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Respectful relationships education: teaching kids respect

April 21 2016 By Mary Barry, Chief Executive Officer

​The past year has been a watershed in Australia’s understanding of violence against women and their children. We now stand together to say we will no longer accept that one in four women will suffer violence by an intimate partner in their lifetimes.

We also understand that it is not enough to simply be against such violence. Instead, we need to challenge the facets of our culture that — actively or by neglect — are supporting attitudes, behaviours and practices that drive it.

The role of the education system in particular in building respectful relationships skills to create generational change has been widely acknowledged: through Australia’s national plan to reduce violence against women and their children; by the Council of Australian Governments advisory panel on reducing violence against women and their children; and in respected journals such as The Lancet.

Respectful relationships education builds the skills of young Australians to reject aggressive behaviour, sexualisation, discrimination and gender stereotyping, and develop equal and respectful relationships.

This is the same approach that made headlines in this paper last week, particularly in relation to an exercise where 13 and 14-year-old students critically analysed partner-seeking classified advertisements, then wrote their own. The objective of the exercise was to support young people to clarify what they valued about partners and relationships, and explore the concept of building respectful relationships

Just as a headline doesn’t tell the whole story, one page in isolation of a 200-page resource for teachers doesn’t reflect what respectful relationships education is and how transformative it can be when delivered by trained and supported teachers through a whole-school approach.

It’s challenging to talk to young people about sex and relationships. No news flash there; it always has been. But what has changed in recent years is young people’s access to a wider and wider range of messaging on sex and relationships, online and in popular culture, much of which is far from positive.

Young people tell us that because of a lack of guidance from parents, teachers and role models, they turn to popular culture — music, film, television, video games and pornography — to get information about relationships, sex, and the way men and women, boys and girls are supposed to act.

Recently, more than half the 16 to 24-year-olds we interviewed had accessed sexually explicit images and video; 14 per cent access porn at least once a day. Young men told us of first accessing porn when they were as young as nine or 10. But only 14 per cent of 12 to 17-year-old boys knew porn was not a good reflection of real life.

It is absurd to suggest, as Jennifer Oriel did in these pages (April 18), that it is respectful relationships education that is sexualising children. Oriel is confusing the problem with the solution.

Young people are subject to sexualisation by popular culture, marketing and pornography. Respectful relationships education gives young people the skills to identify, critique and reject such sexualisation and foster healthy personal identities based on the principles of respect and equality. It uses age-appropriate materials and pedagogic techniques.

So we have a choice. We can continue down the path of letting young people work out how they feel about sex and relationships guided only by such influences and the advice of their peers. Or we can do what the evidence says works. In 2015, Our Watch and the Victorian government and Department of Education and Training delivered a 12-month pilot of a whole-school approach to respectful relationships education in 19 Victorian secondary schools.

The success of this pilot and the impact it had on students were such that the Victorian royal commission recommended that it directly inform a wider rollout. Evaluation of the pilot showed students’ knowledge of, attitudes towards and confidence in discussing issues of domestic violence, gender equality and respectful relationships significantly improved.

Longitudinal studies carried out in the US have shown significant decreases in participating students’ future perpetration of violence four years after the program, compared to a control group.

Here, PricewaterhouseCoopers extrapolated from such studies to estimate conservatively that if respectful relationships education were rolled out in all government schools in Australia we could prevent between 7000 and 12,000 future incidents of violence against women and save our economy up to $3.6 billion.

Think how many futures that could change.

When it comes to challenging disrespectful attitudes towards women, the status quo is failing and respectful relationships education has been shown to work.

This article was originally published by The Australian on 21 April 2016

Media contact

For enquiries or further information: Hannah Grant, Our Watch, mobile 0448 844 930, email Hannah.Grant@ourwatch.org.au

*If you cover this story, or any story regarding violence against women and children, please include the following tagline:

“If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. For more information about a service in your state or local area download the DAISY App in the App Store or Google Play.”

About Our Watch 

Our Watch’s (previously the Foundation to Prevent Violence against Women and their Children) purpose is to raise awareness and engage the community in action to prevent violence against women and their children.
Our Watch was conceived of and brought into existence in 2013 by the Commonwealth of Australia and the State of Victoria. The Northern Territory, South Australian, Tasmanian and Queensland governments have also since become members of the organisation.
Our Watch’s work derives from the government’s commitment to the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010 – 2022 and gives expression to many of the activities in the Second Action Plan 2013–2016 – Moving Ahead.