At a small school in Melbourne’s south-east, recess has ended and a dozen teenagers head to their portable classroom for their next lesson. Inside, there is everything you’d expect to find: atlases, dictionaries, trophies. But between the posters about spelling rules and timestables are less likely teaching tools.
“Sexism is a social disease. Feminists unite!” a poster reads. Declares another: “84 per cent of sexual assault victims are female. Around 1 per cent of perpetrators are female. Destroy the Joint!”
There are also lists of new words to learn — “hyper-sexualisation”, “normalisation”, “gender” — while on a whiteboard details of women’s wages rank alongside those of men.
The teens, in their ripped skinny jeans and scuffed converse, are assembling for their next two periods of the day.
But this isn’t Maths, English or one of the core subjects of the Victorian schools’ curriculum. This is Gender 101, being served up at the Southern Teaching Unit, a small school that caters for young people dealing with behavioral, social and emotional issues.
The exercises being implemented at STU are among a burgeoning number of programs being introduced in dozens of schools around Victoria that fall under the umbrella of respectful relationships education.
These programs are a core element of what’s known as “primary prevention” and supporters believe they provide a much-needed antidote to a scourge that is the leading preventable cause of death, disability and illness in Victorian women aged 15 to 44 — domestic violence.
Some of the programs have been around for more than a decade. The emergence of others coincides with growing community awareness that respectful relationship education should be central in any strategy aimed at decreasing levels of violence against women.
Mount Ridley College, a new school in Melbourne’s fast-growing northern suburbs – a region with one of the highest rates of family violence in the state — is currently instituting an ambitious respectful relationships program throughout the P-12 school. And at St Joseph’s College, a Catholic boy’s school in Geelong, a six-week program designed by the Centre Against Sexual Assault (CASA) is now a permanent part of the year nine curriculum.
Since 2004 the CASA program has been rolled out to more than 35 schools. And there are other programs run by domestic/family violence and sexual assault services, women’s health and community legal services being implemented across the state.
Programs come in many incarnations and are pitched at different age levels, but a number target year nine and are designed to run over a term or so through a series of 90-minute sessions.
Through evidence-based strategies, these weekly sessions encourage students to critically analyse the gender constructs around them and reflect stereotypes present in their own attitudes.
Ultimately, they aim to give students the skills to engage in respectful, gender-equitable relationships and to shift the attitudes and behaviours that form the basis of a gender-inequitable culture.
Primary prevention evolved in the 1990s when those in the sector became fed up with seeing consistently horrific rates of violence against women and decided to work on understanding its root causes and how they could be addressed long-term.
According to Emily Maguire, who has worked in the field for nearly a decade, research has since confirmed that violence against women is caused by three factors: gender inequity, a rigid adherence to gender roles and violence-supportive attitudes. Put simply: the more sexism and gender inequality that exists in society, the higher the levels of violence against women.
According to VicHealth research, gender inequitable attitudes and those supportive of violence are “astoundingly common”, especially among people aged 18 to 24.
These prevailing attitudes are what create a culture where violence against women is more common. The upshot is that the closer a society can come to embracing gender equity, the greater the reduction in violence against women. As a result, respectful relationships education became a key focus of the primary prevention sector.
In 2009 VicHealth produced a landmark report, a blueprint laying out how respectful relationships programs could be most effective in turning the tide on sexism and inequity. Around the same time, the Brumby Labor government unveiled its 10-year Right to Respect Plan and dedicated an unprecedented $14 million to primary prevention. The government also committed funding for a pilot program in four schools with a reinvigorated sector hopeful that, once these were completed, additional funding would be given to roll programs out across the state.
But then, in 2010, the government changed and funding was cut. New Matilda's questions to the Victorian Minister for Education Martin Dixon had not been answered at the time of publication.
Maguire says the current government has violence against women prevention programs in its statewide plan but money is concentrated at the response end with “dramatically less” than there was under the Right to Respect Plan now allocated for primary prevention work. Even so, many schools are taking on the programs regardless of government support.
At Craigieburn’s Mount Ridley College, the incentive came when the local health service made prevention of violence against women a priority.
At Glenroy College, which has been running a respectful relationships curriculum for 10 years, teacher Lidia Tizian says the school recognised that gender education was vital because students were “not necessarily getting those messages in other places”.
While the efforts of individual schools have been praised, the domestic violence sector believes that without the necessary resources and a government-driven coordinated approach, outcomes are likely to be compromised.
Sharon Simon, who works at Partners in Prevention, a project that connects educators interested in primary prevention and has more than 400 people on its books, says that, “to achieve really serious change, this is something that every school would need to adopt and that’s in every year level in every school.”
She adds: “You’ll see a lot of examples of quite high-profile people saying violence against women is wrong, but it’s that next step of linking violence against women with gender inequity and taking a stand against gender inequity which we haven’t got to yet as a society.”
Deakin University lecturer Debbie Ollis, a leader in respectful relationships education, says at most schools “sexuality education takes a biomedical approach and issues around gender are just missing”.
What is most problematic, Ollis says, is that schools often adopt anti-violence education, but sanitise it to avoid parts that make teachers uncomfortable, such as sexual violence, and don’t follow what the 2009 report found to be “best practice”.
The report found it is essential that programs use what’s called a “feminist approach”. This means they don’t just challenge violence generally but challenge the gender inequity proven to be the root cause of violence against women.
Schools often run anti-bullying programs but because they don’t talk about gender or challenge gender inequity, they don’t create the change in attitudes needed, says Ollis. Maguire says that in the best programs, before there is talk about violence against women, “you’ve got to talk about what gender means and how it constrains people, and get people to reflect on their own stereotypical attitudes.”
Partners in Prevention’s Sharon Simon says that current programs tend to begin with year nine and 10 students because they are often in their first relationships and are still forming gender attitudes.
“But ideally you’d have a program running at an early childhood centre, and you’d build on that in kindergarten, primary and secondary [schools], so every year of that young person’s development they have access to respectful relationships education.”
Evidence shows that “the more this message is reinforced the more likely it will change attitudes and behaviours”, she adds.
Ollis says she would like to see gender education put into primary and secondary teacher training courses, as well as government support for the continued development and evaluation of programs. For that to happen, she says, there needs to be political will.
Bec Zajac has been working on a project coordinated by Melbourne University’s Centre for Advancing Journalism reporting on violence against women. She has produced a multimedia package about respectful relationships education programs. Her stories, including an extended version of this article, can be read at The Citizen.
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