Attending a National Council of Churches Australia – Safe as Churches Conference, held in Sydney earlier in the week, I reached several important conclusions:
- Services that are there for the victim and help the victim choose whether to involve police and law enforcement are important. However, whatever the service, it seems generally very difficult to help victims thrive;
- Holding perpetrators accountable through law enforcement and criminal justice systems does not avoid the victimisation of many women and children and they are very expensive, after the fact, and too late. You cannot arrest your way out of these problems and Australia has proved that you cannot incarcerate your way out of these problems;
- Prevention is far better than cure
There is good news about the ability for individuals and communities to prevent violence against women and children. There are a number of proven preventive strategies focused on violence against women such as Active Bystander Intervention. A recent meta-analysis found that if bystanders are provided with active learning experiences to build skills, if education is conducted in combination with peer norms shifts, and if intervention is supported by policies that provide safety nets for bystanders, Active Bystander Intervention is a very effective intervention (Katz & Moore 2013). There are also strategies that are promising, including programs that foster social cohesion and support among women, school programs that educate children on what is acceptable, and the important social marketing campaigns such as White Ribbon.
Unfortunately none of the proven or promising strategies are widely implemented. The main impediment to implementation is the justice discourse that emphasises punishment as a means of accountability, but punishment does not equal prevention. The shift from the traditional costly and not preventive silos of police, lawyers and prisons to more comprehensive and effective public health and community actions is a critical challenge.
It is also time for faith communities to take prevention seriously by investing in what will stop violence against women and children from occurring in the first place.