Women’s Policy Action Tank: An “incident” approach to family violence fails both victims and perpetrators

When violence against women is considered an “incident” and handled through the criminal justice system, there is a failure to effectively address the reason why men use violence. Today’s Scorecard provides a much-needed framework for considering effective policy responses to men who perpetrate violence against women.

Scorecard on Women and Policy provided by Rodney Vlais, No to Violence incorporating the Men’s Referral Service

Topic:  Policies addressing Violence against Women

Sub-topic:  Perpetrator accountability

Framing the policy context for addressing violence against women

After 50 years of struggle led by women activists and feminist movements, violence against women is at last receiving the public recognition and political ‘air space’ that it requires. How this recognition is framed, and the power and scope of the gendered lens applied to it, has significant implications for the policy contexts in which communities and governments both respond to violence against women, and try to prevent it.

This is not least the case in the area of perpetrator accountability, currently one of the most oft-used terms in family and domestic violence policy and systems reform. This focus on perpetrator accountability reflects a genuine intention and commitment by governments and community sector organisations to move away from questions such as “Why doesn’t she leave?” and towards “What can we do to minimise risk by focusing on him?”

Our service systems are still generally designed to respond to family and domestic violence as incidents. In one sense this is understandable, particularly as law enforcement and justice system agencies strengthen their ability to identify and respond more appropriately. These agencies often come into contact with victim-survivors due to a particular incident. Furthermore, research and evaluation into the effectiveness of interventions with perpetrators, when conducted, are often based on law enforcement or criminal justice system measures of recidivism, again based on incidents.

Intentional and patterned behavior, not “incidents”

This can deflect attention from where family and domestic violence directed towards women arises from. Most perpetrators use a variety of tactics of coercive control to entrap their partner and/or former partner’s life. It is intentional and patterned behaviour. As the peak body for Victorian men’s behaviour change program providers and with an increasing national role in supporting the design of and quality practice in perpetrator intervention systems, we are very aware of what this patterned behaviour is designed to do, and where it springs from.

Masculinity, privilege and entitlement

The problem of course is not with being male, or being men. It’s with manhood and masculinity. Men use violence to maintain their privileged power relationships in relation to women, to obtain and pursue what they feel entitled to, to punish or destroy when their entitlement-based expectations aren’t met. This is enshrined in the narratives and cultures that shape manhood and masculinity, and in the structures and institutions that provide men with unearned privilege and which ‘disadvantage’ (or oppress) women.

The inherent advantages that current structures and systems offer do not just privilege men who perpetrate family and domestic violence, but provides significant benefits to all men – experienced to greater or lesser extents depending on their place in other hierarchies and binaries defined through race, gender identity, class, and so on. Those of us men who are reading this now also benefit, often in ways that we don’t identify, on a daily basis. The ways in which we, as men, use our privilege and entitlement in numerous and concrete day-to-day ways lays the foundation for some men to make choices to enforce male supremacy through violence.

There is a significant difference between considering family and domestic violence as a gendered issue because the vast majority of perpetrators are men, rather than because of it being an expression of the larger problem of male supremacy. The latter has considerable implications for what perpetrator accountability means in a policy environment, and in practice.

A holistic policy response

Through this lens, perpetrator accountability is not confined to a criminal justice system response to punish particular individuals (especially when this is driven by a neoliberal law and order platform). Perpetrator accountability can also be the community’s responsibility to transform the underlying conditions that reproduce intersecting power hierarchies (including but not limited to gender), based on a broader anti-oppression analysis of harm.  See, for example, Men Stopping Violence’s Community Accountability Model

Individualised approaches to men who use violence are vital – approaches that identify, assess and monitor the risk posed to family members in an ongoing way, through appropriate information sharing between relevant agencies, through placing women’s and children’s family violence services at the hub of integrated response systems, and through respectful engagement with perpetrators. Our systems need to become better at bringing the perpetrator within view, and managing and containing the risk they pose. This however should not obscure (and deflect attention from) the need to change underlying processes that perpetuate male supremacy and therefore men’s violence against women.

 This analysis is a contribution to the Scorecard on Women and Policy project, initiated by the Women's Policy Action Tank.  We invite policy specialists in all areas to provide analysis of public policy using a gender lens:  womenspolicy@goodshep.org.au  Follow us on Twitter: @PolicyforWomen