24 Sep, 2015 Last updated: 24 Sep, 2015

By Jerril Rechter, VicHealth CEO

Opinion piece first published on The Age.

VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter
Jerril Rechter, VicHealth CEO

A new survey paints a disturbing picture of how we justify domestic violence.

Three years ago this week, Jill Meagher was raped and murdered while walking home after a night out. Her brutal murder was a wake-up call for us all, but there were still some who questioned why she was walking alone, what she was wearing or whether she'd been drinking. As if it was relevant. As if she was somehow to blame for what befell her that night.

Attitudes such as these have been around for decades and have unfortunately often kept a focus on the victim, rather than on the perpetrators of violence. More recently we've seen a shift towards placing responsibility where it belongs – with the aggressor – and asking what role the community at large can play in ending violence.

A new report, Young Australians' Attitudes to Violence against Women, released by VicHealth on Thursday, suggests we have more work to do in changing attitudes towards violence against women, especially among young people, if we are going to put an end to the violent, emotional and financial abuse that women across Australia are being subjected to every day.

According to the national survey of 1923 Australians aged 16 to 24, young people today are more likely to tolerate violence against women than were their parents' generation. Many are still prepared to excuse or justify violence, and many still don't understand that violence is more than physical violence and forced sex.

The report also tells us that some young people are struggling to accept equality in relationships.

The vast majority of young people see violence against women as serious and against the law, but a quarter are willing to excuse violence if the man regrets his behaviour, or if he becomes so angry he loses control. Some are willing to excuse violence if the victim or offender is affected by alcohol.

VicHealth's survey tells us we should be concerned about how young people understand relationships and what they think is acceptable. Almost half of those surveyed said it was acceptable in some situations to track a partner electronically without their consent – for example, installing tracking software into mobile phones or computers or setting up hidden webcams to monitor them. More than one in five young people believe men should take control in relationships and be head of the household.

It is deeply troubling that one in five young people believe there are times when women can be blamed for sexual assault. For instance, 20 per cent of young people believe women often say "no" when they mean "yes", compared with 13 per cent in their parents' generation. Likewise, well over half (57 per cent) of young people believe the myth that anger is the cause of violence.

These attitudes matter because they contribute to a culture of support for violence. As long as there are community attitudes that tolerate or justify violent behaviour, our society will continue to be plagued by violence against women. Yet we already know that this has a terrible cost for victims, and for the community as a whole. Young women in particular are vulnerable to violence and to its long-term impact on their health, education and employment. 

But violence against women is preventable. Over time, we can change community attitudes and we can change the inequalities that lead to violence happening in the first place.

Thursday's report tells us the majority of young people already agree that violence is serious. So let's help them understand that emotional abuse and sexual coercion are part of violence too.

Importantly, the overwhelming majority of young people are willing to intervene if they see a woman being abused. So let's encourage them to take a stand against the drivers of violence as well – sexism, for example, and poor respect for women.

We have an opportunity now to create a society that sends the right messages to young people about equality and respect in relationships. Earlier this year the Victorian government pledged to introduce respectful relationships education into the school curriculum, and other states have recently done the same.

Young people need to understand that despite widespread belief, women are more likely to suffer violence at the hands of someone they know than by a stranger. The reality is that the majority of the 63 women who've suffered a violent death this year, as counted by Destroy the Joint's Counting Dead Women Australia project, died at the hands of someone they knew. Yet only 50 per cent of young men and 65 per cent of young women recognise that a woman is more likely to be assaulted by a partner than by a random stranger.

We can look more closely at the places young people work, live and socialise, and make the messages clear: violence against women is never acceptable. The victim is never to blame. In our workplaces, in the media and on the sports field we can show young people what respect looks like. We can show them how equality for women and men is better for everyone.

- Jerril