On Friday, as around 5,000 people took to the streets of Melbourne for the Walk Against Family Violence, which every year kicks off the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, I found myself stuck at home marking student assessments. As I browsed through my social media feeds, I felt disappointed that I couldn’t attend. But, as I began reading the assessments, I felt less disappointed and surprisingly optimistic. This is not something that usually happens when I am marking.
The 16 Days of Activism is an annual international campaign, beginning on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and running until 10 December, Human Rights Day. The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women began in Latin America to commemorate the murders of the Mirabal sisters, Patria, Minerva and Maria Teresa, political activists who were clubbed to death in 1960 by the Trujillo dictatorship’s secret police in the Dominican Republic.
The 16 Days of Activism became a global campaign in 1991. Since then, every year, feminists, survivors and those working in the area of gender-based violence take to the streets, write opinion pieces like this and call for more action and investment to end the scourge that is gender-based violence. I say this not to diminish this activism. The work of feminist organising and women’s movements has been critical to holding governments accountable and driving change.
However, this year has felt different because I feel more hopeful than before. I feel that there is, at last, some progress underway in preventing violence against women, and my own research and work have also given me hope. Not a passive kind of ‘wishing on a star’ hope but an active, Rebecca Solnit kind of hope “is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency”.
What is there to be hopeful about?
Community understanding of gender-based violence is improving. Worldwide, population-level data confirms that domestic violence is predominantly gendered. Women are overwhelmingly the victims of violence in intimate relationships and sexual violence, and men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of this violence. In Australia, as in other parts of the world, attitudes and understanding regarding violence against women are beginning to reflect the evidence, with more and more Australians rejecting violence against women and gender inequality.
Australia has a comprehensive plan to end violence against women in one generation, the National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children 2022-2023.
The Plan’s vision may be ambitious, but when it comes to the lives of countless women and children, can we afford to be anything but ambitious?
We also have the First Action Plan that provides a roadmap for the first 5-year effort towards achieving that vision and the Outcomes Framework, which includes clear targets (something the last National Plan sadly lacked).
There is also a dedicated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Action Plan. The Government has committed $2.3 billion over two years (2022-2024) towards implementing the National Plan and supporting the delivery of the action plans. While leading academics in gender-based violence have reasonably criticised this investment as not being commensurate with the scale of the problem, it is an unprecedented investment in fiscally constrained times.
People and organisations from across disciplines, sectors and causes are coming together to address the issue. Researchers, governments, and community and private sector organisations, including social media platforms, banks and Indigenous organisations, are coming together to address gender-based violence through innovative partnerships such as the Centre of Excellence for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
There are also indications that rates of gender-based violence are decreasing, with rates of lifetime physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence dropping by 31 per cent globally between 2000 and 2018. In Australia, we have seen a 31 per cent reduction in rates of intimate partner homicide (from 36 females killed to 25) over one year, from 2019-2020 to 2020-2021. While it is likely that COVID-19 and its associated effects (e.g. preventing women from leaving) will have had some impact on both of these rates of violence, they are still positive signs. Ultimately, although any preventable deaths are too many and the lasting trauma inflicted on women and children has devastating consequences and costs, we must consider signs of progress and learn from them.
As my PhD research on Rosie Batty and the ‘Batty effect’ confirmed, much of this progress is thanks to the tireless advocacy work of survivors of gender-based violence and their loved ones, who have shone a light on what had previously been seen as a private issue and demanded change. Policymakers have, over time, recognised the value of engaging victim-survivors in developing policy and service reforms. While findings from my study examining the first three years of the Victorian Government’s Victim Survivor’s Advisory Council, recently published in the Journal of Gender-Based Violence, uncovered numerous challenges to meaningful engagement with survivors in the co-production of public policy, ultimately, I found that survivors were determined to persist.
Policymakers were determined to share what they had learned, including their mistakes, to ensure practices are improved. Central to what policymakers had learned was, put simply, that we need to be the change we want to see. Preventing gender-based violence requires the transformation of institutions, systems and structures to rewrite formal and informal rules, which support power imbalances and gender inequality, and embed gender equality.
What more needs to be done?
While we must recognise that there are signs of progress in preventing gender-based violence, it is critical to acknowledge that more needs to be done, and it needs to be done urgently. The United Nations (UN) recently conceded that “without dedicated investment in scaling up prevention programmes, implementing effective policies and providing support services to address violence”, the world will not achieve the Sustainable Development Goal target of eliminating violence against women and girls by 2030.
Although this is incredibly disappointing, the UN also released a report on the science for accelerating transformations, which explains that following the emergence phase, when innovation, piloting and the application of new knowledge take place, the next step to achieving successful transformations is accelerating and institutionalising change. This requires decisive action by governments, investing in infrastructure and capabilities, and overcoming resistance and barriers to reform. In other words, we have the foundations for transformation and know what works; now, we need to fast-track action and investment and embed the change we want to see in our institutions and ourselves.
While others marched, I felt hopeful as I marked those student assessments because they had written about the growing international evidence on what works to prevent violence against women and developed their own intervention programs. They had fantastic proposals for programs in early childhood centres, local sporting clubs and newsrooms, and they were all realistic, affordable and intersectional (taking into consideration the multiple forms of violence experienced by many and compounding factors such as disability, poverty and race). Ultimately, that filled me with enormous hope for the future.
Before you go…
- To coincide with the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, Lisa and Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety Limited (ANROWS) have launched a guide to co-production with victim-survivors, Towards meaningful engagement: Key findings for survivor co-production of public policy on gender-based violence.
- Gender-based violence policy reform: assessing the risks and public value of co-production with survivors by Lisa Wheildon, Asher Flynn, Jacqui True and Abby Wild for the Journal of Gender-Based Violence is available on Bristol University Press Digital here.
Please note: picture at top is a stock image. Adobe Stock/CWA
Dr Lisa Wheildon is a research and teaching associate in criminology at Monash University, UNSW and RMIT University. Lisa's PhD research examined the role of victim-survivors with lived experience of gender-based violence in co-producing public policy. Lisa has recently worked on research projects regarding online safety, technology-facilitated coercive control and workplace technology-facilitated sexual harassment. Previously, Lisa worked in senior roles in the Victorian Government and helped establish Our Watch, the national foundation for preventing violence against women and children.