Three Challenges: Maintain a feminist agenda; Engage and mobilise men; Get intersectional

Flood, M. (2015). “Three Challenges: Maintain a feminist agenda; Engage and mobilise men; Get intersectional.” Keynote address, Australian STOP Domestic Violence Conference, Canberra, 7-8 December.

We’re in an interesting period in terms of men’s violence against women and its prevention. This violence is particularly high on community and government agendas. There are some significant signs of progress:

  • Improvements in community attitudes towards men’s violence against women (MVAW).
  • Increases in activity associated for example with the White Ribbon Campaign.
  • Movement towards national-level curricula on respectful relationships education.

But let’s not be naïve about this. Let’s not lapse into rosy optimism.

  • Community attitudes regarding some issues have worsened. There are significant pockets of violence-supportive social norms in Australia.
  • Services for the victims and survivors of men’s violence are over-stretched and under-funded.
  • There is little sign that levels of MVAW are decreasing in Australia.

This presentation: is intended to contribute to, and intervene in, both advocacy and policy-making aimed at the prevention and reduction of MVAW.

It emphasises three key directions for our work. And each of the three also embodies a challenge. Each faces significant obstacles.

Challenge 1: Maintain a feminist agenda

My first general point is that we must maintain a feminist agenda. We must continue to embed efforts to prevent and reduce violence in feminist frameworks, feminist agendas, and feminist movements for gender justice.

Why a feminist agenda?

Why? Why should feminist principles and politics be central to violence prevention and reduction? I can think of at least three good reasons.

First, it is feminist activism that placed violence against women on community and policy agendas.

Second, regardless of who put this issue on the agenda, it is feminist scholarship that provides the most comprehensive and credible account of the causes and consequences of this violence.

Third, the evidence is that feminist activism is critical to the existence of violence prevention and reduction policy. A recent review of VAW policies in 70 countries over four decades finds that the existence of a strong, autonomous women’s movement is a critical success factor in prevention of violence against women (Htun & Weldon 2012). Differences in national policy regarding VAW – the fact that some countries have more comprehensive policies than others, and some governments are faster than others to adopt policies – are shaped in particular by feminist mobilisation in civil society (BRIDGE n.d.: 20).

It’s particularly important that men’s anti-violence work is guided by feminism. This work involves advocacy by members of a privileged group (men) to undermine that same privilege, and it is feminism which speaks most to gender and gendered privilege.

To what extent is current discourse and policy feminist?

So, to what extent is current discourse and policy feminist?

I’m not going to offer a systematic assessment here. But I’ll start with two points about history.

History: A story of feminist achievements. And recent dilution and depoliticisation.

First, in Australia, as elsewhere, feminist activism has made men’s violence against women a public issue and a social policy concern (Phillips, 2006, p. 200). Beginning in the early 1970s, feminist efforts have led to progress in legislation, the creation of domestic violence units within police forces and other institutions, government funding for refuges, counseling, community education, and rehabilitation, national government agendas on violence against women, national data collections, and education campaigns (Laing, 2000). Looking back over the past four decades, there is an inspiring range of feminist achievements regarding violence against women.

However, recent years have seen the dilution of feminist policy-making and political influence in Australia. The feminist orientation of domestic violence services has been watered down, in part by neo-conservative, ‘economic rationalist’ models of governance. In government policy-making, feminist and politicized frameworks for understanding violence against women have given way to some degree to more welfare-oriented and therapeutic models (McDonald, 2005; Phillips, 2006). More generally, since the mid-1990s, Australia has witnessed the systematic winding back of agencies and policies aimed at women’s equality (Phillips, pp. 193-4).

Turning to the present, there are some encouraging developments.

Recent developments: New organisations; Government acknowledgement of gender inequalities as central to MVAW; “Change the Story” framework. But is the Government committed to addressing gender inequalities?

New, significant violence prevention organisations such as ANROWS and Our Watch began in 2013. Both organisations do offer feminist-informed agendas regarding violence against women.

With the change in Prime Minister in September 2015, we’ve seen some significant Government support for addressing gender inequalities as central to preventing MVAW. E.g., Turnbull, in announcing new DV measures and funding, said, “Let me say this to you: disrespecting women does not always result in violence against women. But all violence against women begins with disrespecting women”.[1] As one newspaper reported, “Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has called on all Australians to make a “cultural shift” and stop disrespecting women, declaring that gender inequality lies at the heart of domestic violence.”[2] Such commentary was described by Our Watch as a “positive shift in national leadership on violence against women”.[3]

In November, we saw the release of “Change the Story: A shared framework for the primary prevention of violence against women and their children in Australia”. This is a collaborative effort, led by Our Watch in partnership with ANROWS and VicHealth. This is a very significant initiative, which I hope will shape national policy making.

