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Respectful Relationships education will tackle the issue of family violence early and change the story for future generations, write APARNA ANANTHUNI and DIPANJALI RAO
One in three Australian women have faced physical violence since the age of 15, and, on average, one woman in Australia is killed every week by a current or former partner. To tackle this early, the Victorian government is rolling out the Resilience, Rights and Respectful Relationships education program in schools. Developed by a team of nationally and internationally recognised experts, this is an evidence-based education approach, implemented across schools and early childhood services, that focuses on addressing the drivers of gender-based violence to change culture and reduce the incidence of family violence.
Recognising the importance of early education, The Royal Commission into Family Violence recommended mandatory education on Respectful Relationships at all year levels. Off the back of a successful pilot in 2015, an investment of $21.8 million over two years will see Respectful Relationships education delivered across Victorian schools at all levels, in partnership with not-for-profit organisation Our Watch.
Educating children and adolescents in their formative years about healthy relationships is critical when it comes to changing the story of family violence.
“If we are to see generational change, we need to start early with programs like Respectful Relationships,” Maya Avdibegovic, CEO of InTouch Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence told Indian Link. “This is an opportunity to create generational change in the incidence of and attitudes towards family violence.”
In order to address the key drivers of gender-based violence, the program aims to develop students’ emotional and social skills to promote healthy relationships and, among other things, give students a nuanced understanding of gender.
Speaking to Indian Link, Senthorun Raj, an advocate and academic who works in law and human rights urges us to think of gender theory not as an abstract or an academic concept, but as simply another way of describing, thinking about and experiencing everyday life.
“The way we live our lives as men or women is also a form of ‘gender theory’,” he says. “Encouraging students to think about how gender has been defined socially, culturally, and historically – and how it has evolved over time – can help them to understand how something like gender has become fundamental to our daily lives.”
Through a program like Respectful Relationships, Raj says students will get the opportunity to study gender and “to rethink ideas of masculinity (as strength, power, assertiveness, etc) and femininity (as passivity, domesticity, obedience, etc.) which, in some cases, have become harmful in things ranging from political life to personal relationships.”
Matt, a Counsellor and Research Officer for the Men’s Referral Service, explains how gendered expectations and socialisation play out in the men that he speaks with.
“Men are socialised [to think that] anger is the only acceptable emotion to express,” he told Indian Link. “Women, in most contexts, are allowed to cry and express sadness, but interestingly, not allowed to express anger.”
He also sometimes speaks with women who suffer violence. “One of the saddest impacts of intimate partner violence is that women report that the physical violence was more manageable for them than the impacts on their self-esteem and self-worth,” he says.
While emphatic that violence is always the perpetrator’s fault and the focus should be to change abusive behaviour, he hopes that Respectful Relationships education will help girls and young women as well. “It is important to put responsibility where it lies… but it may serve as a protective measure (for girls) if they better understand what a healthy relationship is.”
Indeed, when Our Watch evaluated the Respectful Relationships pilot, they found that students’ recognition and understanding of respect and respectful relationships had increased after taking part in the program. They concluded that, “an explicit focus on gender, power and violence, when sustained across the school, can successfully raise students’ awareness of the nature and extent of gender-based violence, not only in general terms, but in relation to their own lived experiences”.
Dr Kevin Donnelly, Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University has said, “[Respectful Relationships] is a concerted campaign across Kindergarten to Year 12 to indoctrinate children with a gender and sexuality program that is biased and ideological. My concern as an educator is, there is no real balance in the program. It is pushing a cultural Left argument.”
Indeed, Respectful Relationships has been criticised by some in the community as being ‘radical gender theory’ and introducing themes of family violence to children at too young an age.
Senthorun Raj counters, “If you believe men/masculinity and women/femininity are defined exclusively by biology, then the idea that gender is more complicated than that can seem quite ‘radical.’”
Other concerns that the program demonises men and boys and leads to a loss of innocence amongst children and young adults were addressed by Our Watch’s evaluation of the pilot which concluded that, according to academic research, such concerns are “unfounded”: “Both young men and young women in this study frequently affirmed the importance of Respectful Relationships Education for their futures as respected and respectful adults.”
The Respectful Relationships program is certainly not the cure-all for gendered violence. As Matt says, “Respectful Relationships training is not a panacea. It is very necessary in terms of gendered violence, but it is less good at intergenerational abuse, elder abuse, trauma and [violence related to] intellectual disability.”
Ultimately, as ‘mini communities’, schools are important sites of societal change. This is our opportunity to begin to change attitudes, cultures, and norms early on; to reverse the destructive cycle of gender-based violence and change the story for future generations.