A truly preventive approach to violence against women must address the behavior, attitudes, and needs of men. Yet efforts to focus on the mostly male perpetrators of family and sexual violence in ways that both respond to and prevent their violence are complex and relatively new. In one of the larger national projects we have ever undertaken, the government of the Commonwealth of Australia engaged us to ask the violence against women sector itself what should be achieved in working with men.
Our six-month series of dialogue interviews, workshops, and surveys with more than 700 people across the continent resulted in a highly informed set of draft perpetrator intervention outcome standards. After further policy work and with the agreement of all the states and territories, the standards were released in December 2015 by the prime minister of Australia. They represent real progress: what has always been an uncoordinated effort is now moving in the direction of a strong national response to violence against women.
Another significant result of the workshops was the beginnings of a deeper, more productive national conversation about prevention and men. Says workshop participant Danny Blay, a Melbourne-based consultant who works with men, "The process helped expose that there's a lot more work to be done to get consistent responses that are ethical and safe, and not just about legal interventions.”
Meanwhile, the government has invited us to do a second national consultation, on the logical next step: performance indicators for the new outcome standards.
This project emerged from an earlier one, initiated in 2008, that positioned Australia as a global leader in this work: the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children, 2010–2022. (As in other countries, violence against women is pervasive. For Australian women under age 45, domestic violence is the leading cause of death and injury.) Perpetrators were one of the plan’s areas of focus, and the development of outcome standards to inform practice for perpetrator intervention was identified as the next step.
In Australia, the inherent difficulties of pursuing a national response to family and sexual violence have been compounded by the fact that the eight states and territories function quite independently. Governance, service responses, laws, and funding levels and mechanisms vary. The difference in response even between Sydney and Melbourne can be striking. Bringing stakeholders from all eight into alignment on outcome standards for perpetrator intervention is step toward overcoming that.
In addition, while there is overlap between family violence and sexual assault, the two are different, and two virtually separate sectors have grown up around them.
A key feature of our approach was targeted, culturally specific consultation with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Family violence and sexual assault in these communities must be considered through the lens of colonialism’s disruption of their spiritual and cultural well-being
Informed outcome standards
The extensive feedback we gathered significantly altered the original government draft of the outcome standards. While women’s and children’s safety remain at the centre, the final standards emphasize the need to focus on men taking responsibility for changing their behavior and attitudes. Participants also emphasized that everyone working with perpetrators, at every level of the system, should have skills and knowledge specific to the dynamics of family and sexual violence. Further, the system must be held accountable for responding appropriately.
Partly because services in the violence against women sector are often uncoordinated, the size and diversity of the sector has been hidden. Identifying the full spectrum of stakeholders and then recruiting them to participate is always a critical part of our work, and we were particularly successful here. Governments around Australia originally provided us with a list of about 350 stakeholders, but our team was able to double it. This enabled broad buy-in so necessary to Australia’s next steps toward stopping violence against women and their children.
Structure for next steps
The intervention outcome standards are a springboard for the government’s next step: performance indicators. The consultation work also revealed that the outcome standards need the additional structure and direction of more research. And in fact, even as the process was unfolding, the commonwealth government was setting up a new national research centre dedicated to exploring what works with perpetrators.