Going back to school on gender-based violence


Over the last year there has been a welcome increase in awareness of violence against women in Australia. Thanks to campaigners such as Rosie Batty and a significant increase in news reporting, more people understand the complexities of family violence and sexual assault and the cost to human lives.

International Women's DayAlthough the increase of awareness is the first step, and the real-life stories are vital to our collective understanding, the current public discourse runs the risk of immobilising communities. We need to use this new level of understanding to move towards preventing the violence from occurring.

I notice this shock and immobilisation regularly. When I introduce my work as 'violence prevention', people seem to hear the 'violence' part very loudly. Their responses suggest they are imagining the work of women's shelters, and police providing the important crisis response.

Although inextricably interconnected and equally important, responding to and preventing violence are very different things. 

Prevention means stopping something before it occurs, which actually means creating something else. In terms of violence prevention, it means creating communities based on respect and equality.

But what does this actually look like? How do we create new ways of relating to each other?

If we had a problem with numeracy, we would invest in maths. We would look towards improving our education systems to build knowledge and skills. Instead we have a problem with gender equality and relationship violence. And so, let's improve knowledge and build skills in respectful relationships.

Respectful relationships education is one of the proactive strategies designed to contribute to the prevention of gender-based violence in our communities.

Curriculum based programs aim to provide young people with the skills required to lead respectful relationships and to challenge the gender norms and stereotypes, attitudes and social systems that allow male violence against women to continue.

Importantly, successful programs do this in a way that is interactive and fun, and meets the needs of young people in age-appropriate ways.

Although rarely featured in the public discourse, there are a number of respectful relationships education programs being designed and implemented across Australia. But we have a long way to go to ensure all children and young people receive this education.

Travelling on a Churchill Fellowship, I recently had the opportunity to learn from innovative respectful relationships education programs and approaches across the USA and Canada.

One of the most valuable things I learned was the importance of integrating the programs into schooling systems. Those that have experienced the greatest success in reaching a significant number of young people are those that have worked in partnership with education departments and school boards.

Integration means influencing structures and systems to make respectful relationships education part of the fabric of school life. Just as strategies to boost numeracy wouldn't result in a one-day program designed for a single year level, preventing violence through education requires an ongoing curriculum.

The stories, media and campaigning of 2015 demonstrated that collective measures can work to dramatically raise awareness of the dark reality of family violence in Australia. We need to springboard from this raised consciousness to imagine and invest in long-term change.

Respectful relationships education for our children and young people is one such solution.


Ellen PoynerEllen Poyner is a social worker and Churchill Fellow. During the fellowship she blogged at ellenpoyner.wordpress.com.

Today is International Women's Day.

Topic tags: Ellen Poyner, violence against women



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How many more programs for social remediation can schools bear? Support for families and recognition of their social contribution - rather than the assumption they are dysfunctional - should be first priority.

John | 07 March 2016  

Respectful education in Catholic schools ought sensibly present catholic teaching on gay sexuality versus moral indifference/anarchy re eg gay marriage issues[ when if raised such gender differentiation is not bullying]

Father John George | 08 March 2016  

Violence against women is an end product of seeing women as needing to be silent and submissive to men. Instead of taking a lead in correcting this imbalance, the Church, both by word and example, has for years been tolerating and even implicitly fostering this attitude, with St.Paul's 'women should be silent and submissive' and for many years including 'love, honour and OBEY' in the marriage vows, to say nothing of excluding women from ordination, and claiming this (on very flimsy evidence), to have been determined by God.

Robert Liddy | 08 March 2016  

Integrating programs into the curriculum is certainly a good way to go. Imparting knowledge , filling empty vessels as we know does not work. Making respect for people a part of the fabric of school life would complement the work some parents try to model for their children and could present an alternative way of acting to those kids whose families have missed out on applying this essential skill. Actually a campaign for instilling respect for others could be useful to society at large. Imagine TV shows where people showed respect to others, politicians who spoke and acted respectfully, car drivers who did not make rude hand signals or yell abuse at other motorists, bosses who understood the excessive demands they were making on their workers, sports people who on the field greeted the opposition with respect. Loved your article Ellen. Integration of positive values into the curriculum used to be the way in Catholic schools. Thankfully some of these fine establishments still do that . May they continue to flourish and many thanks to the dedicated teachers therein doing such fine work .

Celia | 08 March 2016  

I could not agree more with Ellen that stopping gender based violence begins in the classroom. But how? She says she saw such programs in the US and Canada . Where has she documented them? Sophie Weisner’s Call me Dad. shows clearly that violence begins with domestic arguments. Most married couples argue. Web MD states that we should learn to argue honestly and fairly .I strongly believe that this aspect of our education should be provided in schools. But of what does it consist? How do we teach it ? Ellen needs to tell us what she learned It is a mandatory obligation on Eureka Street to publish her findings

Peter Bowden | 08 March 2016  

What is missing from this terrific article is the names of programs teachers might follow that Ellen recommends.

keith donovan | 08 March 2016  

For decades there have been anti-bullying programs in schools which work quite effectively. I cannot see the reason to focus on any one group being bullied - the focus on transgender issues is politically and ideologically driven. It is part and parcel of a teacher's work to implement anti bullying policies against being short, tall, poor, disabled, ethnic, or 'different' in any way. There is no need to highlight any one of these or the point of the policy is lost. The current policy works successfully and the Safe Schools program with its explicit sexual terminology. As for preventing domestic violence, it is meaningful relationships with teachers which model the way people can interact. The school itself is a model without yet another specific program being plonked on students. The school is a place of integral humanism and this is absorbed by students from chaotic backgrounds.

