Intimate partner violence : Violence prevention is a public health issue

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Focus on soacial views, not  individual behaviour

Anyone who works with victims of violence eventually sees patterns repeated through the generations. The daughters and sons of the abused women we counsel are back in our offices because they too are now in violent relationships.

Giving victims a place to run to, and even providing therapy for batterers, are essential services, but not enough to prevent violence. It might prevent a recurrence of violence in the particular relationship, but it has little to do with preventing violence in society. The first step to real prevention, primary prevention, is realizing that it is not just the attitude of abusers that are the problem. Societal attitudes toward violence need to change as well.

A public opinion survey conducted in 2002 for the New Brunswick government showed that many people, female and male, tend to trivialize violence and to blame the victim ( More than a third of survey participants said that it is not a crime to rape your wife, and almost half said that it is not a crime to slap your girlfriend around if she flirted with another man. More than three-quarters of those surveyed said that it is not a crime to slap a six-year-old child on the face after she broke an object she was forbidden to touch.

Unless we step up our prevention and education efforts no significant improvement in these results should be expected. We need to coach boys to treat females with respect, to teach everyone to find non-violent ways to express frustration, and we need equality between women and men.

We've successfully applied prevention to other health risks. We need to focus more broadly on the social environment rather than on individual behaviour change. As a new Physician's Guide To Intimate Partner Violence And Abuse (Volcano Press, 2006) says, "It's unreasonable to expect that people will change their behaviour easily when so many forces in the social, cultural and physical environment conspire against such change."

Society tells people what is okay and not okay to do. Various "norms" contribute to violence against women. There's the objectification of women, seeing women as objects, as persons with limited roles. There's the acceptance of violence as a way to solve problems, whether as parents, couples, athletes or nations. There's our definition of traditional masculinity and male privilege -- boys are tough, men are in charge.

These norms create a toxic environment in which violence is able to take place. The good news about norms is that people conform to them. If we "tip" the balance in communities and replace current norms with norms that promote respect and equality, people will behave accordingly. We have seen this public shift in attitudes with the successful campaigns against drunk driving or smoking in public places.

It is time for a public education and awareness strategy promoting zero tolerance of violence against women. It should include a campaign over a number of years using a variety of means and targeting different groups. It should take into consideration the specific needs of Aboriginal, immigrant and disabled women. And it should challenge men to take up their share of the work to end violence.

The campaign would encourage victims and abusers to seek help, and it would suggest actions that all of us could take to build a violence-free society. By investing now, we save later on costs related to police, court, health and social services.

Clear messages are needed, like the bumper sticker on a car from Oregon that I spotted recently: "Violence Against Women is Just Wrong" it proclaimed in black and white. 

The campaign should focus in particular on men who use violence and feature men from different walks of life speaking to their peers. As men's groups have said, every time a man's voice joins those of women in speaking out against violence and rape, the world becomes safer for everyone. 

A Non-Violence Alliance in Connecticut produced posters that reach out to batterers as fathers. One depicts a child hugged by her father and the text says "You love your daughter. You want to give her the world. Start by treating her mother with respect."

A successful campaign by the New Zealand Police in the early 1990s used a series of documentaries and TV commercials along with posters, signs at sports events and bus advertisements with the central message that "Family Violence is a Crime -- Call for Help." One of the TV commercials featured a white-collar man arrested for putting his partner in hospital, saying "Didn't think I was the type who would end up in jail."

Australia had a "No Respect -- No Relationship" campaign which featured a picture of a young man with his words, "Well, she was flirting with a couple of mates and I gave her a slap. But she knows -- I mean she deserved it" followed by in large text, "No, she didn't." Another showed a young woman with the message, "She's not your property. She's a person. Respect her."

As former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has said, "Violence against women is perhaps the most shameful human rights violation. And it is perhaps the most pervasive. It knows no boundaries of geography, culture or wealth. As long as it continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development and peace."

We must make violence prevention a priority because the health of so many people is at stake, as is our collective well-being.

Ginette Petitpas-Taylor is Chairperson of the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women.