With the most recent evidence showing that more than one in three Australian women, since they turned 15 years(1), has experienced violence by a male perpetrator, VicHealth is actively working to drive evidence and best practice in this area.
Research shows that many of the causes of violence against women can be eliminated. VicHealth’s work over many years has found that the promotion of respectful relationships between men and women – in the home, workplace and community – is one of the biggest themes for action.
The 2013 National Community Attitudes towards Violence Against Women Survey (NCAS) touches at the heart of this theme by exploring changes in community attitudes over time.
NCAS is a unique and comprehensive Australia-wide piece of research that has been conducted at intervals: first in 1995, then 2009 and 2013. The 2013 survey was led by VicHealth and developed in partnership with The University of Melbourne, the Social Research Centre and experts across Australia, and supported by the Australian Government Department of Social Services as part of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010–2022.
The survey, which takes a snapshot of the nation’s attitudes and beliefs regarding violence against women, and gender roles and relationships, has identified that over the past four years the most significant shift has occurred among young adults.
In 2009, around 38 per cent of young people had high attitudinal support for violence against women; this decreased to 31 per cent over the four-year period to 2013. Even more significantly, the attitudes of young men towards supporting violence against women dropped from 48 per cent in 2009 to 38 per cent in 20132.
The significance of this finding is explained in a comprehensive new VicHealth report, Australians’ attitudes to violence against women: Findings from the 2013 National Community Attitudes towards Violence Against Women Survey, that steps readers through the evidence relating to the varied factors that drive violence against women. It states:
People tend to see violence as caused primarily by the characteristics of individual men using violence. This is in contrast to the evidence which shows that violence is learned behaviour and that social factors such as the media, laws and the attitudes of others are strong influences. (p10)
The goal of the NCAS is to learn about community knowledge of, and attitudes towards, violence against women, with the aim of using this understanding to identify areas that need to be targeted in the future. The survey also helps to identify niche populations that could benefit from anti-violence work.
The research featured more than 17,500 20-minute telephone interviews with Australians aged 16 years and older that were conducted between January and May 2013. The data is evenly weighted to account for gender, age, socioeconomic status and cultural background.
Other key findings indicate that most Australians do not justify violence and see it as a serious issue:
- An overwhelming majority recognise that partner violence (96%) and assault in a relationship (88%) are against the law.
- Few believe (4–6%, depending upon the scenario put to them) that violence against women can be justified and only a minority believe it can be excused.
- The understanding that violence against women is serious has remained consistently high (95%) over the 2009 and 2013 Surveys.
- Most people recognise that violence against women is about more than physical assault and that it includes a wide range of behaviours designed to control and intimidate.
- Further to the above point, there has been an increase in the number of people agreeing that social and emotional abuse is serious (up from 70% to 79%).
- Most people think that tracking a partner via computer or mobile telephone without permission is serious (85%) and unacceptable (61%).
- The Indigenous community is more likely to identify that violence against women in common and regard certain behaviours as serious.
- Most people do not believe that women should remain in a violent relationship or that family violence ought be kept private.
- Most people say they would intervene or report if they witnessed violence, although they were more likely to do so if the victim was a friend (98%) rather than a stranger (92%).
While these findings are encouraging for those working to reduce and eliminate violence against women in our community, the survey also had some concerning findings: many people agree that women caught up in family law cases make up claims of family violence; compared to 2009, more people believe that rape occurs because men cannot control their desire for sex (up from three in ten in 2009 to four in ten in 2013); and fewer people say they would know where to go for help with a partner violence issue (57% in 2013 compared to 62% in 2009).
Recognising that much work lies ahead to change the community attitudes that underpin violence against women, VicHealth is partnering with other agencies to assist in spreading knowledge about evidencebased strategies to achieve positive results.
VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter says the recent partnership with the newly established national initiative aimed to prevent violence against women and their children, Our Watch (also known as the Foundation to Prevent Violence Against Women and Their Children), will integrate the findings and resources of our work and elevate them to a national level.
"We want to see primary prevention at the heart of efforts to tackle violence against women across Australia and to extend this work to more everyday settings such as schools and workplaces," said Ms Rechter.
Our Watch Board Chair, Natasha Stott Despoja, says the drive to impact on the high level of violence against women must be harnessed to achieve change.
"The NCAS tells us that we have been able to challenge a culture that allows violence against women to occur. We know that further change is possible," said Ms Stott Despoja.
The Victoria Police is one of the agencies at the coalface when it comes to violence against women. Chief Commissioner Ken Lay is a vocal supporter of the evidence about what drives violent behaviour.
"This survey clearly demonstrates we must educate men that demeaning and sexist behaviour has a direct link to gender based violence. We need to change the language, the attitude and the misogynistic behaviour that lies at the very heart of male violence towards women," says Mr Lay.
The most recent survey findings add to the understanding generated by research, funded by VicHealth and conducted by Dr Anastasia Powell and the Social Research Centre, that bystander responses towards disrespectful attitudes to women can make a difference to the social conditions that promote violence against women.
Evidence has shown that bystanders – that is, witnesses to sexism, discrimination or violence – can help reduce violence against women by speaking up against sexist attitudes and discriminatory organisational policies when they see them. By confronting the attitudes that support violence against women when they see them, bystanders can help reduce the incidence of it in the community.
Report co-author Dr Powell, of RMIT University, said to prevent violence we must work together to reject inequality and build a culture of respect. "Make no mistake, to address, and ultimately prevent, violence against women in our community we also have to challenge the sexism, stereotypes and discrimination that women experience every day," says Dr Powell.
"We want to see primary prevention at the heart of efforts to tackle violence against women across Australia."
NCAS findings at a glance
- The majority of Australians have a good knowledge of violence against women and do not endorse most attitudes supportive of this violence.
- On the whole, Australians’ understanding and attitudes remained stable between 2009 and 2013. However, when you look at the findings from individual questions, some areas improved, whereas others became worse.
- Young people’s attitudes remain an area of concern; however, their attitudes are gradually improving over time, particularly among young men. Fewer young people in 2013 hold attitudes at the extreme end of the spectrum.
- People’s understanding of violence against women and their attitudes to gender equality have significant impacts on their attitudes to violence against women.
Why study attitudes?
While attitudes may influence behaviour directly, their main impact is through their influence on broader social norms and cultures. This means that the strongest influences on how people respond in situations are:
- what they believe other people, especially influential people, believe or expect of them
- expectations that are communicated through other formal social mechanisms, such as policies, rules or laws3,4
Research from the report has found that attitudes contribute to violence against women in a number of ways:
- violence against women is more common in organisations and communities in which violence-supportive attitudes are common5,6,7,8,9
- men who hold violence-supportive attitudes are more likely to commit, or say they would commit, violence10,11