Tiffany Woodley, Georgia Lyall and Lynn Cannon. These are the names of West Australian women whose lives have been tragically cut short — killed or allegedly killed by the hands of ex-partners in the past few months.
These deaths and the pain and suffering that they and their families have endured was not inevitable. Violence against women is a national emergency, and our national shame, but it is also preventable.
No parent wants their child to grow up to experience violence or to be someone who uses violence, but that likelihood is high, with one study showing that one in four young people aged 18-19 reporting experiencing violence or abuse from their intimate partner in the previous year.
Violence against women does not occur out of the blue. It is driven by disrespect and gender inequality that exist in our society. A large body of international and Australian research shows that respectful relationships education from a young age help can change this.
Implementing this initiative requires a comprehensive whole-of-school approach and is one of the preventative actions we can do now to prevent violence against women and their children in the future.
This week, the WA Government announced that public and non-government schools would commit to relationships and consent education.
This is an opportunity for WA to make a real difference in transforming school cultures to support equality and respect.
But respectful relationships education must be age-appropriate. For example, in primary school age-appropriate respectful relationships education may look at friendships and how to set boundaries or ask for permission before giving a hug or giving a high five.
For high-schoolers, the content is more advanced — and needs to be — not just because relationships are more complex, but also because more young people are being influenced by factors such as pornography.
Our Watch research identified that nearly half of young men have seen pornography by the age of 13 and nearly half of young women by the age of 15.
This is troubling as porn often contains physical and verbal aggression towards women and condoning and normalising of violence, dominance and abuse. Consequently, many young people are being exposed to representations of harmful of sexual relationships during a crucial period of their lives when they are developing their views and attitudes about gender roles, sex and relationship.
Young men also need a supportive school and family culture that demonstrates the many ways to “be a man”. Research shows that rigid stereotypes about men, such as always being the tough, dominant, stoic type, underpin an unhealthy ideal of masculinity, which helps maintain gender inequality and drives violence against women.
The school curriculum must also address drivers of violence, such as challenging gender stereotypes in teaching materials so that young people don’t feel limited in what they can achieve in life.
These can be tough conversations. Teachers need to be supported with professional development to understand violence against women, gender equality, respectful relationships and the part they play in changing culture.
Respectful relationships education is not about a one-off lesson or ticking a box, but a comprehensive approach to embed equality and respect across a whole school environment. This means every person and every part of the school is involved, from the lessons to the policies, procedures and gender representation across all school roles. Respectful relationships education also means looking at how schools can extend their education beyond the school gates to influence beliefs, attitudes, structures and ideas of what is appropriate.
If we truly want to end Australia’s national emergency of violence against women, we need to take action now — and one proven preventative initiative is respectful relationship education. This is only truly possible through strong leadership and commitment from governments, schools and the wider community.
Our young people deserve to grow into the best versions of themselves and be respected and safe from violence. To do that, we must set them up with lifelong tools to be able to engage in respectful, positive and healthy relationships and friendships.
Patty Kinnersly is chief executive officer at Our Watch.