On 28 November 2011, Jeffrey L. Bleich, the current US Ambassador to Australia, presented the annual Nathan and Pamela Jacobson Public Lecture at the University of Melbourne Law School. His address was entitled “Eliminating Violence Against Women – Changing Law, Changing Culture”.
… violence against women is a “cycle that bleeds into every sector of society”.
As the Dean of the Law School, Dr Carolyn Evans, pointed out, the ambassador had complete discretion as to his topic. Mr. Bleich chose a subject that he noted diplomats often ignore in favour of speaking on “public” matters. The lecture that followed was an affront to a black-and-white divide between public and private, based on the simple observation that “what happens in a person’s home, never just stays in that house”. Violence against women is a crime of devastating effect, not only for the many women who are its victims, but also for the abusers, children and society as a whole.
The Ambassador’s talk was both forceful and insightful. His central and pointed submission was that violence against women is a “cycle that bleeds into every sector of society”.
One may take many perspectives. From that of the victim, it is debilitating, both emotionally and economically. It robs women of hope and physical injury deprives them of the power to work so as to support themselves. From the point of view of the abuser it is degrading and leads to self-loathing – a different form of debilitation. From the point of view of the children whose mothers are abused, it leads to feelings of powerlessness, shame and fear. It impedes children’s emotional development and their exposure to violence is the single greatest predictor of future violence. Violence against women was therefore said to “corrode and corrupt society”.
Seeing violence against women as a “women’s issue” is equivalent to only half the population taking responsibility for correcting it.
With that terrible reality in view, the Ambassador moved on to note progress in reducing violence against women since the 1960s. Statistics indicate a significant drop in violence against women in Western countries, in which a complacent culture is gradually being replaced with a different kind of consciousness reflecting what it is to be a “man” and what it is to be a “woman”. Grass-roots movements as well as government funding programs and initiatives have promoted sensitive healthcare training, research, education and other programs.
However, Mr Bleich pointed out that statistical studies show a recent plateau and even a slight increase in instances of violence against women. This led him to two key propositions, which together would help to restore the recent history of decline in violence in countries including the US and Australia. There are two barriers in the way of continued and lasting improvement: thinking that violence against women is simply a “women’s issue”; and thinking that violence against women is simply a “local issue”.
A men’s issue
Seeing violence against women as a “women’s issue” is equivalent to only half the population taking responsibility for correcting it. The Ambassador stressed that it must be made into “men’s issues” and that men need to be involved so that they can part of the solution. This involvement goes well beyond not committing violence against women. It includes a refusal to tolerate or excuse violence and even more generally to be sensitive to women’s needs – an aspiration promoted in Australia by the White Ribbon campaign and the “oath” it encourages all men to take.
Thus, the Ambassador stressed the need not just to change law, but to effect a generational change in attitude and culture. This general, pragmatic focus on social norms and cultural change was itself explored in some detail in another recent speech by the Ambassador on Human Rights, Civil Society and the Rule of Law and is clearly core to his approach on the issue of violence towards women.
An international issue
Beyond the need for the involvement of men at home, violence against women is – and should be seen as – a “staggering global problem”. For this reason, the Ambassador explained, the US has made it central to their international strategy. Roughly 15 years ago, then First Lady and now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously delivered a speech in Beijing promoting the central idea that “human rights are women’s rights – and women’s rights are human rights”. More recently, the Obama administration appointed a first White House Advisor on Violence Against Women, Lynn Rosenthal, who recently travelled around the country as part of Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
The US government also presently provides a significant amount of funding for services to victims of violence, including through collaborations with NGOs. Mr Bleich spent a large portion of his address discussing efforts in the Asia–Pacific region. He stated examples of problems and assistance in countries such as Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, where the issue of violence against women has barely begun to diminish.
Part of the joint US–Australian commitment to improving the difficulties faced in our region crystallised last year after Secretary Clinton herself spoke at the University of Melbourne – one day after releasing a joint statement with Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, agreeing to address the global problem by working on women’s empowerment in the Asia–Pacific region. This commitment was re-affirmed less than a month ago.
… our culture at home is far from fully aware of its prejudices towards women.
While statistical and anecdotal accounts of the problem in many small island nations may be seen to make the problem in Australia seem relatively minor, the Ambassador’s message was precisely to see the problem as a shared, global one. In that respect, it is far from resolved. Besides the wider challenge, our culture at home is far from fully aware of its prejudices towards women. A more extensive eradication of violence against women waits for the greater involvement of the other half of humanity – us men.
Visit Live@Melbourne to watch a video – or download an audio recording – of the lecture.