May is domestic and family violence prevention month. This year it comes shortly after the Victorian Government has announced a Royal Commission on Family Violence to inquire into its causes and what can be done to eradicate it.
When the media focus on domestic violence, they usually demand harsher penalties for those who perpetrate it. Heavy penalties do expressing society’s detestation of domestic violence against vulnerable women and children. Close monitoring and enforcement of prevention orders and other measures, too, may protect people at risk.
But we need to do more than treat the symptoms. We need to ask why people come to treat their partners and children violently, and to encourage in them early in their lives more human ways of expressing their discontents.
Domestic violence is gender based. Most of the adult victims are women. The reasons for this are partly cultural. They include a long history of discrimination against women in society sanctioned by society and by some religious traditions, and in some cultures a tolerance for the contempt of women. In our society, too, the increasingly brutal representation of men’s relationships to women in pornography contributes to the shaping of young men’s understanding of women and of what they expect of men.
Generally speaking it is men who act violently to women and children.
They anger, frustration and resentment they feel, they are unable to express in any way other than through violence. Most men who habitually act violently also habitually suffered from violence at home when growing up. They have learned to respond to frustration by lashing out.
Because this is so, the popular instinct to give bullies a taste of their own medicine and to respond to domestic violence with ever harsher penalties is likely to be counterproductive. These responses simply reinforce the lessons learned in childhood by perpetrators of violence that when people or societies are offended they lash out.
After people are punished for their violence and leave prison they will be likely to continue to act violently and to perpetuate the cycle of violence into the next generation.
The experience of working with disadvantaged young people has convinced Jesuit Social Services that programs working with familiy groups where there is a high risk of domestic violence are vitally important. Such programs can ensure that women and children are protected, can help men understand why they express their anger and frustration in violent ways, and also encourage children to find alternatives to violence.
Because many men who act violently are brought into the justice system, it is also important that they have access to programs that help them understand their behaviour and to explore healthy ways of dealing with their anger. If they continue to find help when they leave prison, the cycle in which violence is learned at home and brought into a new home may be broken.