Lisa Dando recently wrote in the Guardian about the closure of counselling services with histories of abuse, poverty and addiction.
“We supported women with complex needs. What will they do now?”
Sat 12 May 2018 18.57 AEST Last modified on Mon 14 May 2018 20.55 AEST
“One woman told me: “It was great to be in a safe environment and able to say things I wouldn’t normally feel able to voice, and to be heard in a completely non-judgmental way.’’ Another said it “helped to see that I wasn’t the problem. To recognise who I was and who I am. To break free and not be broken. To value myself in my future.””
This reminded me of an article I co-authored in 2011, which was published in Domestic Violence Clearinghouse, Australia.
It seems that women’s services continue to be under threat, and not only in Australia. Sadly this article is as relevant in 2018 as it was in 2011.
Women’s Services in the Twenty-First Century: Where are We Heading?
by Marie Hume, Elspeth Mcinnes, Kathryn Rendell and Betty Green
Women Everywhere Advocating Violence Elimination (WEAVE)
The political beginnings of women’s services
Services responding to violence against women in the home owe their development to feminist analyses, which recognised the prevalence of gender-related abuse in families. In the 1970s, second-wave feminists raised awareness of male violence against women in its many forms: rape, child sexual abuse and domestic violence. Women’s refuges were established, along with specific women-only services such as women’s health centres and rape crisis services (McGregor & Hopkins 1991). Most services were established without government funding.
One of the aims of the early women’s services was to bring together women so they could share their experiences of male violence. What they learnt was that male violence was not just an individual experience but reflected broader social issues embedded in patriarchy. This experiential knowledge informed advocacy for much needed reforms and lobbying for funds and resources to provide such services (Dowse 1988). The push for services was, therefore, accompanied by political activism by feminists for legislative change in rape laws, other criminal laws and protective injunctions, as well as campaigns and awareness-raising.
Drawing on our collective experience of working with victims of domestic violence and conducting advocacy, we argue in this article that women’s services are currently at risk of being de-politicised. While some services continue to lobby for legislative and policy changes, such activism tends to be compartmentalised, focusing on single, specific issues or events and not always on broad systemic change in the area of male violence.
Moreover, the focus in the provision of services for women has shifted from the structural to the individual. Rather than sites of political activism, based on the sharing of common experiences and self-help, women’s services have become sites of professionalised therapeutic intervention. Women are increasingly being treated as victims in need of professional help – and even seen by some services as the source of ‘the problem’ of violence against women.
Causes of de-politicisation
The causes of these changes to women’s services are diverse but are broadly linked to policy and funding decisions of governments over time, as well as the backlash against women which has become evident in public debate. Here we focus on five key factors.
Changes in the political landscape
In Australia, during twelve years of neo-conservative government from 1996 to 2007, government funding was directed away from many progressive women’s organisations and towards men’s rights groups and conservative organisations.
Funding agreements with recipient organisations prohibited funded agencies from challenging government policy and practices. Many women services were defunded during this period or threatened with de-funding in order to silence any voices of dissent (Hamilton & Maddison 2007). Funding pressures came from both state and federal governments. Competitive tendering has also limited the capacity of services to work together on political action. Services for women are forced to compete against each other for funding, rather than working collaboratively and cooperatively to address broader social issues.
Professionalisation of women’s services
As services drew increasingly on a professionalised workforce, the ability and will of these services to undertake political activism to challenge male violence within our society has diminished. Professionalisation has developed the recognised skills and remuneration of women’s services workers, but has at the same time drawn on practice paradigms that have not been grounded in feminist theory and practice. The coherence of values developed from a focus on women’s experiences of patriarchy has fragmented across profession-based models of human services provision.
The separation and categorisation of different forms of assaults on women have led to the creation of different types of services, each dealing with their ‘patch’ of violence victimisation. There are unique programs and services responding variously to domestic violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment, sexual trafficking and child sexual abuse. Service silos mean that organisations are working in isolation from each other. They are less likely to work together and seek policy changes to address the broader issues of male violence against women.
Absorption by large charities
Increasingly, services for women are being outsourced to generic, and often faith-based, organisations. These organisations operate from a managerial focus on key performance indicators, inputs and output targets. The result of such outsourcing is that women-only services are becoming less available. For example, some women’s shelters have morphed into ‘homelessness services’ accepting both men and women as ‘clients’ and also employing both men and women as ‘service providers’. Reduced access to women-only services has a number of consequences. Women seeking shelter from men’s violence feel less safe in generic homelessness services environments. The focus of the ‘service provision’ moves away from addressing the causes of homelessness, such as domestic violence or women’s economic disadvantage, to solely providing shelter and referrals to other services.
The opportunity for women to share with each other their experiences of male violence is lost. In turn, women’s ability to address social justice issues of male violence and to take collective action is severely diminished.
