and also service providers in delivering a service; externally imposed frameworks and programs were often inappropriate, had limited application, or needed considerable adaptation.
Contextually specific guiding principles and frameworks are clearly important to prevent violence against women. The best way to develop context-specific tools is through a collaborative process which engages stakeholders and promotes buy-in—their participation then encourages funding bodies to come on board. The indicators offer a practical guide—the principles are abstract and reflect broader values and approaches, whilst the indicators cement and ground them in practice and in the everyday. The framework indicators offer a way for funders to assess the program against the principles, and in the absence of funding for external evaluation, are a way for organisations to monitor and evaluate their programs against good practice benchmarks.
The final stage of this process is dissemination and advocacy, and discussions are being held with different levels of government. The main barriers to implementation include operationalising the framework across a huge geographical space with limited funding and limited access to communication technology. Another is cultivating process and organisational culture change within government departments, particularly as these departments typically have high rates of staff turnover. Finally, another challenge is breaking down the silos that exist between stakeholders and services to move toward a coordinated response to preventing violence against women.
The best way to develop context-specific tools is through a collaborative process which engages stakeholders and promotes buy-in.
Therefore, three recommendations have been made to facilitate the framework’s implementation: embed the principles into funding mechanisms; use the indicators in monitoring and evaluation processes; and deliver stakeholder training on how to operationalise the framework. A successful implementation of the framework will see the DFSV sector in the Northern Territory begin to address violence against women in a coordinated response and through the framework’s monitoring and evaluation processes, begin yielding important insights and key learnings from programs having some success in creating incremental change.
Governments need to take decisive action against violence against women by investing in programs designed to prevent this violence. To prevent and address violence against women requires societal and community attitudinal change to address the drivers of violence. Change must be created through a reframed approach to challenge violent behaviour within a holistic response which prioritises the safety of women and children.
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Chay Brown is from Mparntwe/Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. Chay is a PhD Scholar with the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University. Her PhD research focused on what works to prevent violence against women.