Our Watch

Skip to content

The issue

11 minutes

Violence against women is preventable. Our goal is to stop violence against women before it starts. To do this, we need to understand the drivers of gendered violence and what we can do, as a society, to prevent it.

What drives violence against women?

There is consensus in the international and national research that violence against women arises in the social context of gender inequality, and that this violence has distinct gendered drivers.

The social context for violence against women

The social context in which violence against women arises is characterised by gender inequality and many other intersecting forms of inequality and oppression.

Gender inequality is where women and men do not have equal social status, power, resources or opportunities, and their voices, ideas and work are not valued equally by society.

Gender inequality provides the underlying conditions for violence against women. It exists at many levels in our society – from how we view and value men and women, to economic factors like the pay gap between men and women, to family and relationship roles and expectations. There is a strong and consistent association between gender inequality and violence against women.

Many other forms of structural and systemic discrimination and inequality influence the prevalence and dynamics of violence against women. These include racism, ableism, ageism, heteronormativity, cissexism, class discrimination, and – for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women – the ongoing impacts of colonialism.

The gendered drivers of violence

Violence against women has distinct gendered drivers. Evidence points to four factors that most consistently predict or ‘drive’ violence against women and explain its gendered patterns.

Driver 1: Condoning of violence against women

When societies, institutions or communities support or condone violence against women, levels of such violence are higher. Individual men who hold these beliefs are more likely to perpetrate violence against women. Condoning of violence against women occurs in many ways, through practices that justify, excuse or trivialise this violence or shift blame from the perpetrator to the victim.

Driver 2: Men’s control of decision-making and limits to women’s independence in public and private life

Violence is more common in relationships in which men control decision-making and limit women’s autonomy, have a sense of ownership of or entitlement to women, and hold rigid ideas on acceptable female behaviour. Constraints on women’s independence and access to decision-making are also evident in the public sphere, where men have greater control over power and resources. This sends a message that women have lower social value and are less worthy of respect.

Driver 3: Rigid gender stereotyping and dominant forms of masculinity

Promoting and enforcing rigid and hierarchical gender stereotypes reproduces the social conditions of gender inequality that underpin violence against women. In particular, socially dominant stereotypes of masculinity play a direct role in driving men’s violence against women.

Driver 4: Male peer relations and cultures of masculinity that emphasise aggression, dominance and control

Male peer relationships (both personal and professional) that are characterised by attitudes, behaviours or norms regarding masculinity that centre on aggression, dominance, control or hypersexuality are associated with violence against women.

Reinforcing factors

There are a range of factors that, while they do not drive violence on their own, can contribute to violence against women or make it worse.

  • Condoning of violence in general, which can lead to the ‘normalisation’ of violence.
  • Experience of, and exposure to, violence (particularly during childhood).
  • Factors that can weaken prosocial behaviour (such as stress, environmental/neighbourhood factors, natural disasters and crises, male-dominated settings and heavy alcohol consumption) and therefore reduce empathy, respect and concern for women.
  • Backlash and resistance to prevention and gender equality (actions that seek to block change, uphold the status quo of gender relations, or re-establish male privilege and power), which creates an environment in which there is a heightened risk of violence.

Violence against women is preventable

Violence against women is not inevitable, it is preventable. To stop this violence from happening in the first place, we need a primary prevention approach. This means addressing the ‘primary’ or underlying drivers of this violence.

To prevent violence against women, the following 12 actions are needed. They  address the underlying drivers of this violence (Essential actions 1-4); the social context in which it arises (Essential actions 5-8), and the reinforcing factors (Supporting actions 9-12).

Essential actions to address the gendered drivers of violence

  1. Challenge condoning of violence against women
  2. Promote women’s independence and decision-making in public life and relationships
  3. Build new social norms that foster personal identities not constrained by rigid gender stereotypes
  4. Support men and boys to develop healthy masculinities and positive, supportive male peer relationships

Essential actions to address the social context in which violence against women occurs

  1. Promote and normalise gender equality in public and private life
  2. Address the intersections between gender inequality and other forms of systemic and structural oppression and discrimination, and promote broader social justice
  3. Build safe, fair and equitable organisations and institutions by focusing on systemic levers
  4. Strengthen positive, equal and respectful relations between and among women and men, girls and boys, in public and private spheres

Supporting actions to address the reinforcing factors

On their own, these supporting actions are not sufficient to prevent violence against women. A national approach to prevention must prioritise the essential actions (Actions 1-8). However, these supporting actions can make an important contribution to overall prevention goals.

