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Men must stand with women to end family violence

Donella Johnston |  16 February 2016

Australian of the Year David Morrison came under fire for being a white, privileged male advocating for gender equality, diversity and inclusivity. Is it appropriate, his critics asked, for him to defend the rights of the marginalised when he himself has never experienced discrimination?

David MorrisonWell, why wouldn't it be?

In his former role as Chief of Army there was no one more appropriate to address the scourge of sexual abuse in the Australian Army. As one of Australia's oldest hierarchical and patriarchal institutions, the message had to come from the top.

And in his current role as Chair of the Diversity Council Australia Morrison is well placed to continue the conversation about family violence started by his Australian of the Year predecessor Rosie Batty.

He is not alone. Increasingly, we are hearing more of our male leaders, including our prime minister, say that the problem of family violence cannot be tackled just by women.

This is a good thing.

The root causes of violence against women have been found to be gender inequity and rigid gender stereotypes.

According to UN Women, 'negative gender stereotypes hinder people's ability to fulfil their potential by limiting choices and opportunities'. They translate into practical policies, laws, practices and theologies that cause harm to women on the ground.

As long as men are predominant in decision-making and leadership in governance, politics, sport, employment, wealth, religion and so on, we will need decent men in positions of influence to support and add their voices to those of the women spearheading the campaign for change.

As the website for Male Champions of Change, an initiative of the former sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, states, 'We need more decent powerful men to step up beside women in building a gender equal world.'

The role of religious leaders in this should not be underestimated.

Last year I was part of a national roundtable responding to violence against culturally and linguistically diverse women and their children. At the roundtable were women from a range of religious traditions including Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim and various Christian communities.

The roundtable drew on the recent Hearing Her Voice report on violence experienced by women from over 40 ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The report noted that a 'number of participants felt there is considerable scope for religious leaders to play a greater role in preventing and addressing violence'.

It recognised not only the positive role that community and religious leaders can play, but also cases where the belief system propagated actually contributes to the problem.

Given that the majority of leaders of religious communities are men, the potential for male religious leaders to act as agents of change is great and as-yet unrealised.

This largely untapped potential is perhaps nowhere greater than among male religious leaders in the Catholic Church — the oldest, largest, most hierarchical and patriarchal institution in the world.

Can these church leaders be male champions of change on the issue of family violence and its root causes of gender inequity and rigid gender stereotypes?

If one of the key causes of family violence is gender inequality, can these church leaders speak with authority and authenticity when they are part of an institution that has no women episcopal decision-makers or leaders?

These are challenging but vital questions that could be relevant to any of our institutions whose leadership is dominated by men.

We all need to work together, women and men, to examine the attitudes, cultures and belief systems that create inequity.

This work will eventually create a safer society for women, men and children alike.


Donella JohnstonDonella Johnston is director of the National Office for the Participation of Women at the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. She will be one of the presenters at a public forum exploring the Catholic Church's role in confronting family violence, to be held on Wednesday 24 February at Australian Catholic University as part of Catholic Social Services Victoria's Mission Renew conference.


Donella Johnston


Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.

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Submitted comments

I believe one in three victims of family violence is male. This does not discount the effect of violence against women but I think it does open the door to looking at what I think is the real problem: the increasing prevalence of violence in our society. I think there are many reasons for this. We need to go beyond thinking every problem such as this is merely a 'gender issue'.

Edward Fido 15 February 2016

"If one of the key causes of family violence is gender inequality, can these church leaders speak with authority and authenticity when they are part of an institution that has no women episcopal decision-makers or leaders?" It seems to be drawing a long bow to try to link domestic violence with needing to have female bishops! Domestic violence has many contributing factors: poverty, drug abuse, educational standards, cultural beliefs. Pushing the barrow of gender equality, and trying to use it as leverage in some strange way to push for the ordination of women, is quite frankly a bit bizarre. Personally I'd like the issue of domestic violence expanded to include the epidemic of depression /self harm/suicide of men as I see this as another symptom of dysfunctional domestic situations. (and can in fact be the results of bullying and mistreatment by women) This ought not to be all about women, and certainly not turn it into a soapbox opportunity to push issues like women's ordination.

Miriam 16 February 2016

Pope Paul VI was prophetic in his encyclical Humanae Vitae given the rise in domestic violence: "Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection."

Anthony Walsh OP 16 February 2016

If people are either singularly or as a group are excluded they are demeaned and undervalued. This leads to mistreatment or even violence. If women left the church it would collapse. If men left it would continue, it would be different, but it would most likely grow and prosper.