Alice Larkin | 08 March 2016  

Robert is so right. What we do shouts so loudly no one hears what we say. Silent RESPECTFUL women have helped the hierarchy run the show, So it SEEMS all right and proper and suits the male perfectly, except that he doesn't grow.

Annela | 08 March 2016  

Well said, Robert Liddy! The psalmist may have sung in Psalm 8: 4-5 in praise of God: "What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God (or divine beings or angels depending on how one translates 'elohim'). He goes on to describe mankind's dominion over the animals, birds and fish of creation. And in creation what does mankind witness? The dominion (for the most part) of the male over the female in the animal kingdom seemed to be the natural order of things. And this soon became the natural order of things for the Hebrews and was embodied in The Law. It was not until Jesus came and simplified The Way we should live our lives - by service to one another. The richness of this simple dictum was not easily understood as the admonitions of St Paul indicate. We may be a bit lower than the angels but we are only a bit above the animals. And we need a lot of taming.

Uncle Pat | 08 March 2016  

Thanks, Ellen, for a lovely article - and for the link to your report, via the link to your blog. Lots of food for thought, and evidence for what you found, there. Very refreshing is your explicit acknowledgment that both prevention and response are important: no "silver bullet" claims. It seems to me that we have lost much respect for other persons, and to correct that would be a solid foundation for measures focussed on specific problems. I hope this article and the work behind it gets incorporated into the wisdom of those who influence these matters in ways great and small.

GJW | 08 March 2016  

I presume this article is about male-on-female violence, as opposed to violence visited by espousers of the heterosexual norm upon people who profess a different norm. The family being the place where children see how to be social beings by looking at the most important people in their lives - the people who control their emotional and physical health by the way in which their food, clothing, accommodation and psychological needs are provided - the role modelled daily by the physically stronger father who empties himself of the advantages of muscle and money to assume the condition of an equal with the mother - what John Paul II called mutual submission between the spouses - provides an aesthetic that a different form of parenthood cannot.

Roy Chen Yee | 08 March 2016  

"Prevention means stopping something before it occurs, which actually means creating something else." True enough, and the 'something else' might well be the offering of options in moments of frustration and anger, coaching people in the moment to try other non destructive options. It is called Role Training.

Michael D. Breen | 08 March 2016  

Great article, Ellen, I have a feeling all we do in respectful relationships education is wasted if it begins in the classroom for each child. If 'respect' isn't valued at home, the child is rarely strongly influenced by what is promoted at school. On another tack - the Sydney Catholic Education Office once had a terrific Relationships Education program (back in the early eighties) whose development was a model for parent-teacher co-operation in agreeing on philosophy,content and practice. The program ended very suddenly after it was introduced, possibly because the sexuality strand made it politically incorrect at that time in the Archdiocese. It might be helpful if this program or any section of its curriculum is still available for your review. I'm sorry I can't remember the name of the program, though.

Joan Seymour | 08 March 2016  

The best way to prevent gender-based violence is for schools to segregate the boys from the girls and give kids the impression that the opposite gender is either so unique and mysterious, or so fragile and delicate, that they could not possibly spend 5 hours together, 5 days a week in the same classroom and be expect to cooperate.

AURELIUS | 08 March 2016  

I trust you are not for real, Aurelius. Fragile and delicate is exactly what led to submissive down trodden women. They were not seen as human. The Lord saw fit to 'create them male and female'. We fear what we are not familiar with.

Margaret McDonald | 08 March 2016  

Congratulations, Ellen. I think it is over 12 months ago now, that I suggested some curriculum-based introduction to family relationships and domestic violence, a subject on which the church is remarkably silent. If one quarter of the money spent on advertising helping refugees was spent on saving women's lives and child stress-related illnesses, we would be thinking constructively, sensitively, responsibly and justly.

shirley McHugh | 08 March 2016  

The work we are doing in Casino NSW is ground breaking in this area. The creation of a respectful and safe culture across schools that enables the delivery of daily fluid, and responsive curriculum. All thanks to innovative school leadership and Gonski funding.

Angela | 09 March 2016  

It should be 'rites of passage' as boys pass through stages. All men and mens organisations should take up this responsibility. Mothers should develop the conversation on how they raise their sons. Violence and bullying cannot be allowed in any home. It is not just up to teachers, it is every body's business. Let's build rites of passage into our society for both Men's bussiness and Women's bussiness as our first nations peoples do around the world.

JOHN WARD | 11 March 2016  

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