However, such developments do not mean much without substantive policy commitment to addressing gender inequalities. The Coalition’s political agendas do, in various ways, maintain women’s economic dependence on men, limit women’s autonomy with regard to sexuality and relationships, support narrow constructions of gender, and entrench various forms of social disadvantage and injustice. And the Labor Party’s policies are not necesssarily a whole lot better. So there is much work to do in pushing for policy efforts to address systemic gender inequalities.

To what extent are major violence prevention efforts such as the White Ribbon Campaign feminist?

I’ve said that feminist agendas must be central to violence prevention. This applies to other significant players in the field as well, such as the White Ribbon Campaign.

In the White Ribbon Campaign, national-level advocacy and social marketing is coordinated by the Sydney-based organisation White Ribbon Australia, and the campaign also includes a very large number of independently organised community events.

White Ribbon Australia’s work is a feminist project, offering a feminist analysis and agenda. It focuses squarely on violence against women, frames the project as part of a feminist tradition, and links violence against women to sexism and masculinity. As the Chair’s and CEO’s report in the 2013-2014 Annual Report states,

Men engaged through the Campaign proactively acknowledge the issue and are committed to building on the feminist tradition to stop violence against women. They are the backbone of the campaign and are deeply concerned about the embedded sexism and constructs of masculinity that fuel violence. (5)

However, the Australian campaign also has some limits as a feminist project.

First, while the Australian campaign describes itself as “male-led”, in fact much of the work is done by women. Only one-third of the community events in 2014 were organised by men, many of the key staff of the national organisation (including the CEO) are female, and white ribbons sometimes are worn by women rather than men. Now, this is understandable given that so much of the work of preventing and reducing men’s violence against women has been and is done by women, and women in general understand and support the issue much more readily than men. At the same time, this does mean that the Australian White Ribbon Campaign is unusual internationally in being less ‘male-led’ than many other White Ribbon efforts.

Second, and overlapping with this, the Australian campaign is defined less than White Ribbon campaigns in other countries by a focus on men’s roles in prevention. Some of the campaign’s main activities are generic violence prevention activities rather than efforts focused on men’s roles, such as its schools and workplaces programs. Make these mistakes, these programs make valuable contributions to violence prevention. But I’m also a little nervous that they represent the dilution of international White Ribbon campaigns’ focus on men.

Third, the campaign’s efforts have little focus on movement building. Nor is it clear that White Ribbon Australia’s own engagement in policy advocacy involves a focused challenge to existing structures of gender inequality.

This echoes a weakness in much violence prevention activity, which is focused on attitudes and norms, not the material and structural relations which are central to gender inequalities.

Fourth, the campaign has weak, and sometimes difficult, relations with feminist groups and the wider violence prevention sector.

In some ways therefore, White Ribbon Australia’s efforts look more akin to those of say a breast cancer foundation, ‘raising awareness’ about a particular social issue, rather than a social justice organisation aiming for radical social change. In this sense, while White Ribbon Australia’s work is feminist, it is only weakly feminist.


So, we must maintain a feminist agenda. But there are some complexities here.

Saying that anti-violence work must be feminist doesn’t settle the issue. For a start, there are significant differences and debates within feminism regarding men’s violence against women. Diverse strands or schools of feminist advocacy and scholarship differ in the weight they give to the issue of men’s violence against women, their explanatory or theoretical frameworks regarding this violence, and the strategies they advocate or pursue in response. Indeed, there are heated debates within feminism over particular practices or domains seen by some to be implicated in men’s violence against women, such as pornography, prostitution or sex work, and trafficking. The question then becomes which feminisms and feminist positions are adopted.

Which dimensions of gender inequality are most critical in sustaining MVAW? How is MVAW related to masculinity in particular, e.g. to hierarchies among men and to male peer support? What are the implications of an intersectional feminism? How are feminist agendas linked to social justice and human rights agendas?