Elisabeth 17 February 2016

Thank you Donella, for this thought provoking piece. The causes of domestic violence are extremely complex and you raise relevant and important questions about the ways we can address it. I find it surprising and frankly extremely disconcerting that your message for leaders and all men and women to work together 'to examine the attitudes, cultures and belief systems that create inequity' has been missed by those whose hearts become hardened and minds become closed with any mention of gender inequity - in particular when it relates to the institutional church.

Marie 17 February 2016

The complexity of why we do things in society is a giant conundrum. Thanks Donella for presenting a perspective. Often today a limited range of possible causes is presented. The issues you raise are very relevant. All the boards , executive positions ministerial portfolios, that are held by men defies belief.Our own world view shaped and formed by what we know and have experienced , our gender, what we intuitively think and what our prevailing culture tells us to believe, all sometimes impede clear thought. Donella and the correspondents have presented a variety of views. It is only by brainstorming, listening to diverse voices, presenting many , even provocative ,possibilities that we can come to answers that may help us address violence, injustice, and inequality. So many things need to be honestly thrown into the mix. In the end it will be the quality of our human relationships that will make the difference and listening intelligently , not defensively and without bias will greatly help. Thanks Donella and may your presentation at ACU reach wide open ears.

Celia 17 February 2016

The author and the submitted comments make good sense. One factor not mentioned is the growing prevalence of pornography, especially on line. This material demeans women particularly, but also it devalues all humanity and our personal relationships. In a perfect world all freedoms could be exercised in the knowledge that human dignity would be respected. We all know such perfection does not exist. Censorship is an ugly word and an even more unpleasant reality, but the consequences of its absence are becoming more obvious.

grebo 17 February 2016

A return to Christianity might be the key. Christianity was after all the philosophy that lifted Humanity out of the Dark and Middle Ages to the pinnacle of civilisation in the mid-twentieth century. The rise in violence of all sorts is one of the major indicators of the decline of civilisation historically recorded in the fall of great empires from time immemorial. It is a matter of education, the great failure of the modern day Catholic Church in this poor country bereft of the recognition amongst its people of the image of God in their fellow men.

john frawley 17 February 2016

I'm very supportive of gender equality and increased efforts to further promote this to increase awareness and reduce biases, but I'm still grappling to see the connection with domestic violence. I grew up in a very traditional family with traditional gender roles for mum and dad - but where roles were influenced by necessity rather than stereotypes (ie mum worked part time to supplement family income rather than to be independent). But the current awareness campaigns and the realisation of the extent of the assaults/murders seems like a different issue to the problem of violence. This spectrum theory that domestic violence starts at he low end of the scale with unequal pay and spirals upwards to assault and murder doesn't seem to compute in my brain.

AURELIUS 17 February 2016

Unlike the caste of soldiers, the caste of bishops are not on call as part of their vocation to hurt or kill somebody. So, if a soldier (even retired), a specialist in how to hurt and kill, can moralise "with authority and authenticity" about males hurting and killing women, why not a bishop? Or are soldiers allowed to moralise about this topic because the ability of women to belong to this hurting and killing caste has been acknowledged? Is that the rationale for having women bishops: I can do the same as you? As it turns out, the research in military science seems to support the belief that women can perform the same core duties in the armed forces as men. Does the research in theology support the belief that a woman can perform the core duties of miraculously turning dough into the biological tissue of Christ or of laundering a thing which almost no one has seen called a soul? Gender inequity includes the unfairness of denying competence without sound reason. In this case, if you cannot independently verify which attributes of the prototype priest Jesus are necessary to being a priest, is it sound not to imitate precedent?

Roy Chen Yee 17 February 2016

Thanks, Donella. You raise an important question: "If one of the key causes of family violence is gender inequality, can these church leaders speak with authority and authenticity when they are part of an institution that has no women episcopal decision-makers or leaders?" A related question is: "If one of the key causes of family violence is gender inequality, do Church practices of gender inequality encourage the perception of women as inferior and result in some men demanding their wives/partners be submissive?"

Peter Johnstone 17 February 2016

Apart from the slippery use of the word 'violence', where sometimes it is used with its literal meaning of physical violence (as in 'family violence') and sometimes in the metaphorical sense that denying a woman her voice is doing 'violence' to her dignity as a human being co-equal to a male (which is, really, not the same beast as the first kind of 'violence'), there is also the loose (perhaps deliberately so) description of the Church as a 'male institutional church'. No, it's a bishops' institutional church, lay men and most priests and brothers (and lay women and most nuns and sisters) milling well outside the centres of power. The Apostles didn't run congregational churches. Perhaps, individual prelates could train themselves to be better welcoming of advice (if most aren't already). And perhaps more women should become nuns and sisters so that the leaders of the women religious groups might have a constituency within the clerical orders that is as large as the numbers of priests and brothers, and thereby give them the standing to request more participation in the decision-making fora of the Church. Does the NOPW have a nun-recruitment plan?