The medicalisation of male violence against women
The way of responding to an issue has a major influence on how it is defined. (Kelly & Radford 1998, p.60)
The medicalisation of women’s issues has taken place alongside the decline in political activism.
Medical/ therapeutic models of service delivery have become increasingly apparent in the women’s sector, with an emphasis on women’s pathology, individual therapeutic responses and personal healing. Individual counselling has come to be seen as the solution for women to ‘cope better’ with their experiences of abuse.
Yet, counselling responses
‘leave the deeper social causes of violence in families and against women unexamined’ (Pence & Taylor 2003, p. 19).
This approach is in stark contrast to the political advocacy for social justice and collective action that characterised feminist women’s services, which developed in the 1970s and 1980s.
A growing resistance and backlash to the naming of male violence against women has also become apparent in recent decades. There are increasing calls for violence to be seen as a non-gendered issue. Challenges to well-established statistics on the extent of male violence against women have arisen (Flood 2004), such as the recent pro-men’s One in Three campaign. Men’s rights groups have been active in making claims that women are as violent as men and that men are also victims of domestic violence (Mulroney & Chan 2005). In this environment, perpetrators are also able to claim ’victim’ status and activism for perpetrators ‘rights’ (often conflated with ‘fathers’ rights’) has gained a footing.
In turn, de-gendering has diminished the capacity of policy makers and service delivery agents to effectively challenge the social and historical causes of male violence. Policy documents increasingly use gender neutral language such as ‘family violence’ rather than ‘male violence’.
De-gendering is also apparent in the laws that frame our responses to violence. There has also been an increase in the examination of different types of violence. Classification systems and typologies have been used in such a way that violence is seen as a mutual, de-gendered form of ‘conflict’ between a couple rather than an issue of male power and control (Johnston 2006). In some service sectors, the concept of ‘conflict’ is used where there is domestic violence, which limits understanding and undermines responses to what, in earlier days, was recognised as the abuse of women by men.
The rise of post-separation family services
Since the enactment of the Family Law Amendment (Shared Parental Responsibility) Act 2006, there has been a dramatic increase in funding to services to assist separated parents to make arrangements for the care of their children. Over time, these services have begun to provide ‘therapeutic’ services to parents and children. Many women experiencing domestic violence now find themselves being offered counselling by family services, to help them sustain a ‘better relationship’ with the perpetrator. Individual interventions may include ‘communication’ skills, conflict management skills and post-separation parenting advice regarding the need to not be ‘negative’ about their abuser and to facilitate the ongoing relationship between father and child. Thus, any opportunity for women to understand their experience of violence as part of a much broader social/political issue is lost and women may even be judged negatively as being ‘oppositional’ or obstructive.
A political understanding is fundamental to action to reduce or eliminate violence against women. In this article, we have argued that politicised social understandings of men’s violence against women have been significantly reduced due to a combination of factors, primarily:
- the defunding of progressive women’s services;
- the growing divisions between different types of services;
- and the sharp shift in the provision and focus of services, away from a social recognition of men’s violence against women and towards an individual pathology of women’s poor choices and victimisation.
If a collective feminist consciousness of men’s violence against women is to be regenerated, politicians, policymakers, human services professionals and managers need to once again listen to women’s voices. Women’s experiential knowledge of male violence must inform collective action that commands government attention in demanding social change.
“The move towards generic, mixed-gender services has grave consequences for women and their families. Services that don’t acknowledge or recognise women’s specific experiences of trauma leave them struggling to find support that really understands them and enables them to build the future they deserve.” Lisa Dando
Dowse S 1988, ‘The women’s movement’s fandango with the state: the movement’s role in public policy since 1972’ in CV Baldock & B Cass (eds), Women, social welfare and the state, Allen & Unwin, Sydney
Flood M 2004, ‘Backlash: angry men’s movements’ in EE Rossi (ed.), The battle and backlash rage on: why feminism cannot be obsolete, Xlibris Corporation, New York
Hamilton C & Maddison S (eds) 2007, Silencing dissent: how the Australian government is controlling public opinion and stifling debate, Allen & Unwin, Sydney
Johnston J 2006, ‘A child-centered approach to high-conflict and domestic-violence families: differential assessment and interventions’, Journal of Family Studies, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 15-35
Kelly L & Radford J 1998, ‘Sexual violence against women and girls: an approach to an international overview’ in RE Dobash & RP Dobash (eds), Rethinking violence against women, Thousand Oaks, California & Sage Publications, London
McGregor H & Hopkins A 1991, Working for change: the movement against domestic violence, Allen & Unwin, Sydney
Mulroney J & Chan C 2005, Men as victims of domestic violence, Topic Paper 15, Australian Domestic and Family Violence, Sydney
Pence E & Taylor T 2003, Building safety for battered women and their children into the child protection system. A summary of three consultations, Praxis International. Viewed 10 August 2011, <https://www.thegreenbook.info/documents/ buildingsafety.pdf>