  1. Challenge the normalisation of violence and aggression as an expression of masculinity
  2. Reduce the long-term impacts of exposure to violence, and prevent further exposure
  3. Strengthen prosocial behaviour
  4. Plan for and actively address backlash and resistance

Because the drivers of violence play out at every level of society, these prevention actions also need to be implemented at every level of society. Prevention requires a holistic approach involving on-the-ground efforts that engage individuals and communities; whole-of-setting approaches in organisations and institutions, strategic work across whole settings and sectors, and change to laws and government policies.

An intersectional approach to preventing violence against women

An intersectional understanding of violence against women acknowledges that while gender inequality is a necessary condition for violence against women, it is not the only or necessarily the most prominent factor in every context.

Some women are more likely to experience violence. For many, this experience is influenced by the intersections between gendered drivers and other systemic and structural forms of social injustice, discrimination and oppression.

For this reason, an intersectional approach to preventing violence against women is critical. This is one that explicitly seeks to address the multiple intersecting systems of oppression and discrimination, power and privilege that shape the social context in which this violence occurs, and influence men’s perpetration and women’s experiences of violence.

An intersectional lens also means acknowledging that no single initiative will be equally relevant to all groups. A national approach to prevention requires multiple different, but mutually reinforcing, efforts in different contexts.

Organisations that specialise in working with people affected by multiple kinds of discrimination and inequality have unique expertise and connection to communities, which is essential to preventing violence against women. This expertise is critical to building an effective national approach.

What about violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women?

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women experience disproportionate rates of violence, and violence that is often more severe. Preventing this violence must be a national priority. It requires us to address the many complex drivers of this violence — not only gender inequality but also the ongoing impacts of colonisation and racism.

Violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women is not an ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander problem’. Nor should Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people bear sole responsibility for addressing it. This violence is an Australian problem, and it is perpetrated by men of all cultural backgrounds.

All of us, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and non-Indigenous people, communities, organisations, and all levels of government have a responsibility to work together to prevent violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and their children.

For more information, please read Changing the picture: A national resource to support the prevention of violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and their children.

What is Our Watch doing to prevent violence against women?

Our Watch provides national leadership on prevention. We advocate for, drive and support the holistic, shared national approach outlined in Change the story, and we work to build a broad and sustainable prevention movement across Australia to stop violence against women before it starts.

We cannot create the social transformation needed to end violence against women alone. Prevention requires a large-scale effort, engaging the largest possible number of people and organisations.

This is why we work with and seek to engage others to build this movement for change.

Our activities include:

  • Building and promoting an evidence-based approach to preventing violence against all women in Australia.
  • Leading best-practice monitoring and evaluation of prevention projects, and measuring and analysing progress at the national level.
  • Supporting and increasing quality prevention work across different settings like sport, media, workplaces and education.
  • Translating evidence into effective social marketing campaigns to motivate people to take positive action, and to change social norms.
  • Leading a constructive and ongoing public conversation on violence against women.

What about responding to the crisis of violence that’s already happening?

It’s not a question of either/or. Australia needs to respond to and intervene in the current crisis, and work on longer term initiatives to prevent future violence from occurring.

Well-resourced and effective systems and services for responding to ongoing violence are crucial. They protect women and their children from further violence, and hold perpetrators accountable. Response systems also provide the foundation for prevention activity, by sending a message that violence is unacceptable.

As prevention activity increases, we are likely to see increased numbers of women being able to identify violence in their own lives, and seeking support. Having robust and adequately funded response systems (including support services, police and justice systems) will remain critical to ensure that women are safe and supported.

What does the future look like?

Our goal is the elimination of violence against women and their children in Australia.

To do this, we need to address the underlying drivers using strategies that have been shown to work. And we need to do this on a scale that will create change for the whole of Australia.

By increasing gender equality in our society, and by promoting equal and respectful relationships, and respectful, ethical forms of masculinity, we can shift the main drivers of violence against women. Over time, and with sustained investment in prevention, this should result in a decrease in the prevalence of this violence.

For more detail on the projected decrease in violence against women over time, please read our monitoring and evaluation framework, Counting on change. For a report on Australia’s national progress towards prevention, please visit Tracking progress in prevention.