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OPINION: Gender inequality key to violence against women

When I was studying at university, the conversation about rape and sexual harassment was very ­different to the one happening now around the world — not just on campuses, but right across ­societies.

In that era, discussions about sexual violence often centred on key misconceptions — some of which have proven stubbornly persistent.

Fundamentally, conversations — and resulting policy — were based on the idea of the perpetrator as a stranger.

The stranger danger myth has been a powerful one and has been hard to shake. Of course we know that this type of attack is not the most common.

The heartbreaking news of the rape and murder of Aya Maasarwe and, a year before her, Eurydice Dixon as they walked home from a night out in Melbourne was a searing reminder that shocking ­attacks by someone unknown to the victim can still happen.

Yet we know from evidence, not only in Australia but from around the world, that women are the most unsafe when they are in their own home. It is heartbreaking — and maddening — that the place where a woman should feel most secure, most at ease, most safe — her home — is the place where she is most at risk.

So, what is the solution to ending sexual violence and violence against women? It’s gender equality. It’s respect. It’s better attitudes towards women. And it’s also about tackling preconceptions and myths.

The work of shifting attitudes across the whole of society is a huge and complex task. Each year, around 300,000 students graduate from university in this country — and another 300,000 people step on to a university campus for the first time as students.

This means there are another 300,000 preformed attitudes, conceptions and ideas about consent, relationships and gender coming in to university communities every single year.

Those attitudes can be deeply ingrained and hard to shift. Universities, as education institutions and as leaders in the community, have an important role to play in this global conversation. Universities shape people in the critical transitions from school to work, or into new careers.

Our universities educate almost 1.4 million students a year and employ more than 120,000 people. We are also resolute in our commitment to support victims and survivors.

That’s why, three years ago, 39 university leaders came together to discuss what further work could and should be done in this important sector of society. The vision was that this next stage of work would be sustained, long term and, uniquely, sector wide.

The Respect. Now. Always. initiative brings all 39 major universities together to share resources and expertise, to learn from one other in good practice, and to speed the advances we can make. This work is supported by Universities Australia’s 10-point action plan.

Last Wednesday, we announced the next major step under that action plan. Universities Australia will partner with Our Watch, the nation’s leading agency dedicated to preventing violence against women, and the Victorian government through its Office for Women, to develop a whole-of-institution approach to prevent gendered violence — the Respect and Equality Program.

This will include a next-generation respectful relationships education program for students — drawing on cutting-edge expert research — which will be trialed with students in four universities over the next 18 months.

The education program will be tailored specifically for students in Australian universities, drawing on insights from violence prevention and online learning experts.

Student education alone won’t change a society. Evidence shows the most effective measures to prevent violence against women are those that shape cultures right across institutions and societies.

Institutions that model respect and gender equality in every facet of their operations can send a strong message: respect and equality are expected from — and for — every member of this community. That message can be sent by leadership, lecturers and tutors, professional staff and every student. A commitment to respectful and equal relationships is reinforced when students see them modelled.

So the Respect and Equality Program will deliver enhanced workplace standards, training packages, resources and toolkits for leaders, staff and students to promote equality and prevent ­violence.

Our Watch’s national primary prevention framework — Change the Story — is the first of its kind. It makes very clear the gendered drivers of violence against women.

Our Watch works with education systems, sporting codes and companies to address these drivers. The underlying principle of their work is a powerful commitment to gender equality.

The Victorian government’s commitment to ending violence against women — articulated in its Free From Violence strategy — also makes it clear that gender equality is our best solution to gender-based violence.

This was nowhere more evident than in the Victorian Premier’s response to the rape and murder of Eurydice Dixon. In the immediate aftermath of Eurydice’s murder, Victorian police advised women to “be aware of their surroundings”, implying that women are responsible for their own safety.

In response, Premier Daniel Andrews said: “Our message to Victorian women is this: Stay home. Or don’t. Go out with friends at night. Or don’t. Go about your day exactly as you intend, on your terms. Because women don’t need to change their behaviour. Men do.”

To our knowledge, no other university sector in the world has united in such a comprehensive program as the Respect. Now. Always. initiative. If gender inequality is the core of the problem, it also the heart of the solution.

Changing unacceptable and deeply ingrained attitudes is not an easy or quick task. But universities can play a powerful role to shift attitudes that give rise to violence. And to equip students with the skills and confidence to forge a more equal world.

We are determined to do so.

This opinion piece is based on an address by Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson to Deakin University’s Respect. Prevent. Respond. Conference on February 6. It was published in The Australian on Wednesday 13 February 2019. 

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