Breaking the cycle |
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Breaking the cycle

shattered photo of couple on their wedding day

Breaking the cycle

A topic of national urgency and a leading cause of fatalities in Australia, family violence is a complex, multi-faceted issue. It can occur in a range of situations, most predominantly in the use of violence against women and children.

Research from the 2012 Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Personal Safety Survey and Australian Institute of Criminology shows that both men and women in Australia experience substantial levels of violence, however, it is far more likely for a person to experience violence from a male rather than a female perpetrator.

One in six Australian women has experienced physical or sexual violence from a current or former partner, compared to one in 19 Australian men.

Much of the discussion has been centred around the protection of women and children, often leaving the men who perpetrated violence and abuse against their families absent from the social agenda.

Men’s behaviour change programs originated from the need to address this absence and understand the perpetrator’s pathway into the use of violence in their relationships.


What are men’s behaviour change programs?


Men’s behaviour change programs have existed in Australia for over 20 years, although there has been relatively little documented about their emergence.

The aim of a men’s behaviour change program is to hold family violence perpetrators accountable for their behaviour and ensure that they take responsibility for their choices and actions.

All state-funded programs must run for a minimum of 12 weeks and a variety of therapeutic techniques and educational tools, including group discussion, role-play, scenarios, handouts and DVD’s, are utilised to encourage the men to open up about their experiences and reflect on what brought them to the group.

“For men to stop being violent they have to recognise the impact of their abuse and violence on others and they also have to start to show empathy for others. If they have no empathy they’re not going to change. One of the exercises we will do is to get them to put themselves in their partner’s shoes as a victim of the violence, to really feel what she may be experiencing,” said Jo Howard, Executive Manager at Kildonan Care.

Kildonan UnitingCare is a community service organisation within one of Australia’s largest welfare networks, UnitingCare Australia. The organisation offers a variety of services across the north and north eastern suburbs of Melbourne, with offices located at Broadmeadows, Coburg, Collingwood, Epping, Heidelberg and Reservoir.

Their men’s behavioural change program lasts for 21 weeks, with 60-70% of participants completing the course.

Jo explained that, initially, many of the men find it difficult to acknowledge their past behaviour and will use a variety of defences when confronted with it.

“They minimise their violence and its impacts, saying ‘it was only a push,’ or exaggerate, ‘well she’s always complaining,’ or justify, ‘if you had a wife like that you’d hit her too,’” she said.

Melbourne’s outer north municipalities are covered by Plenty Valley Community Health, which has been delivering primary care services to residents of the City of Whittlesea for over 30 years.

Wendy Cisar, Plenty Valley’s Primary Care and Community Services Manager, says that one of the first things their men’s behaviour change program will do is define exactly what family violence encompasses.

“The definition of family violence is so broad that men are finding themselves coming to men’s behaviour change groups absolutely mystified as to [what constitutes family violence], saying ‘oh I thought it was the right thing for me to control the money, that’s what a man does,’” she said.

The most visible form of family violence is physical abuse, but family violence also falls into the following categories: sexual (eg rape, harassment, being forced to watch pornography); emotional or psychological (eg isolating the victim from friends and family, threats against the children); economic (eg withholding money, controlling family finances, taking out loans in a partner’s name without their consent) and stalking (repeated watching, following or harassing).

Both Kildonan Care and Plenty Valley Community Health have partner contact workers as part of their program who work with the female victims to assist them with safety planning and link them to relevant services who can provide more in-depth support. Often the women want to stay in the relationship but they just want the violence to stop.

While there are some similarities with anger management programs, in looking at skills such as conflict resolution, communication and dealing with difficult emotions, men’s behaviour change programs have a firm focus on examining the attitudes and values within the men that support the use of violence.

“A lot of them will hold very strong gender descriptions about being a man, like being the boss, being in control, making the decisions, punishing the partner if she doesn’t do what they want, and they will also have very strong attitudes around the gendered role of women, such as being the homemaker, not going out, looking after the kids. Men’s behaviour change programs really explore gender and gender constructions and the relationship that the man has with his partner and children, whereas anger management is much more around the individual and individual skill building,” explained Jo.


