OPINION

Time is now: embrace collective social change and end family violence

How quickly social norms change is possible with leadership and collective accountability - if we can do it for COVID19, we can do it for family violence

COVID-19 has given our country's leaders the collective ear of the nation.

The Australian population is tuning in to daily updates from our leaders including our Prime Minister, our Premiers and our first Ministers on social media and the many news platforms. These daily shared communications are helping create a new set of social norms aimed at reducing infection rates, so that we will collectively eradicate COVID-19 across Australia.

The length of time this takes is up to us all and how quickly we choose to change our established daily norms, rituals and behaviours. It also rides on how comfortable we are using our social influence to challenge each other when we are not being responsible, and to hold each other to account for our individual and collective safety.

Daily communications from our country's leaders provide a platform from which we as individuals, our families, institutions and communities can set our new COVID-19 social norms. It is these new norms that are the invisible glue that will drive our national fight against COVID-19.

Social norms are rules of behaviour that people in a group conform to because they believe that most other people in the group are conforming; that is seen as typical and appropriate behaviour (UN Women 2016).

In a short space of time, we have seen innovation and quite radical change in people's daily routines and practices. To conform with social distancing, new norms of attitudes and behaviours have been adopted in how we interact with our neighbours, our colleagues, our educators and our families - as well as proper hand washing, not touching our faces (eyes, nose or mouth), sneezing and/or coughing into an elbow or tissue; use 60 per cent alcohol hand sanitiser; stay at home when we are sick; continue healthy habits and wear a mask when we are not well.

To eradicate a pandemic like this one, we all have to be on the same page - no excuses, no exceptions, we have to sing from the same song sheet.

If we as individuals, groups and communities do not adopt these new social norms, we simply will not eradicate COVID-19 across Australia, and we will be complicit in spreading the disease and killing members of our local communities.

We saw earlier in our COVID-19 journey, the importance of consistent messaging to dismantle the harmful social norms across society that lead to the spreading of the disease. The lack of clarity and confused messaging in the initial COVID-19 updates in Australia, led to the continuation of harmful norms where people continued gathering for football games, weddings and on beaches - where the infection rate spread rapidly and ultimately lives were lost.

Likewise now, if someone influential in our lives - a friend, a partner, a lover, a Prime Minister, a church leader - communicates that social distancing isn't that important, they reinforce the existing harmful norm and we will be greatly influenced by them. To eradicate a pandemic like this one, we all have to be on the same page - no excuses, no exceptions, we have to sing from the same song sheet.

Now with our communities catalysing, clearly communicating and reinforcing the new set of social norms, informed by global evidence by medical professionals, and the requisite investment of social and financial resources, we are seeing how in a matter of days social change can occur when we all take on the personal and collective responsibility to listen to, co-operate with, and hold each other to account to these new norms for eradicating COVID-19.

The Prime Minister perpetuated and reinforced the existing harmful social norm that in times of social and financial stress, family violence is to be expected; and that women and children are simply collateral in these uncharted times because in Australia family violence is considered normal.

Can you imagine if the same clarity of communication and investment in social norms change were to occur for preventing family violence - how many lives would be saved, trauma prevented, we could be collectively building an Australian society, where people, families and communities thrive.

The same rapid and evolving social change that is happening for COVID-19 across our society, could happen for family violence, we can create and sustain a new set of collective positive social norms around our relationships and collective accountability which would contribute to reducing and eventually eradicating family violence across Australia.

And yet a key opportunity for such momentum was missed in the Prime Minister's update on March 29 when announcing the $150 million investment in the national Family Violence initiative. His choice of words reinforced the existing status quo by referring to this surge of 'vulnerable people looking for support services for domestic violence on Google' as normal and expected.

The Prime Minister sent the message that it is COVID-19 itself that is creating the surge in family violence - that it is COVID-19 that is responsible for and somehow a driver of family violence. Inadvertently, the Prime Minister perpetuated and reinforced the existing harmful social norm that in times of social and financial stress, family violence is to be expected; and that women and children are simply collateral in these uncharted times because in Australia family violence is considered normal.

Our Prime Minister missed an incredibly important opportunity to guide and influence communities and to help create, build and model positive social norms to prevent family violence, including in times of crisis. The opportunity missed was to say loud and clear to a listening nation, that this surge in family violence is unacceptable, that there is never an excuse for family violence and that we are all responsible for creating positive, equal and respectful relationships especially in difficult times.

As is finally being demonstrated with COVID-19, we are all connected and responsible for one another and the safety of our communities.

It is each of us together who must hold each other to account when we see violence, to ensure we promote and strengthen positive, equal and respectful relations between and among women and men. We are responsible for creating alternatives to harmful norms that support family violence, for it is, in fact easier to start a new norm than to change an old one.

The length and number of deaths from COVID-19 in Australia will be determined by our individual actions and collective accountability to our new set of social norms. So too, do we, each day and in each interaction, have the opportunity to influence our friends, family and community and co-construct collective social norms to challenge each other when we are not being respectful and holding each other to account for our individual and collective safety.

It is each of us together who must hold each other to account when we see violence, to ensure we promote and strengthen positive, equal and respectful relations between and among women and men. We are responsible for creating alternatives to harmful norms that support family violence, for it is, in fact easier to start a new norm than to change an old one.

Just as we have seen with COVID-19, we have to step up and model new ways of being, with non-violent conflict resolution in times of crisis.

We have to get more comfortable with intervening as community members, when we see power being misused in relationships and we must not be silent. In these times of crisis with COVID-19, we can be catalysing, clearly communicating and reinforcing a new set of social norms to end family violence too.

Any missed opportunity for change, makes us complicit in normalising family violence and the continued deaths of women in our communities every year.

  • Angela Walsh and Nadia Albert work for Create Space Consultancy in the areas of intersectional whole of system and community change for enabling gender equality, preventing family violence, respectful relationships and anti-racism. They live and work in Naarm on Wurundjeri lands and recognise that sovereignty was never ceded.