Violence against women goes by many monikers: domestic violence, dating violence, spousal abuse, intimate partner violence, family violence, wife battering and rape, to name a few. So what is the unifying feature between the various forms of violence against women? According to the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW), gender inequality is at the core of violence against women, including the unequal distribution of resources and power between men and women. While I agree that gender inequality is an important lens with which to dissect causal forces regarding violence against women, this analysis is too narrow to include abuse perpetrated by one women against another in a same-sex relationship. Wikipedia provides a definition of domestic violence that is more inclusive of diverse relationships, stating that it can occur in heterosexual, same-sex and transgender relationships, and can involve abuse against children. However, in terms of a unifying feature of different forms of abuse, I think that the AASW’s inclusion of power differentials between stakeholders as a causal factor applies across all relationships.
As social workers, we are always steeling ourselves for the worst, yet ideally we remain optimistic about achieving the best outcomes for our clients. It’s a tricky balance I mentioned in a previous post: how do we avoid naivety by thinking we can single-handedly stop all violence? Alternatively: how do we not become hardened with apathy and cynicism as a result of bearing witness to horrifying stories of violence? According to Egan, helpers should aim to be realistic whilst upbeat and compassionate.1 Working with women who are experiencing abuse is no different. Despite that the issue of violence against women may seem insurmountable – particularly with the United Nations naming it as “the most pervasive human rights abuse in the world,” and that within the first five months of 2015, 38 women in Australia had already lost their lives to domestic violence2 – social workers must always strive for responsive, logical, empathic and empowering intervention methods that are as effective as possible when working with women experiencing abuse.
Social workers contribute to the fight to stop violence against women through many forms and levels of intervention. For example, we work with individual clients and their families in face-to-face direct service; we can challenge discriminatory norms that manifest in our own organizations; at the societal level we can rally governments and peak bodies to amend oppressive social policies; and most importantly: we can engage daily in critical questioning of our own beliefs, values and practices, lest we perpetuate inequality on an interpersonal level.2 Therefore, social workers have the opportunity every day to challenge and disrupt inequality. To me, this implies that fighting violence against women isn’t always something we consciously do. Although direct service provision, research, lobbying and advocacy are specific actions we consciously undertake, if we have a true passion for equality and are vigilant about our critical thinking, then naturally our actions should challenge all forms of inequality wherever we see it.
Social work responses to violence against women have changed over time. From my analysis, changes to our methods for working with women experiencing abuse have occurred largely as a result of changing perceptions of roles in intimate relationships, social pressure to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions, and therefore less pathologizing of women for their choices. To illustrate, Stanley explains that prior to the late 1990s, social workers’ response to violence against women was to focus solely on women, who were seen as responsible for not being able to control men’s behaviour adequately to protect themselves and their children.3 The reason for the focus on women’s choices and behaviour was that women were seen as the primary caretakers of their children and the needs of the child were constructed as paramount, to the detriment of women’s needs being met. Naturally, with the focus being to counsel and advise women, men’s behavioural choices were rendered invisible and inconsequential. Contemporary approaches to violence against women include shedding light on the perpetrators’ actions, holding them accountable and suggesting reform.3 Alongside this shift has come a movement away from pathologizing women for their inability to control their partners’ behaviour; instead it is now common practice to adequately support women – and their children, if necessary – through individualized, targeted interventions that provide both emotional as well as practical support.4
In order to name and interrogate domestic violence, effective contemporary social work interventions focus just as much on perpetrators and their behaviour as they do on women.3 However, beyond social work intervention, I think that society in general has a responsibility and obligation to start putting the magnifying glass on the individual perpetrating the abusive behaviour, when safe to do so. An amazing example of such advocacy in Australia that really inspires me is the White Ribbon Campaign: a male-led, national campaign to end men’s violence against women. Their vision is to see all women live safe and free from men’s violence by “making women’s safety a man’s issue.” The campaign is, at its core, an awareness-raising movement that aims for prevention rather than reaction. They run educational programs with youth, schools, workplaces and the broader community, and also utilize the power of advertisements, social media and community events to raise awareness. Alongside education, however, White Ribbon is a call to action: men are being incited to become ambassadors, advocates, supporters and partners in strategic initiatives to call out violence and prevent it from spreading. Importantly, through White Ribbon men who have reformed or those who have never been violent against women are encouraged to engage in activism by being role models and a positive influence on boys and men everywhere. Their aim is to change masculinity norms through example and alliance.
What I think is most important about a movement that aims to alter male behavioural trends is that it puts blame where blame belongs: on the perpetrator. We’ve all heard the age-old reactive messages that chastise women’s behaviour, such as: “she shouldn’t have provoked him,” “she shouldn’t have dressed so provocatively,” or “she shouldn’t have been out alone at night.” How tired and useless are those kinds of messages, as if a woman’s scrupulous caution could literally intercept every would-be violation of her safety? I don’t think I’ve ever read a story about violence against women alongside comments such as: “This is a reminder for all men to not be violent,” despite that such messages would be more effective than admonishing innocent women. More likely you’ll hear people say that stories of violence are reminders for women to “exercise a little bit of caution when out and about.” How effective at stopping violence is paternalistic and generalized advice for women to stay clear of supposedly imminent danger? By characterizing violence against women as inevitable and inherently the fault of the woman involved, violence becomes seen as a man’s natural behavioural reaction to women’s actions. This kind of thinking is indicative of cultural masculinity norms: brutish behaviour is seen as a natural male quality. If men are naturally violent, then how can you blame them? That’s how they were born! Sadly, the invisible yet pervasive belief that men are naturally prone to violence is the reason why people aren’t really surprised when stories of violence against women make it into the news.
I am heartened to see movements such as White Ribbon that are about changing men’s behaviour. I am heartened because such movements aimed at both preventing and reforming men’s violent behaviour illustrate that society is catching on to the sociological perspective that sees gendered behavioural patterns as socially constructed, and as such, changeable. I am heartened because if we continue to socialize young boys with messages that naturalize violent behaviour as an inherent and uncontrollable masculine trait, then how can we expect them to grow up into critical thinking men who see their actions as a choice rather than an instinct?
1. Egan, G. (2002). The Skilled Helper: A Problem-Management and Opportunity-Development Approach to Helping.
3. Stanley, N. (1997). Domestic violence and child abuse: developing social work practice. Child and Family Social Work, 2, p. 135-145.
4. Abrahams, H. (2007). Supporting women after domestic violence: loss, trauma and recovery.