Evaluation and effectiveness


In order for a man to truly benefit from a men’s behaviour change program, he must first attend an assessment (a state-wide process) to identify any individual issues or health needs that may require referrals to other services. This integrated approach ensures that the men are fully able to engage with the program without any other health burdens holding them back.

“There is no excuse for family violence, ever. Because there are a number of services provided to the man long before he gets to actually do the program, we try to address everything that the man might raise, whether it’s a mental health, a drug or alcohol challenge, any other aspects of his life that might be impacting on him,” said Wendy.

Participant evaluations usually take place before, during and after the program and men may have the option to repeat the course or connect to a different service, such as a parenting program, if they wish to spend more time building on their commitment to change their behaviour.

Relationships Australia Victoria (RAV) are a non-profit, community based organisation that offer specialist family services across Victoria to over 17,000 clients a year. They also provide men’s behaviour change programs, focusing on the south-eastern and western suburbs of Melbourne.

Robyn McIvor, Senior Manager, Family Violence Service Development at RAV, says she rarely receives negative comments about the programs, with many men saying that they wish they’d done it earlier or that they really appreciate the improved relationships with their family.

“The men, once engaged, really do get a lot out these groups. There have been some men who work in a very male-dominated environment and at the end of the program will be referring their mates to our men’s behaviour change programs or counselling programs. I think you know you’ve done really good work if that’s happening. Ultimately that’s what we would want, that these men make changes and then go back to other men and talk about what violence is and that it doesn’t work and that they can do it differently as men,” said Robyn.

John* was ordered by the court to attend a men’s behaviour change program and is one of Kildonan Care’s success stories. He describes the program as “life-changing,” particularly the opportunity to talk with other men going through the same process, and can now express his emotions without resorting to violence.

“I have the ability to resolve problems without being violent and I discuss things; if they have differences of opinion, that’s alright, that’s normal. It’s not about the men dominating, it’s equal,” he commented.

In January 2015, the findings of Project Mirabal, a UK research study into the extent to which perpetrator programs reduce violence and increase safety for women and children, were released.

The study, which was initiated by Respect, the UK’s national body for perpetrator programs, and conducted by Durham and London Metropolitan Universities, reported positive improvements in various aspects of men’s behaviour after starting a program.

Far fewer women recorded being physically injured (61% before compared to 2% after) and the extent to which children saw/overheard violence dropped significantly (from 80% to 8%).

“Slapped you, pushed you, or thrown something at you” reduced from 87% of women saying this happened before the program to 7% afterwards, and “used a weapon against you” dropped from 29% to zero.

Thirty-four percent of women said “he negotiates during disagreements” before the program compared to 64% 12 months after starting the program and “he tries to prevent me seeing family/friends” reduced from 65% to 15%.

There were only marginal improvements for “he tries to use money/finances to control me” however and “he tries to justify or make excuses” only dropped from 91% to 71%.

While the evidence seems promising, Jo thinks it is unrealistic to expect men to complete a program and never make any slides back towards their old behaviour.

“They’ve had years and years of indoctrination of being this way, they’re the way they are partly because of how they were raised and partly because of the whole community and social context. They might be 30, 35, 40 so they’ve got to undo all those years of learning, which is really hard to do,” she commented.

“We always judge the success of the program on the feedback from the women and, if possible, children because all the evidence indicates that men tend to rate their success far more highly than their partners do.”

All of the service providers agreed that more funding was needed to allow longer term follow-up of the men, perhaps in the form of a weekly or fortnightly drop-in session where the men can touch base and discuss how they are progressing.

On 22 February 2015, the Governor of Victoria appointed a chair and two Deputy Commissioners to the Royal Commission into Family Violence, which will inquire into and provide practical recommendations as to how Victoria’s response to family violence can be improved.

Nearly 1,000 submissions were received, from a number of organisations involved in all aspects of family violence.

No To Violence, the Victorian peak body for organisations and individuals working with men to end their violence and abuse against family members, outlined several findings specifically related to men’s behaviour change programs.

Two of the key points in their submission were that the extensive waiting lists for men’s behaviour change programs escalate risk as more men slip through the gaps or opt out and that a one size fits all approach does not work in many cases, with better frameworks needed for indigenous and culturally diverse communities, sentiments echoed across the sector.

