A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne


Power and gender: how schools are taking a lead in the campaign to end violence against women

Building respectful relationships among teenagers is at the vanguard of efforts to shift attitudes and prevent violence against women. Bec Zajac discovered an array of programs being used in Victoria’s schools.  

Words and pictures by Bec Zajac
Students at the Southern Teaching Unit, a small school in Moorabbin in Melbourne’s south, get to grips with “hyper-sexualisation”, “normalisation” and “gender”.

Students at the Southern Teaching Unit, a small school in Moorabbin in Melbourne’s south, get to grips with “hyper-sexualisation”, “normalisation” and “gender”.

At a small school in Melbourne’s south-east, recess has ended and a dozen teenagers head to their portable classroom for their next lesson. Inside, there is everything you’d expect to find: atlases, dictionaries, trophies. But between the posters about spelling rules and times-tables are less likely teaching tools.

“Sexism is a social disease. Feminists unite!” a poster reads. Declares another: “84% of sexual assault victims are female. Around 1% of perpetrators are female. Destroy the Joint!”

“This is what the ideal male looks like” heads a giant piece of butcher’s paper hanging from a window. Beneath is a sketch of a man and a hand-written list of characteristics that men are expected to exhibit — aggressive, strong, masculine.

There are also lists of new words to learn – “hyper-sexualisation”, “normalisation”, “gender” – while on a whiteboard details of women’s wages rank alongside those of men.

The teens, in their ripped skinny jeans and scuffed converse, are assembling for their next two periods of the day.

But this isn’t Maths or English or any of the subjects that for decades have routinely made up the Victorian schools’ curriculum. This is Gender 101, being served up at the Southern Teaching Unit, a small school that caters for young people dealing with behavioral, social and emotional issues.

On the other side of Port Phillip Bay, a similar message sounds out in a Catholic boy’s school 100 times bigger than the Southern Teaching Unit and where Deputy Principal Paul Clohesy stands before his class of 28 and tells his restless charges to “listen up”.

“It’s now time to come up with slogans about consent and some of the new concepts we’ve learnt about gender-based violence,” he announces.


CASE STUDY: Southern Teaching Unit

It is the final lesson in a six-week program designed by the Centre Against Sexual Assault (CASA) that is set to become a permanent part of the Year 9 curriculum at the 80-year-old St Joseph’s College in Geelong.

“The best slogan,” promises Clohesy, his voice rising above the buzz in the classroom, “will be chosen by CASA to be included in their next resource materials.” 

Meanwhile, at Mount Ridley College, a new school in Melbourne’s fast-growing northern suburbs – a region with one of the highest rates of family violence in the state – teachers, parents, local councillors and community health workers gather in the freshly-painted cafeteria around orange juice and sandwiches.

Launching a DVD created by Year 9 students as part of an ambitious gender education project being implemented throughout the school, City of Hume Mayor Casey Nunn tells the students: “By doing this project, you are showing exceptional leadership. As a City, we’re very proud of you.”

The exercises at Moorabbin, Geelong and Mount Ridley are among a burgeoning number of programs being introduced in schools that fall under the umbrella of respectful relationships education.

Educators believe the programs can help establish a better basis for family harmony, providing a much-needed antidote to a scourge that is the leading preventable cause of death, disability and illness in Victorian women aged 15 to 44  — domestic violence. On average, a woman dies at the hands of her intimate partner or former partner every week in Australia.

Some of the programs have been around for more than a decade. The emergence of others coincides with a growing community awareness that respectful relationships education should be central in any strategy aimed at decreasing levels of violence against women.


CASE STUDY: St Joseph’s College

But while many Victorian schools are choosing to adopt such programs, the take-up is ad hoc with no clear State Government commitment to cementing respectful relationships education in the curriculum.

“It’s very much a growing field,” says Sharon Simon, who works at the Domestic Violence Resource Centre, which co-ordinates Partners in Prevention, a project that connects interested educators and has more than 400 people on its books.

“Increasingly, schools are interested in doing this work, a lot more services are interested in doing this work and a lot of non-traditional services are also interested. It’s no longer restricted to family violence organisations.”

But Simon warns that real change in community attitudes and behaviour will be slow.

“To achieve really serious change, this is something that every school would need to adopt and that’s in every year level in every school . . . You’ll see a lot of examples of quite high-profile people saying violence against women is wrong, but it’s that next step of linking violence against women with gender inequity and taking a stand against gender inequity which we haven’t got to yet as a society.”

Nevertheless, there exists a widening consensus about how change can best take root.