Practical implications

But there are some clear practical implications…

  • Draw on feminist frameworks and analyses.
    • This means taking seriously the feminist attention to the structural and material nature of gender inequalities. It means moving beyond a single-minded focus on attitudes, as if attitudes were the only important dimension of gender and gender inequalities.
    • Resist a shift towards degendered approaches to violence prevention. Which visible e.g. in some bystander intervention work. And be careful about new programs and organisations jumping on the bandwagon, without a strong feminist politics.
    • Use the term ‘feminist’. As e.g. Our Watch framework does. Don’t shy away from this term. Rebuild its legitimacy and credibility. (Note that Emma Watson was asked to avoid the term “feminism” in her UN speech launching the HeForShe campaign, although she did not.)
  • Sustain and extend feminist and women’s movements and mobilisations.
  • Build, and defend, feminist policy machinery.
  • Hold governments and other institutions accountable.
    • Including those institutions which sign up to the White Ribbon Campaign.

Challenge 2: Engage and mobilise men

The value of community mobilisation

Community mobilisation involves bringing individuals and groups together through coalitions, networks, and movements to broaden prevention efforts.

There is a powerful rationale for community mobilisation:

  • Coalitions and networks are vital to increase the ‘critical mass’ behind particular prevention efforts
  • Coalitions improve collaboration on interventions, reduce unnecessary competition or duplication among organisations, and increase the credibility and impact of our efforts.
  • Social mobilisation and political action can reach large constituencies of people.
  • They address preventable risk factors at a scale beyond individuals and their relationships, enabling an engagement with structural factors.
  • And they can put pressure on governments to take action.

In short, community and societal strategies are essential to shift the cultures, social relations, and structural inequalities which underpin violence against women.

The need to mobilise men in particular

It is particularly important that we mobilise men in violence prevention. Why?

First, men have been largely absent from efforts to end violence against women, and still, most of the work is done by women. We need more men doing the work, including the unpaid, low-status, behind-the-scenes work.

Second, more men means more energy, more labour power, more money, more resources.

Third, when men do get involved, they go through processes of personal change. There are various studies among male anti-violence activists, and they show that men develop a stronger consciousness of their complicity in violence and sexism. So getting men involved is one important way to change men. At the same time, I’m well aware of the delicate politics here, the ways that male activists may reinforce patriarchal privilege.

Case study: The White Ribbon Campaign in Australia

In Australia, the most obvious candidate for the campaign or organisation which can mobilise men is the White Ribbon Campaign.

Good at getting men to the door. Good at ‘brand awareness’. Poor at mobilising men as activists.

The White Ribbon Campaign is good at getting men to make initial contact with the campaign. It is good at getting men to recognise the White Ribbon symbol. White Ribbon Australia’s market data shows this, with 70% of men having brand recognition of the white ribbon. But it is this language itself that betrays the fundamental problem here.

We don’t need men simply to recognise the White Ribbon ‘brand’. We are trying to get men to make substantial processes of personal change, and to engage in public processes of collective change. So, the White Ribbon Campaign in Australia is good at creating men’s initial recognition of a campaign focused on men’s roles preventing men’s violence against women. But it needs to do far, far more then to mobilise those men. To recruit, train, and energise those men to be agents of social change. White Ribbon is good at getting men to the door, but not very good at then inviting men in and mobilising them. To put it perhaps too harshly, White Ribbon has been too focused on brand awareness raising, and not enough on movement building.

Poor relations with women’s and violence prevention sectors. And with other social justice efforts.

Related to this, White Ribbon has not done enough to build alliances with women’s groups, women’s movements, and the violence prevention sector. And, as far as I know, White Ribbon has done very little to build alliances with other social justice movements. I am a passionate supporter of the White Ribbon Campaign, and I believe that the campaign in Australia needs significant shifts in direction if it is to make a powerful impact.

Mobilise men: Build a movement

So, again, there are some practical implications.

Raise men’s consciousness, politicise them, and turn them into activists.

Yes, bring men into the work. But when we have them in, train them up. Using group education, using processes of consciousness-raising and critical reflection. Politicise them. Turn them into activists.

White Ribbon in Australia has redesigned its Ambassadors Program. After a 2014 review, it put all Ambassadors through a re-commitment process, cutting down the number of Ambassadors from over 2,300 to 1,000, and intensified its training program. However, it is still the case that men who participate in White Ribbon are mobilised only weakly as activists. Significant processes of activist training and movement-building are missing.

Build alliances and networks with women’s groups and movements.

Build alliances with other social justice movements.