The Commission is due to provide its report and recommendations to the Governor of Victoria by Tuesday 29 March.


Primary prevention as the next step forward


While male behaviour change programs have a significant role to play in reducing the impact on those who have already experienced violence, primary prevention is just as critical to address the social attitudes which allow family violence to happen.

Our Watch, the national foundation to prevent violence against women, is one of the organisations dedicated to bringing about nation-wide change in the culture, behaviours and attitudes that underpin family violence.

“We think we’re a pretty lucky country and that we’re quite privileged but we have alarming rates of violence against women and gender inequality is highlighted as the social context necessary for really high rates of violence,” said Cara Gleeson, Our Watch Policy and Projects Manager.

“Things like alcohol, drugs, socio-economic inequality and exposure to general violence can reinforce the likelihood or the frequency or the severity of violence against women but they in themselves don’t explain it,” she added.

Since their establishment in 2013 by the Victorian and Commonwealth governments, Our Watch have been delivering primary prevention campaigns in schools, workplaces and sports clubs.

On 10 November 2015, in partnership with the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth) and Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS), they launched Change the Story, a national framework for preventing family violence, which sits alongside the federal government’s National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022.

The framework is based on an extensive review of current international literature and uses additional research and consultation undertaken during the development process to gain fresh input and perspectives on the issue.

It summarises that gender inequality is at the core of the problem and the heart of the solution, highlighting four actions necessary to put a stop to family violence: challenge the condoning of violence against women, promote women’s independence and decision-making, challenge gender stereotypes and roles and strengthen positive, equal and respectful relationships.

“Violence against women is prevalent and serious, but it is also preventable. Just as we have reduced smoking and road trauma in Victoria, we can reduce violence if we address its underlying causes. The main driver of violence against women is an unequal distribution of power between men and women in relationships, reinforced through structures, norms and practices across our community,” said Renee Imbesi, Principal Program Officer Mental Wellbeing, Vic Health.

Our Watch, in collaboration with the Victorian Department of Education, recently finished piloting their Respectful Relationships program in 19 secondary schools across Victoria, delivering the curriculum to over 3,000 students in years eight and nine.

The evaluation of the pilot is not out till April but Cara said there was anecdotal evidence emerging that suggested positive impacts on student behaviour, peer to peer relationships and student teacher relationships.

“Formative years are the early development years so if we can be promoting gender equality and promoting them to express their gender and challenge stereotypes, it’s a really great way to create a generation where the power differences between men and women might not necessarily result in the level and rate of violence against women that we’re currently seeing,” she said.

Targeting young people became particularly important after the VicHealth National Community Attitudes Survey 2013 revealed that people aged 16-24 have a lower level of understanding of violence against women and are more likely to excuse it. They are also more likely to endorse relationships where men exert power over women.

The same survey also found that 53% of Australians believe women fabricate or exaggerate domestic violence in family law cases (increase from 51% in the 2009 survey) and 64% perceive that the main cause of violence against women is some men not being unable to manage their anger (2009 data unavailable).

The most shocking statistics relate to sexual assault, with 43% of Australians believing that rape results from men not being able to control their need for sex (increase from 35% in 2009) and 19% believing that if a woman is raped while drug or drug-affected then she bears responsibility for the rape (increase from 18% in 2009).

Another recent VicHealth investigation, the More than Ready survey, focused on bystander action to prevent violence against women. One in three Victorians had seen or witnessed sexism in last 12 months, in workplaces, sports clubs or amongst friends and family, but less than half of those people said or did anything about it even if they felt uncomfortable.

“The main barrier to people speaking up against sexism was the belief that no one around them would support their action. Programs such as Equal Footing in the Workplace aim to develop a culture where gender equality is the norm and staff know they will be supported if they call out sexism and discrimination,” said Renee.

Renee believes that only mutually reinforcing actions by governments, organisations, communities and individuals will promote and normalise gender equality in public and private life.

“Everyone in the community – from sport to business to media – has a role to play in preventing violence against women, changing attitudes and making respectful relationships the norm.”

For more information, visit,,, or Local services can be located at and


If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit In an emergency, call 000.


*Name has been changed for legal reasons.


Photo credit: Carlo Oggioni

This article originally appeared in The Northsider. View here.

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