“In the city of Hume, on average, 42 incidents of family violence are reported to the police every week,” Veronica Jamison, the chief executive officer of Dianella, the municipality’s community health service, tells those gathered for Mount Ridley’s DVD launch.

“Violence against women is serious and prevalent. But it is also preventable, and schools have a big role to play by promoting respectful relationships and gender equity with young people, which will be translated into their homes.”

Respectful relationships programs are a core element of what’s known as “primary prevention” and are now hailed as one of the main tools in the fight to eliminate violence against women.

For 20 years community organisations, usually domestic/family violence and sexual assault services, women’s health and community legal services, have been working with schools to teach students about concepts such as gender, sex and respect. 

Programs come in many incarnations and are pitched at different age levels, but a number target Year 9 students and typically run over a term or so through a series of 90-minute sessions.

Through evidence-based strategies, these weekly sessions encourage students to analyse critically what’s around them in terms of gender constructs of power — in pornography, the media, politics, their own families — and to reflect on their own stereotypical attitudes.

Ultimately, they aim to give students the skills to engage in respectful, gender-equitable relationships and to shift the attitudes and behaviours that form the basis of a gender-inequitable culture.

Emily Maguire speaks about respectful relationships education.

Primary prevention evolved in the 1990s when those in the sector became fed up with seeing consistently horrific rates of violence against women and decided to work on understanding its root causes and how they could be addressed long-term.

Emily Maguire, who has worked in the primary prevention field for nearly a decade, says research confirms that violence against women is caused by three factors: gender inequity, a rigid adherence to gender roles and violence-supportive attitudes. Put simply: the more sexism and gender inequality that exists in society, the higher the levels of violence against women.

A Unifem chart that plots gender equity and violence from a variety of international sources bears this out. Countries with the greatest equality between the sexes – Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden, for example – are among those with the lowest rates of violence against women. Conversely, where the gender gap is widest, such as in Yemen, Pakistan, Chad and Syria, rates of violence against women are highest. Australia ranks mid-stream in much of the data.


Maguire says gender inequity means “women being valued less . . . paid, heard, respected less”; or any kind of unequal power between men and women.

A rigid adherence to gender roles and stereotypes, she explains, means strict ideas around acceptable behaviours for men and women; from needing to dress in certain ways and perform certain careers to the kinds of characteristics around sexual activity associated with genders. Further, says Maguire, violence-supportive attitudes are often victim blaming attitudes, present in comments like “she was asking for it.”

According to VicHeath research, gender inequitable attitudes and those supportive violence are “astoundingly common”, especially among people aged 18 to 24.

“In Australia, although it may not seem as explicit as it is in other societies, we do have rigidly defined ideas about what men and women are supposed to do,” she says.


These prevailing attitudes are what create a culture where violence against women is more common.

“We’re not saying if you hold this attitude you’re going to perpetrate violence,” says Maguire.  “What we’re saying is that in a patriarchal society where people think women and men should and shouldn’t do certain things, and where there’s a culture where violence is tolerated, individuals who live in that world are more likely to perpetrate violence than they would if things were more equal.”

The upshot is that the closer a society can come to embracing gender equity, the greater the reduction in violence against women. As a result, respectful relationships education became a key focus of those working in the primary prevention sector.

A key turning point came in 2009 when VicHealth produced a landmark report, a blueprint for how respectful relationships programs could be most effective in turning the tide on sexism and inequity. 

Around the same time, the Brumby Labor government unveiled its 10-year Right to Respect Plan and dedicated an unprecedented $14 million to primary prevention. The government also committed funding for a pilot program in four schools with a reinvigorated sector hopeful that, once these were completed, additional funding would be given to roll programs out across the state. But then, in 2010, the government changed and funding was cut.


Maguire says the current State Government has violence against women prevention programs in its statewide plan but money is concentrated at the response end of the issue with “dramatically less” than there was under the Right to Respect Plan now allocated for primary prevention work, including respectful relationships education.

Even so, many schools are taking on the programs regardless of government support.

At Craigieburn’s Mount Ridley College, the incentive came when the local health service, Dianella Community Health, made the prevention of violence against women a priority.

Dianellas’s health promotions officer, Jeny Gautam, says when the service looked at evidence about what works best long-term, respectful relationships education was at the top of its list. 

At Glenroy College, which has been running a respectful relationships curriculum for 10 years, teacher Lidia Tizian says that the school recognised that gender education was vital because students were “not necessarily getting those messages in other places”.

While the efforts of individual schools have been praised, the domestic violence sector believes that without the necessary resources and a government-driven co-ordinated approach, outcomes are likely to be compromised.

