Over 250 delegates from the family violence sector met at the National Working with Men to Tackle Family Violence Conference to share practical solutions to ending men’s violence against women and children. Hosted by No To Violence incorporating Men’s Referral Service (NTV/MRS), the four days included interactive workshops, speakers, and panel discussions. Attendees heard a range of prominent advocates, experts and frontline workers in the field such as Rosie Batty, Dr Michael Flood, and David Mandel (Safe & Together Institute).
Bookending the conference, workshops on Monday and Thursday focused on intervention dynamics, technological innovations, men as parents and primary prevention strategies. Each intimate session allowed participants to network, listen and bounce ideas off each other.
The conference proper kicked off on Tuesday with a motivating welcome from NTV/MRS CEO, Jacqui Watt, who asked those in the room and beyond, “to find out what on earth is going on with men.”
With Ms Watt setting a frank agenda for the conference, and a directive to “have the hard conversation about men’s violence”, an expert panel of speakers did just that.
Anti-Family Violence Campaigner, Rosie Batty spoke of the violent men that too often fly under society’s radar because we can’t read the warning signs of violent behaviour. “What does high risk look like to you?” asked Ms Batty. “Suicidal ideation is a high risk flag in my opinion. When men are saying things like ‘I can’t do this anymore’, we need to intervene.
Moorabbin Magistrate, Anne Goldsbrough, agreed more education and training was needed for people in and around the justice system. “All professions — law, police, justice, corrections, medical professions, teachers, counsellors everyone — we must be able to identify family violence behaviour and know how to respond.”
Speaking with gravitas, CEO of Kornar Winmil Yunti Aboriginal Corporation, Craig Rigney underlined the tragic reality that Aboriginal women are 34 times more likely to experience family violence despite being just 1.3% of the population. “Men need a safe place to talk and to be held to account.”
For the situation to improve he stressed that funding structures needed to change. “Competitive tender models make it virtually impossible for organisations like us to be funded adequately. I have men who’ve left us after a session or two and call up again wanting to come back. They say ‘I’m angry, I need to talk to someone’ but we don’t have the sessions to take them.”
All panellists, despite varying perspectives, agreed that holding violent men to account meant holding all layers of society to account; from individuals, bystanders, to service providers to government. Tellingly, they saw men themselves as crucial advocates for ending men’s violence.
Attention then turned to the state of play in the host state, New South Wales. Acting CEO of Domestic Violence NSW, Sophie Trower, was forthright in her assessment, outlining the fragmented nature of service providers in NSW. She asked the room at one point to “put up your hand if you’d trust another service provider to carry out your work safely and thoroughly after handing it over?” In a room of nearly 250 people, about 10 hands went up.
Just before lunch, Associate Professor in Sociology Dr Michael Flood provided food for thought in his ‘Reframing Masculinity’ presentation, clarifying how we define gender. Gender is perceived as sex but is in fact the social, personal and political aspects of who we are. Sex, not to be confused with gender, is just our biological makeup. Gender has nothing to do with sex – it is merely a social construction that society has created, based on biological reproductive functions, and we see this played out in rigid, antiquated stereotype ideals of the ‘man’ and ‘woman’ explained Dr Flood.
On how we campaign for change, Dr Flood challenged us to unpack what it means to be a ‘real man’. He found both campaigns appealing to what ‘real men’ do or don’t do’ and campaigns that dis-invested in masculinity altogether, both had merit. “Whatever works to create change, let’s go with it” said Dr Flood.
From the theoretical to the personal, Tarang Chawla gave a heartfelt presentation on the human cost of violence. After his younger sister, Nikita, was murdered by her partner in 2015, he challenged men to cut out men’s violence from its roots. “When you hear locker room talk veiled as misogyny speak out. Don’t let it quieten you. Don’t let it dim the fire within.”
The afternoon had delegates breaking into groups to dissect issues around prevention through parenting, male advocacy and empowering indigenous men. Audiences in David Mandel’s session debated whether we should be asking 12 year olds ‘what kind of dad do they want to be?’ while in another room Craig Rigney assured facilitators it was ok not to have all the answers in a Men’s Behaviour Change Program, particularly in programs working with indigenous men. “Don’t assume and always ask” said Mr Rigney.
As day one came to a close, delegates left the Sydney Boulevard Hotel with much to talk about, continuing conversations long into dinner.
The difficult but essential dialogue flowed straight into day two which opened with men’s services professionals discussing the dynamics of working with men. While indigenous facilitator, Alan Thorpe from Dardi Munwurro, said we needed “more training to deal with trauma”, Psychotherapist, Anthony Lekkas from Victoria Aids Council had a different view when it came to working with men in same sex relationships. He questioned if trauma informed strategies were too concerned with therapy and not “partner focused enough.” Mr Lekkas went on to say “regular check-ins with current or ex-partners is the most neglected aspect of men’s behaviour change programs.”
Chair of Men’s Behaviour Change Network NSW, Diane Coleman, delved deeper into the psychology of working with men. “As humans we find it difficult to acknowledge what’s going on in violent relationships. We can’t be beaten by fear. We must stay aware that violence is occurring and is the reality” said Ms Coleman.
Later in the morning, delegates were treated to interactive workshops where they put their ideas to paper on the specific interventions that worked with men. These smaller sessions, gave a platform to voices not yet heard and helped people from different parts of the sector form closer ties.
In the afternoon, Central Queensland University’s Dr Silke Meyer, expanded on David Mandel’s work on engaging men as fathers with powerful research findings. Her study found a high prevalence of victim blaming among male offenders who also had little perception of how their behaviour affected children. Dr Meyer concluded that using fatherhood to help shape a man’s identity lead to a higher motivation for changing violent behaviour.
After two days of shared experiences, education and insight, delegates came together to express their final thoughts on ‘where to from here?’ As representatives from each state and territory lined up to have their say on what more was needed to keep families safe from violence, a common call for a national response to the problem emerged. A unified, consistent and appropriately funded response for organisations to up-skill, collaborate and connect with all sections of society was the consensus.
With renewed determination, delegates headed home to turn talk into action.