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Time for media to stop blaming victims


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Images of drunk young women in city streets late at night makes for polarising television. In a battle for ratings, media grab for footage like this and no doubt generate lounge-room conversations about how ‘I’d never let my daughter do that’.

The media has such power over public opinion and that’s why we would like to see some change.

The idea that messages continue to tell women: “… to be vigilant, be aware of their surroundings, and to not walk alone” frustrates organisations like ours – the YWCA – which want to transform the community dialogue.

Quite simply: rather than telling a potential victim not to walk alone; tell a potential perpetrator that if they see someone walking alone – leave them alone.

Recent deaths by so-called ‘coward punches’ has seen a swift legislative response in some jurisdictions, and the emphasis of responsibility firmly placed on the person delivering the punch.

This is the kind of reaction we want when it comes to men’s violence against women: that the perpetrator is held responsible.

This is consistent with advocacy messages associated with the White Ribbon Foundation and respected researcher Michael Flood: “Men must strive for equitable and respectful relationships. They must challenge the violence of other men.”

It is also reflected in the systemic changes identified in the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children. Supported by every state and territory, this 12-year plan was launched by the former Labor Federal Government.

Just this month YWCA of Adelaide was represented on a national plan roundtable hosted by Senator Michaelia Cash about the stage two implementation where the Senator reinforced the new Federal Government’s determined commitment to the plan.

The role of the media was raised by many around the table.

To shift reporting styles from victim-blaming to perpetrator responsibility, we need entire community commitment and we need to start early.

For the last two years YWCA of Adelaide has delivered a one hour lecture to journalism students on Gender and the Media at University of South Australia. We welcome this small step and would encourage all universities which deliver media, communications and journalism courses to expand their delivery of gender-related content.

We have also proudly piloted Australia’s first respectful relationships program in primary schools over recent years in partnership with YWCA of Canberra working with girls and boys.

Evaluation shows we are changing attitudes and behaviours of children in grades six and seven, and influencing teachers in positive ways with a view to playing our role in sustainable generational change and ultimately reducing violence against women.

Our work in schools will continue as will our efforts to influence the most influential: among them is the media.

Feeding in to the area of perpetrator responsibility are “bystander” principles, where everyone is implored to not be a bystander when they see or know of violence, but to take action.

Just three weeks ago in the United States at a White House meeting on sexual violence, President Barack Obama stated: “Bystanders must be taught and emboldened to step in and stop it.”

Training on active bystander behaviour is currently underway on a variety of US college campuses.

Importantly, being an active bystander does not have to mean subscribing to socialised gender stereotypes and responding with vigilante/white knight ‘heroism’ where violence is met with violence.

It is more about challenging or confronting violence-supportive attitudes or behaviours and can be as simple as positive and respectful  behaviour, which might include saying something, appropriate role modelling, or removing someone from a potentially dangerous situation.

Research indicates that about 3 per cent of US college men account for 90 to 95 percent of rapes. Bystander intervention asks the other 97 percent of men to come into the room and help with the problem.

What we can also do in our communities is send a clear message – including via the media – that if you see a young woman who is drunk, don’t commit a crime against her. Instead, make sure she gets home safely.

Liz Forsyth is the Chief Executive of the YWCA of Adelaide.

To access counselling for Rape or Sexual Assault contact Yarrow Place 82268787.

If you would like support relating to domestic violence contact 1800RESPECT.

To engage with the White Ribbon Foundation visit

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