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    What is violence against women?

    Before your local government begins work on preventing violence against women, it is important to understand what violence against women is, what causes it and how a primary prevention approach can help us to address this issue.

    Violence against women in Australia

    In Australia, violence against women is a broad term and may be used to refer to different types of violence including domestic violence, family violence, intimate partner violence, sexual harassment and sexual assault.  

    The majority of both domestic and family violence and violence against women is intimate partner violence (perpetrated by a current or former partner). However, domestic and family violence may also refer to acts of violence between family members such as sibling violence or elder abuse. 

    Violence against women also includes gender-based violence that is perpetrated outside the family context – for example, sexual harassment or sexual assault in the workplace, community or in public settings.  

    Violence against women is not always physical or sexual. It can include financial, social, emotional and/or psychological abuse, spiritual and technological abuse, as well as stalking. Non-physical abuse is very common, but it can be harder to recognise, and is often not well understood. 

    Violence against women impacts women of all ages, abilities, backgrounds and identities, but in disproportionate ways. In order to prevent violence against all women across Australia, it is important to understand that women are not a homogenous group. Rather, women have diverse social identities based on their age, race, Aboriginality, ability, gender identity, sexual orientation, migration status, geographic location and socio-economic class, along with many other factors.  The gendered drivers of violence are often experienced in combination with other forms of inequality and discrimination to explain why there are different rates of violence and different types of violence experienced among women. Current evidence tells us that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, women with disability and trans women are more likely to experience violence than are non-Indigenous women, women without disability and cisgender women.

    What causes violence against women?

    There is no single cause of violence against women, but there is a strong link with gender inequality. Current international evidence, outlined in Change the story: a shared framework for the primary prevention of violence against women and their children in Australia, tells us that higher levels of violence against women are consistently associated with lower levels of gender equality in both public life and interpersonal relationships. 

    Within this broader context, Change the story identifies four specific, gendered drivers of this violence: 

    • condoning violence, particularly by excusing or trivialising it, or ‘blaming the victim’ 
    • men’s control of decision-making, and limits to women’s independence in public life and relationships 
    • rigid gender roles and stereotyped constructions of masculinity and femininity 
    • male peer relations that emphasise aggression and disrespect towards women. 

    Gender inequality is always influential as a driver of violence against women, but it is not experienced in the same way by every woman. Any factor that undermines or limits women’s access to social, political and economic power increases the likelihood they will experience violence. This is why women who also experience racism, ableism, homophobia or transphobia are more likely to experience violence. This is evident in alarmingly high rates of violence experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, women with disability and trans women.  

    The gendered drivers of violence

    Violence against women has distinct gendered drivers. Evidence points to four factors that most consistently predict or ‘drive’ violence against women and explain its gendered patterns.

    Driver 1 – Condoning of violence against women: When societies, institutions or communities support or condone violence against women, levels of such violence are higher Individual men who hold these beliefs are more likely to perpetrate violence against women.

    Driver 2 – Men’s control of decision-making and limits to women’s independence in public and private life: Violence is more common in relationships in which men control decision-making and limit women’s autonomy, have a sense of ownership of or entitlement to women, and hold rigid ideas on acceptable female behaviour. Constraints on women’s independence and access to decision-making are also evident in the public sphere, where men have greater control over power and resources.

    Driver 3 – Rigid gender stereotyping and dominant forms of masculinity: Promoting and enforcing rigid and hierarchical gender stereotypes reproduces the social conditions of gender inequality that underpin violence against women. In particular, stereotypes of masculinity play a direct role in driving men’s violence against women.

    Driver 4 – Male peer relations and cultures of masculinity that emphasise aggression, dominance and control: Male peer relationships (both personal and professional) that are characterised by attitudes, behaviours or norms regarding masculinity that centre on aggression, dominance, control or hypersexuality are associated with violence against women.

    What is primary prevention?

    Primary prevention is about stopping violence against women before it starts. Primary prevention activities identify and address the underlying drivers of violence against women, as well as the reinforcing factors.

    Infographic showing the relationship between primary prevention and other work to address violence against women. The relationship between these is depicted as a pyramid that narrows from broader whole-of-population initiatives to response services for individuals. Primary prevention: whole-of-population initiatives that address the primary (’first’ or underlying) drivers of violence against women. Early intervention (or secondary prevention): aims to change the trajectory for individuals at higher-than-average risk of perpetrating or experiencing violence. Response (or tertiary prevention): supports victim–survivors and holds perpetrators to account, aiming to prevent the recurrence of violence. Recovery: ongoing process that enables victim–survivors to find safety, health, wellbeing, resilience and to thrive in all areas of their life.
    The relationship between primary prevention and other work to address violence against women.

    How change happens: the socio-ecological model

    The causes and effects of violence against women are at individual, family, community and societal levels and as such it is encouraged that you consider all these levels to bring about change. The socio-ecological model presented below demonstrates each level and the role it plays.

    Infographic showing the different factors which influence the occurrence of violence against women. The figure represents violence as the outcome of interactions among many factors at four levels. It shows examples of structures, norms and practices found to increase the probability of violence against women, at different levels of the social ecology. The highest level is the societal level: dominant social norms supporting rigid roles and stereotyping, or condoning, excusing and downplaying violence against women. The second level is the system and institutional level: failure of systems, institutions and policies to promote women’s economic, legal and social autonomy, or to adequately address violence against women. The third level is the organisational and community level: organisation and community norms, structures and practices supporting or failing to address gender inequality, stereotyping, discrimination and violence. The fourth and final level is the individual and relationship level: individual adherence to rigid gender roles and identities, weak support for gender equality, social learning of violence against women, male dominance and controlling behaviours in relationships.
    The socio-ecological model for prevention

    It is when activities are delivered at different levels in this model that change happens. For example, working on an individual level to change men’s attitudes to violence through counselling may be more successful if combined with a broader community awareness campaign, to shift social norms that reinforce and support the individual to change their attitudes and behaviour.

    How do local governments prevent violence against women?

    To prevent violence against women, local governments need to: 

    • develop actions and activities that address the gendered drivers of violence 
    • consider gender inequality and other forms of discrimination, including racism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia that amplify violence against women. 

    More resources

    Additional material to support you in your work


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    Primary prevention: the role local governments play

    Supported by the Australian Government Department of Social Services.