Deakin University lecturer Debbie Ollis, a leader in respectful relationships education, says at most schools “sexuality education takes a biomedical approach and issues around gender are just missing”. She says there are problems with the current ad-hoc take-up of programs by schools with no proper evaluation to see which methods work best.

“You need to work with the whole community so the message these young people receive is that violence is not OK, gender inequity is not OK and gender inequity leads to violence. That message needs to be reinforced from early childhood right through to tertiary.” — Sharon Simon, Domestic Violence Resource Centre

Another problem, says Sharon Simon, of the Domestic Violence Resource Centre, is that schools might have good intentions but often run one-off programs that may miss their mark.

Evidence shows that not only are these programs ineffective, but they can be harmful because they’re likely to raise issues for young people without providing the trained support staff to deal with them.

And what is most problematic, these experts say, is schools often adopt anti-violence education, but sanitise it to avoid parts that make teachers uncomfortable, such as sexual violence, and don’t follow what the 2009 report found to be “best practice”.

The report found it is essential that programs use what’s called a “feminist approach”. This means they don’t just challenge violence generally but challenge the gender inequity proven to be the root cause of violence against women.

Schools often run anti-bullying programs but because they don’t talk about gender or challenge gender inequity, they don’t create the change in attitudes needed to succeed in their goal, says Ollis.

“There are already so many organisations doing this that if the government said they wanted to make it a statewide thing, it would be a matter of us simply banding together to put the curriculum in place.” — Jeny Gautam, Dianella Community Health

Primary prevention specialist Emily Maguire says that in the best programs, before there is talk about violence against women, “what you’ve got to do essentially is get people to reflect on how they ‘do gender’.”

“You’ve got to talk about what gender means and how it constrains people, and get people to reflect on their own stereotypical attitudes.” Most importantly, “you’ve got to give people the skills to do things differently”.

Sharon Simon says currently programs tend to begin with Year 9 and 10 students because they are often in their first relationships and are still forming gender attitudes.

“But ideally you’d have a program running at an early childhood centre, and you’d build on that in kindergarten, primary and secondary [schools], so every year of that young person’s development they have access to respectful relationships education.”

Evidence shows that “the more this message is reinforced the more likely it will change attitudes and behaviors”, she adds. 

Critically, say the experts, programs should take a “whole-of-school approach”, meaning the project isn’t confined to the curriculum of the one class where it takes place but addresses a school’s entire culture.

This approach could mean a maths teacher using the gender pay gap to teach percentages; a history teacher looking at changing gender roles over a certain historical period; a librarian stocking their collection with more female authors. It could be the principal challenging the predominance of male science teachers or female home economics teachers or conducting a gender pay audit of staff.


And a whole-of-school approach would ideally involve parents and the broader community, says Maguire, because “if you’ve got a school doing a program that is perfect but kids are being told something different by their parents or footy coach, then that’s going to undermine what they’re getting at school”.

At Mount Ridley, part of their whole-of-school approach has involved a “student working group” which meets in their lunchtime to examine school culture through a gender lens. They might, for example, look at the gendered nature of uniform policy or make sure the school gets as excited about girls’ sporting success as it does when boys’ teams do well.

Meanwhile, at the Southern Teaching Unit, a student-led White Ribbon night is held for parents. Simon says what is done in school is one opportunity to change attitudes but that message should be “saturating” every aspect of young lives.

“Ideally, you would have this message provided within the school, youth centres, sporting clubs and local media. You need to work with the whole community so the message these young people receive is that violence is not OK, gender inequity is not OK and gender inequity leads to violence. That message needs to be reinforced from early childhood right through to tertiary.”


Steph Tipping, the schools program co-ordinator of CASA House in Melbourne says although CASA would like to expand and develop its program to get more schools on board, a lack of resources makes this impossible. While the program has been implemented in more than 35 schools, it is currently funded through the general budgets of individual CASAs, which are struggling to meet demand. 

Deakin’s Debbie Ollis says what is critical to extending the reach of respectful relationships programs is support for teacher training and professional development. 

“Unless teachers have professional development, they don’t have the comfort, skills and understanding to address sensitive issues like this,” she notes. “They need to have an opportunity to explore their own positioning around gender-based violence; they need to know how to address it in the classroom, and how to deal with issues if they’re disclosed. And you can’t expect teachers to do that without some professional learning that is funded because schools don’t have the money to release teachers.”

Maguire adds that experience shows that many people in the community hold certain violence supportive and gender stereotypical attitudes. It stands to reason that some of those people will be teachers who, without appropriate skills, cannot be expected to deliver programs effectively or model the right behaviour for their students. She says that for teachers, a key ingredient is gaining the confidence to deliver the material and call people out on sexism when they see it.

