Education key to stopping violence against women

25 Jun 2013

Young people don't understand the concepts of consent, sexual assault and domestic violence; young women who experience violence continue to be blamed and stigmatised.

This last fortnight we have witnessed a remarkable confluence of events involving sexism.

Prime Minister Gillard's "men in blue ties" speech. Menugate. Radio shock jock Howard Sattler's interview with the Prime Minister and his subsequent sacking.

You'll be relieved to know that I don't want to talk about any of those events here. Instead I want to talk about sexism in its most extreme, most dangerous form - violence against women.

Last week the World Health Organisation released a significant report (pdf) (105) on global violence against women. The report confirmed that violence against women isn't confined to certain pockets of society, but is a global public health problem of epidemic proportions.

The photos which emerged of Charles Saatchi putting his hands around wife Nigella Lawson's throat at a London restaurant recently were a stark reminder that domestic violence can happen to anyone. Being rich, famous, and beautiful does not buy immunity.

It's often taken for granted that violence against women is something that we will inevitably outgrow as a society - a hangover from past, more unequal times. But the WHO report details that even amongst young women between the ages of 15 and 19 years, 29.4 per cent experience violence. In Australia, too, gender-based violence shows little sign of becoming extinct with Generations Y and Z. Sexist attitudes about gender roles are surprisingly persistent.

Earlier this year I went to New York to attend the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. In the months before I left, I spent time consulting with young women all over Australia about the issues which mattered to them. I spoke to school groups, youth advisory councils, Girl Guide groups, drop-in centres, and peak bodies. And over a hundred people responded to my online survey.

It was a fascinating - and eye-opening - experience.

One issue which came up again and again was sexual violence, often by boyfriends or partners. Many young women told me about sexual experiences which sounded, to me, like sexual assault - and yet that was not always how they perceived the situation. Although they appeared to feel there was something wrong with pressuring someone into having sex, many of the young women did not necessarily use the language of rape or sexual assault to describe the behaviour. Indeed, a certain amount of pressure or coercion was often viewed as fairly normal, if problematic.

One 17-year-old young woman in regional Australia said, of a friend, "She thought if she didn't have sex with her boyfriend, she'd get bagged out by everyone." Another told me about a friend who was locked in a room with a boy who wouldn't let her out until she had sex with him. This episode set the pattern of relationships for the young woman from then on, according to her friends.

The girls all recognised the double standard in attitudes towards women - as one said, "You're seen as either frigid, or a slut".

In another consultation, a young woman told me about a friend who woke up to find her partner having sex with her, and when she told him to stop, he didn't. The young woman told me "It took me six months to convince my friend that what happened to her was rape."

These kinds of stories were common, and are consistent with what staff at women's refuges told me. I was completely floored when a staff member explained that a lot of people who come through the refuge, and their partners, don't understand that rape in marriage is illegal.

Somehow, our education system, and our wider culture, has failed to adequately explain even basic concepts, like consent, and sexual assault, and domestic violence, to many young people. The message that abusive behaviour is unacceptable is not getting through; instead, young women who experience violence continue to be blamed and stigmatised by their peers and the rest of society. And, as the WHO report describes, women who have been physically or sexually abused by their partners report higher rates of a number of serious health problems.

In all my consultations with young people, when I asked about what needs to be done to prevent violence against women, the answer was the same: education. We need universal anti-violence education programs embedded into the school curriculum in every school, reaching every single child, and starting at a young age.

Some of the young women I spoke to had completed the Respectful Relationships program, or other similar programs such as Love Bites. The feedback about these programs was universally positive.

"It opened my eyes - and the boys in the class", said one student. The primary focus of the Respectful Relationships program is to develop the skills young people need to treat their partners with respect through education provided to young people aged 12-24 years. This kind of education gives young people access to the concepts and the language they need to describe what already makes many of them uneasy; to name violence for what it is.

However, these programs are not yet available in every school; they are usually only one or two days long; and they do not reach every student in the country. They are resource-intensive, and long-term funding can be difficult to obtain.

But if we want to reduce the levels of violence against women in the next generations, it will be a worthwhile investment.

Access article here.

Image © Angela Farley |

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