White Ribbon must also build alliances and networks with women’s groups and movements, and build alliances with other social justice movements.

There is value in linking struggles and movements, building collective solidarity, and expanding understandings of the intersections of gender justice and other forms of social justice (Horn 2013).

As an aside, there are others making this critique in other contexts. I read a piece in yesterday’s Guardian in which a radical feminist Maori man argues that the White Ribbon Campaign in New Zealand is ‘too white and too polite’. This brings me to the third challenge.

Challenge 3: Get intersectional

Feminist intersectional approaches to violence against women

Feminist scholarship and activism increasingly is intersectional. It pays attention to the ways in which gender intersects with other forms of social difference and social injustice.

This feminist intersectional approach is being applied to men’s violence against women and its prevention. There is increasing recognition that complex intersections of social difference and social location which shape women’s and men’s understandings of, experiences of, and involvements in violence.

Where this is particularly well established is in relation to women’s victimisation. It is well known, for example, that women in immigrant and CaLD communities and refugees face distinct forms of vulnerability to violence, as do women in indigenous communities.

But where an intersectional approach is particularly lacking is in relation to men. There are two dimensions to this.

Adopt an intersectional understanding of perpetration, including both privilege and disadvantage.

First, there has been little attention to how men’s perpetration of violence is shaped by multiple forms of disadvantage and privilege.

We know for example that experiences of immigration and resettlement shape men’s use of violence, their actual perpetration. We know that male perpetrators are more likely to be held accountable and criminalized, and their crimes are more likely to be seen as linked to their ethnicity, if they are poor, black or men of colour. One thing that is missing altogether though is much examination of how men’s use of violence is also structured by privilege – privileges and structural advantages associated with class, ethnicity, and so on.

Adopt an intersectional approach to educating and mobilising men.

Second, there has been little attention to how multiple forms of disadvantage and privilege also shape our efforts to involve men in prevention.

I’ve written at length, elsewhere, about how best to engage men from CaLD backgrounds be engaged in the prevention of violence against women. In brief;

  • We must first address the social and economic conditions of CaLD men and communities, including for example the pre-arrival experiences of war, torture and trauma among newly arrived men from immigrant and refugee communities.
  • Violence prevention efforts with CaLD men should use culturally sensitive content. It’s the ten-year anniversary of the Cronulla riots. This makes it particularly pertinent to say that, for example, content might address the stereotypes of Islam and of Muslim men as backwards, sexist, rapists. And prevention work should highlight the links between racism and sexism and between racist and sexist violence.
  • Violence prevention efforts also should address culturally specific supports for violence and gender inequality, whether these come from religious beliefs (Christian, Islamic, or other) or from the forms of media popular in particular communities.
  • We should engage (male) community and religious leaders, although in some instances engaging men through women’s leadership will be more effective.
  • And we should address men’s experiences of changing gender dynamics in families.

In Australia, intersectional approaches to educating and mobilising men are missing or under-developed. There are however some signs of change. I’m pleased to report that White Ribbon soon will release a paper by Adele Murdolo and Dr Regina Quiazon titled “Working with men from immigrant and refugee communities to prevent violence against women”. Adele is addressing the paper at this conference. It’s a very insightful, and provocative, account of the issues involved, and I urge you to read it.

Where this work looks even harder is in relation to indigenous men. I know of few if any programs in which indigenous men are involved in the primary prevention of men’s violence against women. This is a striking and troubling absence.


So, let’s continue to assert feminist agendas in this work. Let’s hold campaigns, organisations, and governments accountable, urging them to tackle the systemic gender inequalities which are at the root of men’s violence against women. Let’s mobilise men – to do the work, to be allies to feminist activists and movements, and to contribute to social change. And let’s get intersectional, building a recognition of multiple forms of oppression and privilege into everything we do.


CITATION: Flood, M. (2015). “Three Challenges: Maintain a feminist agenda; Engage and mobilise men; Get intersectional.” Keynote address, Australian STOP Domestic Violence Conference, Canberra, 7-8 December.

PLEASE see below for the Powerpoints from this talk, in PDF. And for this text in PDF as well.


[1] “Malcolm Turnbull on domestic violence: Some people will hate what the PM had to say.” Sydney Morning Herald, September 24 2015.

[2] “Malcolm Turnbull’s scathing attack on men who commit domestic violence.” The Age, September 24 2015.

[3] Our Watch (2015). Media release: Positive shift in national leadership on violence against women, September 24.