The single most common experience shared by women across the globe is family violence, the World Health Organization found in a 2013 study. In Australia, Reos Partners is helping to lay the foundation for a truly preventive, national approach to this hidden epidemic: one that systemically addresses the behavior, attitudes, and needs of men who use violence against women.
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. There is little evidence on what works. The government of the Commonwealth of Australia began by seeking national agreement within the violence against women sector on what should be achieved in working with men. To that end, it engaged Reos Partners to support the development of perpetrator intervention outcome standards.
This support took the form of a six-month series of dialogue interviews, workshops, and surveys with people working in the sector throughout Australia’s eight states and territories. It was one of the larger national projects we have ever undertaken in terms of the sheer number of stakeholders, with more than 700 participating. 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.
The process significantly altered the government draft of the outcome standards and generated the broad buy-in needed to move forward. “If there’s not long-term consistency across the country, then things aren’t going to change,” says workshop participant Danny Blay, a Melbourne-based consultant who works with men. “It becomes based on your zip code rather than being a national response.”
A shift in perspective
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. 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.
“To stop the cycle of violence,” says Leigh Gassner, a director at Reos Partners in Melbourne, “we need to understand why men use violence and work with them and address their needs, while holding them responsible for their actions. And we need to know what an effective response system should be achieving as outcomes.”
Gassner was involved in the commonwealth government’s advisory group for the implementation of the National Plan and was asked to lead this project. He first started working on women’s and children’s safety as assistant commissioner of the Victoria police, where he spearheaded Australia’s first integrated family violence response plan.
The evidence tells us that many perpetrators have been victims as children, but also that culture-bound attitudes and beliefs play a determining role. “If we’re talking about true prevention,” says Blay, “we need to be talking about men’s attitudes and beliefs toward gender and relationships and parenting. These are precursors to men’s violence against women and children.”
The feedback we gathered from around the country reflected this thinking and ultimately reshaped the government document. While everyone agreed that women’s and children’s safety must remain at the centre of interventions with men, there was also a call for more emphasis on men taking responsibility for changing their behavior and attitudes. Participants also pinpointed a need that had not been included at all: to ensure that people engaging with perpetrators at every level of the system understand and are skilled in responding to the dynamics of domestic, family, and sexual violence. Further, they said, the system must be held accountable for responding appropriately.
A broad process yields a nuanced view
Our efforts to solidify the standards consisted of a series of 70 dialogue interviews, dozens of surveys, and 13 one- and four-day workshops held across the country. Normally, we conduct these processes sequentially, with interviews and surveys informing the workshops. But the only way to complete the unusually large number of workshops in the constrained time frame here was to do them simultaneously.
This was not ideal, but our imperative was broad coverage of the entire continent, including its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. “By doing it this way,” says Gassner, “we got a much more granular, closer idea of what it’s like in each state and territory. If we had done a national workshop, we probably would have lost a lot of that.”
We also did more than gather feedback on the draft standards. Using elements of our social lab process, which plays out over months or years, we helped stakeholders explore their systems together in each workshop. “People became much more aware of their own system at the local levels and started to create relationships,” says Gassner. “A bureaucrat from Canberra said they had never seen so much social capital built across a consultation process. It showed us that the Reos processes can be quite flexible.”
Bringing the sector’s hidden expertise into the open
As always, identifying the full spectrum of stakeholders and then recruiting them to participate was a critical part of our work. And a successful one.
Until now, says Blay, the people who have been working in the trenches for years have been largely overlooked. “The high-profile people are getting a voice, but the nature of family violence work is that it’s quiet, it’s done behind closed doors. That’s where the expertise lives. You don’t know what it looks like, and you don’t know who does it, really.”
Indeed, says Gassner, even the government hasn’t known the size of the sector. While governments around Australia originally provided us with a list of about 350 stakeholders to reach out to (organizations, individuals, academics), the team was able to double it in part by locating just such hidden expertise.
A foundation for integration
If Australia is to make progress on violence against women, national leadership, across the country’s divergent state and territory governments, is critical. Yet as it stands, says Blay, “The difference in thinking and responses even between Melbourne and Sydney is enormous.” With an agreed-upon set of outcome standards now in place, the commonwealth, state, and territory governments can, together, fund a more unified and therefore potentially effective effort.
Another significant result of the workshops is the beginnings of a deeper, more productive conversation about prevention and men. Says Blay, “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.”
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.
Meanwhile, the government has asked Reos Partners to do a second national consultation, on the logical next step: performance indicators for the new outcome standards. We look forward to being a part of Australia’s groundbreaking efforts, and to applying what we’ve learned here about tackling this deeply entrenched global issue to a new gender-based violence project in South Africa—and beyond.