Invest in social change

Acta Non Verba - Actions, not words

In the current media frenzy about sexual harassment and assault, a few things become very clear. Firstly that being aware that sexual harassment exists and is wrong is no guarantee or protection on it not occurring. And secondly that there are common conditions that enable abuse of this kind to occur:

  • An unequal balance of power, with one individual having power over someone’s reputation, earning capacity, ability to find work
  •  A view of women as existing only to satisfy a man’s desires, ie ownership and control
  • A denial of a woman’s right to say no, of her right to determine what she wants to do and who she wants to do it with
  • Silence from others, condoning what’s occurring
  • An environment where the prevailing culture reinforces unequal gender or other power dynamics

These same conditions underpin the increasing rates of domestic and family violence. You have all seen the statistics. If the personal and human rights aspects of domestic and family violence don’t move us, the economic costs should. This type of violence has ripple effects on children, families, communities, it has an economic impact including the burden on the health system, the justice system, housing as well as on community services costing an estimated $22 billion in 2015/2016 in Australia.

Supporting staff at the coalface of running a women’s shelter taught me that recovery from this type of violence requires a lot of resources including time and money. The needs of victims are complex and significant. Each case is different and requires a customised response. Many suffer the consequences of long-term trauma with a profound effect on their ability to function and make decisions. On average, women will return to their violent partners 8-12 times before they leave. This creates ongoing trauma and burden on services.

I also learned that domestic violence is not about relationship conflict, it is not about anger management, it is about control. Abuse comes in many forms, not only physical – financial, emotional, psychological, technological.

Two things became very clear to me about where our focus should be to help make a difference:

Case coordination and practical medium to long-term support for victims, men or women to access the support they need to rebuild their lives

Education: investing in approaches that focus on positive messaging about healthy relationships and providing people with the tools to build respectful relationships

Raising awareness or expressing commitment may be important precursors, but on their own they are not ever going to be enough. We need not just to know and to say, but also to act on intervention and prevention. We need evidence-based, new approaches to primary prevention. We are taking a long time to learn in this space what we learned a long time ago in the area of health, that investment in prevention is a lot cheaper in the long run than early intervention or crisis response.

If you want to invest in healthy relationships, Play For Change is a simple way to engage your sporting team or club.

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Margaret Atwood: The Prophet of Dystopia

A TV adaption of Margaret Atwood's seminal work, The Handmaid's Tale has recently come to Australian shores via the free streaming service,  SBS on Demand. The series is set in a near-future totalitarian state in which the few women whose fertility has not been compromised by environmental pollution are forced into child-bearing surrogacy for the country's elite.

'What makes The Handmaid’s Tale so terrifying is not that it’s timely,' wrote  Jessica Valenti for The Guardian, 'but that it’s timeless.'

What we found particularly resonant is the underlying  theme about control of women’s sexuality. Across cultures and time, there have been ways of controlling women’s decision about their sexuality – the pressure to not have sex, then to ensure once they are permitted to, that they don’t refuse sex. This culture of misogyny reduces women to one function, with all other rights seen as roadblocks to child-bearing. There is an unspoken fear of women finding pleasure in sex – in fact the female genital mutilation (FGM) depicted in the series to control 'unnatural urges' is still a common practice in many parts of the world.  UNICEF estimatedlast year that 200 million women living today have undergone a FGM procedure.

In The Handmaid's Tale, women's identities are reduced to their ability (or inability) to bear children, an interesting expression of  the Madonna-Whore Complex. Women's bodies are unapologetically seen as nothing more than the instrument of social engineering – for the good of society, of course. The show 'captures today's sense of dread and anxiety about the erosion of rights; about the environment; about war; about the increase of freely expressed racism, misogyny, and homophobia,'  wrote Kate Arthur for BuzzFeed.

It's clear the series has hit a nerve, with think piece after think piece comparing events in the show to events in the news –  women being forced to carrying children after they've been raped, or  pregnant women being referred to as 'hosts' by politicians. Confirming what many have suspected, the show's star Elizabeth Moss said in an interview earlier this year, 'I asked Margaret Atwood, "Do you feel like you predicted the future?" And she said very firmly, as she does: "Everything I wrote in that book was happening at that time, or had already happened.

"It just wasn't happening in America."'

Why domestic and family violence needs long-term thinking

May marks the annual commemoration of those who have died or suffered at the hands of domestic and family violence (DFV). We have been so inspired by the way DFV has finally gained public attention through brave survivors sharing their stories with the world.

Then why are we still talking about it?

The public support generated by this heightened awareness goes almost exclusively to short-term crisis interventions. While these actions are incredibly important, the harder, medium- to long-term needs often get neglected.

People exiting violent homes have individual, complex and varying needs that require sustained, expert, trusted support and guidance. In our considerable experience, for example, victims of DFV often:

  • have no tenancy or financial records in their own name, which makes house hunting impossible;
  • have no form of photo ID, which makes Centrelink claims problematic;
  • suffer from PTSD, which makes finding and coordinating the multiple services they need feel insurmountable;
  • have interrupted (or no record of) employment, which makes the task of finding an income seem overwhelming;
  • lack confidence or capacity to manage finances, due to never having had money of their own;
  • have complex medical and psychological injuries that require specialist health services;
  • are ill-equipped to navigate the legal minefield of our justice systems to secure their safety; and
  • face the added difficulty of having a disability (sometimes caused at the hand of their partner).

Here at YWCA, we receive many generous donations – household goods, offers of personal and professional assistance, clothes, toiletries. And these truly make a difference in the day-to-day lives of the women we assist, and are always greatly appreciated. However, this month we are making a single request: cash. (Please keep reading!)

Before we can accept donations of bath towels, we need to help women find a place to live. Before we can accept your offer to help women write their CV, we need to make sure victims are addressing the barriers that prevent them from working. Many victims of violence are victims of trauma, and it takes years of consistent, professional support to rebuild their lives.

About Y Hand Up

Our unique program Y Hand Up provides practical measures to support women in rebuilding their lives after escaping from DFV. With a focus on reducing pressure on high-cost crisis services, Y Hand Up is a mechanism that connects women and children in need with safe housing, appropriate services and practical support to establish a new, sustainable life. Our ultimate goal is to interrupting the cycle of victims returning to the perpetrator due to a lack of practical and social supports. Statistics show that women often return to their violent relationships eight times before finally leaving for good. Life without access to money, housing or emotional support is insurmountably difficult.

How can you help?

When we tell these stories, the first response is always 'how can I help?' It is heartwarming to hear these questions, and the simple answer is this: by donating cold, hard cash.

We need to pay professionals and set women up in a way that is sustainable and doesn't require a helping hand for the rest of their lives. It’s not as glamorous as hosting a cocktail fundraiser or as cheap as volunteering an hour of your time, but it’s what we need. Funds will go towards what is often forgotten: the wages of qualified support workers to navigate and secure appropriate supports, build confidence and capacity and put in place the stepping stones to independent living and the ability to manage their own lives.

Thank you for hearing our call for help at the start of our nation’s DFV Prevention Month. To support our work in this way, please click on Donate Now below and forward this to a friend or two. Next edition we will return to our usual format, so stay tuned