Men who abuse their partners aren’t monsters, though their actions are deplorable.
They are everyday people, who have ideologies about relationships that are wrong and harmful.
These are beliefs that can be dismantled – as Gateway Health in Wodonga has proven.
The service runs a 14-week course for men in the community who have used violent behaviour.
The Men’s Behaviour Change Program receives about 80 referrals for Wodonga, Wangaratta and Benalla every month – the majority coming from Victoria Police.
Once police pass on their report, the program facilitators make contact with the men, while family violence counsellors reach out to their partners to offer support and further services.
Nadia Jacobsen keeps an open mind when she makes that initial phone call.
“If you can explain it to the men in a way that makes sense and allows them to maintain their dignity, they’re more likely to attend,” she said.
“It’s important to show people respect, no matter where they’re coming from.
“You also get the response of, ‘Yes, I do need help’.
“Frequently men on the program are quite motivated to change, because of their relationship with their children, and a wish to improve that.”
Frequently men on the program are quite motivated to change, because of their relationship with their childrenMen's Behaviour Change program co-ordinator Nadia Jacobsen
Over the 14 weeks, the group of men explore the effects of violence on their partners and children, the cycle of violence, patriarchy and gender stereotypes.
Stephen Montgomery, also a facilitator, coaches the group into seeing things from a different perspective.
“Good facilitation comes from relating to their experience, so we then put reflective questions around that, to make them stop and think.
“The group will also be the first to say to one of the men, ‘What you’re doing is wrong’, and they will listen.
“It’s a process that starts to unfold over a few weeks where the group starts holding each other to account.”
A key goal of his is to help the men separate the concepts of feelings and behaviours.
“Anger is a feeling, whereas violence is a behaviour – you can be angry without hurting someone, and not cross the line into being physical,” Mr Montgomery said.
“When you have an intervention order and you’re texting and harassing her, what does that say about your parenting?
“It dishevels her for the day and she lives in fear – it’s going to affect her parenting.
“Instead of noting shes distressed, upset and can’t focus – it’s looking at why, and the harassment – it’s shifting that focus.”
Ms Jacobsen thinks that shift in thinking is happening more within support services.
“Previously, a lot of the work went into supporting women and creating environments for them to get out of the violence, but we weren’t changing anything for the men, it wasn’t a bigger initiative,” she said.
“Now it has become a big focus on accountability.”
She often sees men who have experienced trauma or who have their own history of family violence, where they have been the victim.
“We look at the effect of violence on children and break down resistance – they might say, ‘My father used to hit me, and it was good for me’, and you say, ‘Well, look where you are now – was it good for you?’,” she said.
“That shift, and finding the empathy is really something you see, and it’s in relation to children normally.
“They can see they’ve done the same thing to someone else in their life, or their child.”
Ms Jacobsen asks the men why the violence occurs, though she can guess what the answer will be.
“We have a whole range of answers we’ve developed, because we’ve heard them all before,” she said.
“Whether it’s ‘It was her fault’, or ‘I was drinking’ – you hear them in every group – and they pick up a card off the floor with one of the statements they see as one of their reasons, and put it up on the board over the types of violence we have written up.
“They eventually cover the board.
“We ask them what they’re seeing and they generally will tell us they’re seeing excuses.”
Some really fantastic changes come out of the program, particularly when complemented by Gateway’s drug and alcohol services and parenting support.
Of course, it doesn’t work for everyone, and often there can be a handful of recidivists in every group.
Ms Jacobsen believes a longer program would have even more success.
Gateway’s chief executive Leigh Rhode agrees more could be done, including offering one-on-one sessions and follow-up after the program.
“I think there’s more demand for it than we can currently meet, so we would hope the different types of intervention we might offer we can expand on,” she said.
“It’s a question of funding, but it’s also about working with our partners to start to develop some innovative models.
“This is a new space – we can strengthen the work we’re doing with schools and parents at the prevention end.”
Mr Montgomery sees the work of the Victorian government in rolling out the Respectful Relationships program as a big step forward.
“I think re-defining gender roles, particularly around parenting, is a huge area,” he said.
“I have a six-month-old son, and I can be at work all day, come home and change a nappy and I’m hailed a hero.
“People might say, ‘What are you talking about, that’s not violence’, but it’s all the stuff underneath that feeds into that – the acceptance of, ‘You’re a man, you do this, you’re a woman, you do that’.”
New research from Women’s Health Victoria delving into what effect those expectations are having on young women was launched this week in Benalla.
An extensive literature review of over 150 studies, Growing Up Unequal: How sex and gender impact young women’s health and well-being found ‘gender unequal norms, practices and structures continue to limit young women’s equal and full participation in many aspects of life’.
Womens’ Health Goulburn North East health promotion officer Bernadette Fraser said the study took issues previously analysed in isolation and looked at the cumulative effect.
“There was this huge discrepancy between levels of stress for young women between the ages of 10 and 20 around school, study and body image compared to their peers,” she said.
“When they drilled down to each of those factors, they were able to see a lot of it came down to great inequity like sharing of housework, whether or not young women felt safe to go out and exercise and without judgement in their communities, and also issues around not being valued for their intelligence.
“More than half of Australian girls report they are most often valued for their looks.”
The study also outlined girls and boys have comparable levels of mental health and self-confidence before puberty, but young women’s health outcomes worsen during adolescence.
Despite doing more work at home, Australian girls receive on average 35 per cent less pocket money than boys, and when they leave school, their average graduate salaries are 9.4 per cent lower.
In Ms Jacobsen’s eyes, the treatment and expectations of young men and women need to be brought into balance if change is to happen.
“These people who are violent with their families have learned values and beliefs that have allowed them to feel superior to other people, to disrespect women, or to feel entitled to particular privileges,” she said.
“One of the main reasons for violence against women is the disrespect of women, so we have to engender that as a society.”
Ms Fraser said rigid gender roles were harmful for everyone.
“Where a boy or man is trying to live up to this hyper-masculine notion of how you be a man, it’s damaging not only for girls and women, when it turns into abuse, but for the boys and men – as we see with suicide rates,” she said.
“It’s around making sure boys, girls, men and women have equal opportunity and re-dressing where there are inequities.”
Ms Rhode believes this is where the everyday person has an opportunity to step in.
“There’s pre-conditions for violent relationships in all settings – at home, work, school – so what can we do in those environments to foster respectful relationships?” she said.
“I think that’s an important question for everyone, no matter who you are or your experience.”
On each of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence (November 25 to December 10), The Border Mail will be sharing the messages of support from Step Out, the stories of survivors and the work of people who are creating a society where women and men feel safe and respected.
If you have a story you think needs to be shared, email firstname.lastname@example.org