Australia’s answer to a crisis of sexist violence? An official for ‘men’s behavior change’

As Australia grapples with a wave of violence against women that the prime minister has called a “national crisis,” one state now has a designated official in charge of one of the biggest potential solutions: changing men’s behavior.

Victoria Premier Jacinta Allan announced last week that state lawmaker Tim Richardson had been appointed parliamentary secretary for men’s behavior change, in what she said was the first position of its kind in Australia.

“The portfolio really acknowledges that we all have a role to play, and it starts with us, men and boys,” Richardson told NBC News on Thursday in an interview from his constituency of Mordialloc in suburban Melbourne.

Richardson’s appointment comes amid public outrage over a wave of violence against women in the country of 27 million people.

So far this year, 35 women in Australia have been killed in what are believed to be acts of gender-based violence, according to the Counting Dead Women project, or one about every 4 1/2 days.

That includes four who were killed in separate incidents in just two days last weekend, all allegedly by men they knew: Evette Verney, 61; Lois Witt, 77; Wanda Dorothy Uhle, 78; and a 36-year-old woman who has yet to be publicly named.

Last month, a man in Western Australia allegedly shot and killed Jennifer Petelczyc, 59, and her daughter Gretl, 18, while looking for his ex-wife, a friend of Petelczyc’s. His daughter, Ariel Bombara, told Nine News that she and her mother had been repeatedly ignored when they sought help from police.

In April, five women were among six people killed in a stabbing attack in a Sydney shopping mall in which police said they were “obviously” targeted. The assailant’s father said his 40-year-old son was “a very sick boy” who was frustrated over not having a girlfriend.

The stabbing attack and the killings of several other women in April spurred protests across Australia in which thousands of people called for tougher laws. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese responded by calling gender-based violence a “national crisis” and promising greater government action.

Richardson said he would focus largely on teaching young people how to build respectful relationships and how to combat the influence of internet and social media, which are awash in “toxic” content promoting gender stereotypes.

Social media algorithms can make such ideas and personalities difficult to escape, he said.

“Once they are exposed to something, it’s in their feed over and over and over,” said Richardson, a 35-year-old father of two girls.

“So how do we change that and give them positive role modeling, positive and healthy masculinities?” he continued. “What does that look like? And how do we empower them as well?”

Tim Richardson, right, said he would focus on teaching young people how to build respectful relationships and combat the influence of internet and social media, which are awash in “toxic” content promoting gender stereotypes.Joel Carrett / AAP Image via Reuters

Statistics suggest gender-based violence in Australia is getting worse. According to a report from the Australian Institute of Criminology released in April, intimate partner homicides committed against women increased 28% from 2021-22 to 2022-23.

One in four women in Australia has experienced violence by an intimate partner or family member, the government said last month, about the same as in the U.S.

Government data also shows that 1 in 5 women in Australia have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15, and 53% of women have experienced sexual harassment.

“Millions of Australian women have been impacted by that. We cannot just deny that as not a cultural, systemic issue,” said Richardson, who will also continue in his role as parliamentary secretary for mental health and suicide prevention.

Richardson’s appointment is “symbolic of the increasing recognition that we must engage men if we are going to effectively address and eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls,” said Kate Fitz-Gibbon, chair of the domestic violence prevention organization Respect Victoria.

“We know that all forms of violence against women and family violence are deeply gendered, with men predominantly the perpetrators and women predominantly the victims,” she said.

“So it is essential for us to look at the perpetrators of this behavior and to be actively developing a suite of interventions, programs, initiatives that aim to change that behavior,” Fitz-Gibbon added.

Richardson’s new role has also been met with strong criticism from opposition politicians and members of the public.

“It does sound to me like a little bit of window dressing around a really important issue that involves genuine cultural change,” Jane Hume, a Liberal Party member who represents Victoria in the national Senate, told Sky News.

Others, like Australian radio host Ben Fordham, said it amounted to “treating all men like an enemy.”

Fitz-Gibbon countered that violence against women cannot be addressed without engaging those who are most often responsible for it.

“Yes, this is not about all men,” she said, “but all men absolutely have a role to play in terms of being part of the solution.”

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