Roy Chen Yee 17 February 2016

As a balance to the premise of this article that family or partnership "gender inequality" is the major cause of domestic violence, why is it that some 80% of hospital casualty admissions for assault with injury of homosexuals is perpetrated by the gender equal, same sex partner? Gender almost certainly has nothing to do with domestic violence even though women are the main victims. It is far more likely that genuine love does not exist between the partners, that the physically weaker are unlikely to respond physically, that the offender is acting irrationally because of altered mentation caused by jealousy, refusal of sexual favour, mental disease, alcohol or drugs or because of a childhood which conditioned him or her as a bully. While gender does determine differences between the sexes, violent responses to other human beings is most likely to be determined by disagreement which deprives one or other of the partners of self interest. It denies the selflessness and forgiveness that characterises true Christianity and love for all human beings of both genders. It would indeed be interesting to know how many young adults leaving Catholic schools today are aware of these fundamental implications of Christ's message as he died in crucifixion.Unless the Catholic bishops address that fundamental of human relationships in their talk festivals they will achieve nothing of value to influence this diabolic problem. Not all the problems of this world are due to the male gender and the solutions are not always dependent on the female gender. Its time both grew up and entered the real world.

john frawley 17 February 2016

I think the religious leaders have a moral duty to preach against family violence; Jesus taught that children have a right to a safe and secure domestic environment. The Church needs a Theology of Personhood as a resource for understanding the role of gender. Rather than define a person by gender we must learn to see past gender and respect personhood itself (made in God's image). Men and women are basically much more than their gender and society needs to take responsibility for the misguided sexualisation of young girls, in fashion magazines, movies and TV shows. Apart from male stereotypes and peer group pressure perhaps the incidence of violence may be attributed to TV shows, digital games and media news reports also. Until society gets together in order to change the way it thinks about gender little progress will be made.

Trish Martin 17 February 2016

Being a chamption of women and a person who has tried to expose the anomalies that exist between the attitudes of men to women, particularly religious men, I have often commented that the church, our clergy, remain remarkably silent with regard to domestic violence. The questiions are: do they understand domesticity: do they understand women:? They have to understand viiolence because Christ died violently. So......the silence is deafening! Shirley McHugh \

shirley McHugh 17 February 2016

Your article has certainly stirred things up, Donella, but I think it has in a very good way. It contains quite a bit of material and I needed to read through it and the comments with care. Family violence is a real problem in Australia. That includes violence in all sorts of differently constituted families across the ethno-cultural-religious spectrum. Some problems - female genital mutilation - which I do regard as an act of violence are specific to certain communities but not all members of that community practice it. One of the problems with religious leaders speaking out is that, in an instance such as that of the Catholic Church, the child sex abuse scandal has so discredited it that Professor John Haldane, a distinguished philosopher and cultural adviser to the Vatican, says it will take 'two or three generations' for it to regain the moral authority it and they once had. The (traditionally very Irish-Australian) Church in this country does have a real problem with the way it envisaged and practiced authority. The Early Church seems to have had a much better male/female dynamic. With this we get into the controversial area where authority and theology overlap. I do not see the Church ordaining women as priests but I can see no reason for it not reviving the female diaconate nor giving women more important roles within its administrative hierarchy.

Edward Fido 18 February 2016

Yes the Catholic Church is in that position where " what I am doing is speaking so loudly " no one can hear what it's saying. Inequality of gender is SEEN to be quite acceptable .

Angela carroll 19 February 2016

Given the comments from others on this issue since I posted my response, I would like to clarify that - the fact I find the link between gender equality and domestic violence hard to understand and accept in no way means I'm denying there's a link between them. Rather than debating whether domestic violence is caused by gender inequality, I would probably now say that domestic violence IS an extreme form of gender inequality. And instead of trying to find some link or cause, I've realised that's irrelevant, and that the simple fact that the majority of victims of domestic violence are female proves that it IS a gender issue - and an unequal one at that. (And the issue of violence among homosexual couples is a red herring. I'd safely bet that the majority of victims are gay males abused by a male partner, rather than female/lesbians - once again reinforcing the gender factor.

AURELIUS 22 February 2016

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