“If you’re a good teacher, you’ll know how to lead a discussion about certain statements you overhear, but to do that you’ve got to have a strong sense of gender equity yourself and teachers at the moment aren’t trained in that.”

Kate Cooper, of the Southern Teaching Unit, agrees that confidence is essential. “My background was as a primary school teacher so we didn’t talk about sex-ed besides ‘This is a vagina and this is a penis’, so I really had to learn the confidence to talk about the content. But once you’ve got it, you just fly with it.”

Ollis says she would like gender education put into primary and secondary teacher training courses, as well as government support for well-developed resources, a whole-of-school approach and continuing evaluation of programs. For that to happen, she says, there needs to be political will.

“Just like we need leadership in a school to make a program work,” adds Dianella’s Jeny Gautam, “we need the leadership support for the state to make this sustainable. There are already so many organisations doing this that if the government said they wanted to make it a statewide thing, it would be a matter of us simply banding together to put the curriculum in place.”

Ollis thinks the first step is for the government to put respectful relationships education in the curriculum. And the advent of a national curriculum was providing a wonderful opportunity to do just that.

“In an ideal world,” she says, “all our students would leave secondary school with a solid and comprehensive background in health and sexuality education that would involve a focus on respectful relationships.”

And in that world, violence against women, which claims the lives of approximately 50 Australian women every year, would be greatly reduced.

 Mount Ridley’s Project Awareness  

SHOWING RESPECT: Different programs, different schools 

•         The Centre Against Sexual Assault (CASA) has been running respectful relationships programs for more than a decade. The Sexual Assault Prevention Program in Secondary Schools, or SAPPSS, takes a whole-of-school approach, focusing on issues of sexual violence and consent. Centered around six sessions for Year 9 students, it has been introduced in about 35 schools.

•         Youth Advocates Against Family Violence has been developed by Inner Melbourne Community Legal and Doutta Galla Community Health. The project also takes a whole-of-school approach, runs through 12 sessions and aims to address responses to family violence as well as prevention measures.  Delivered to four inner-city schools in 2013, it is currently being evaluated.

•         Girls Talk–Guys Talk was developed in 2007 by Women’s Health West, a family violence and health promotion service for women in Melbourne’s western suburbs. Focused essentially on 14 and 15 year olds, it also takes a whole-of-school approach, aiming to build supportive school environments that promote healthy relationships and sexual choices. It has been rolled out in four schools.

•         The Good Samaritan Inn in Preston is a crisis accommodation centre for homeless women and their children, most of whom are victims of family violence. While their work focuses mainly on a response to domestic violence, the centre developed We Can Do It, a respectful relationships program for local schools.

•         Darebin City Council is developing a school-based program for Year 10 students, to be introduced this year. It explores the link between gender inequity and male violence against women, with a focus on gender, consent, power and control, and support services available to respond to victims.

•      The Gippsland Respectful Relationship Education in Schools program (GRREiS, pronounced ‘grease’) was developed in 2007 by the Gippsland Women’s Health Service. It uses a whole-school approach and focuses on working to help teachers become comfortable delivering curriculum. It is aimed primarily at students in Years 8 and 9 and is operating in four schools.

•         The Respectful Community Initiative is a primary prevention strategy aimed at preventing inter-personal and sexual violence within the entire Monash University community. It began in July 2012, has been delivered to about 2000 students and is the only program targeting universities. It provides presentations on how to create respectful communities with a focus on sports teams, residential colleges and Monash clubs, societies, associations and unions.

•         The Sexuality Education & Community Support (SECS) program works on a whole-of-school approach to sexuality education from Prep to Year 12. It has been introduced over the past three years at Northern Bay College – a cluster of nine campuses across northern Geelong. Driven by Barwon Health, parents and local education representatives.

•         The Be the Hero program, originally set up by the Victorian Women’s Trust, is a web-based program for boys and young men, encouraging them to take a lead in promoting respectful relationships with women. It involves four 50-minute sessions, and has been embraced by hundreds of schools.

•        Maribyrnong City Council has run respectful relationships programs in local schools for more than 10 years. In their peer-support model, 12-15 students from a school participate in a five-week program and then share what they have learnt with their peers. Maribyrnong’s Phoenix Youth Centre produced a video on gender equity while taking the program.  

See also:

Respectful Relationships’ Education Map: What’s available and where 

► If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. For more information about a service in your state or local area download the DAISY App in the App Store or Google Play.

An edited version of this story was re-published byNew Matilda

► See also on CrikeyWe already know how to stop domestic violence: close the inequity gap 

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