In the opening panel of the National Summit on Women’s Safety 2021, Professor Marcia Langton called for a separate national plan to address violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.

Other panels spoke about the importance of perpetrator interventions and engaging men and boys in prevention, particularly those that engage with Aboriginal men. Such programs are important but if they are not based in appropriate frameworks they can be dangerous.

In research conducted between 2018-2020, ten principles of good practice to prevent violence against women were identified through case studies of two Northern Territory programs addressing men’s violence. These principles were developed with practitioners in a series of workshops. One of the areas of focus was accountability for men who use violence.


Read more: We need a national plan to address family violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people


Men’s behaviour change programs in the Northern Territory

Men’s behaviour change programs respond to violence by working with men who have used violence. Other programs seek to engage men and boys as allies in violence prevention.

Currently there are only two behaviour change programs in the Northern Territory and very few programs that engage men and boys in violence prevention. More are desperately needed.

However it is not enough to simply have these programs – they must be safe and effective.

Approximately 300 Northern Territorians contributed to the development of principles of good practice to prevent violence against women. These have been communicated in a framework called “Hopeful, Together, Strong”.

These principles of good practice show that to be effective programs must be:

  • holistic, community-driven and culturally safe
  • sustainable and educational
  • be framework- and theory-informed
  • involve multi-agency collaboration
  • be strengths-based and accessible
  • require accountability from men who use violence.

These principles came from practice-based knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous practitioners. Panel discussions at the Women’s Safety Summit spoke of the same principles, with discussions of the need for community-driven, holistic, culturally safe approaches.

Aboriginal people painted in white ochre, standing outside parliament house.
In 2016, Rirratjingu people flew from the Northern Territory to dance a ceremony at the front door Parliament and to urge national action against family violence in communities such as theirs. Rod McGuirk/AAP

A study of two programs that work with men

The first program studied is the Marra’ka Mbarintja Men’s Behaviour Change program run by Tangentyere Council Aboriginal Corporation in Mparntwe/Alice Springs. This men’s behaviour change program is for Aboriginal and non-Indigenous men who have used violence.

The study found this men’s behaviour change program was promising and showed evidence of assisting the community to move through the stages of change.

Particular strengths of this program were its culturally safe approach, its use of assertive outreach, its emphasis on women and children’s safety and holding men accountable for their use of violence.

This program has since developed Central Australian Minimum Standards for men’s behaviour change programs. Despite the promising indications of program effectiveness, this program is under-funded, under-staffed, and under-resourced.

The second program studied will not be named to allow them the opportunity to put in place the research recommendations. This prevention program seeks to engage men in violence prevention by delivering training and sessions to Aboriginal and non-Indigenous men in regional and remote Northern Territory communities. In an effort to raise awareness, this program educates men about different types of violence.

Despite being well-funded, well-intended, and having a strong geographical reach, the research found this prevention program to be ineffective and often collusive with men’s violence against women. This was due to program staff having no expertise or training in domestic, family and sexual violence.

This led staff to minimising and/or condoning men’s use of violence in training sessions and using language like “women are just as bad”.

This is an inaccurate claim, considering women are nearly three times more likely to experience intimate partner violence than men; almost ten women a day are hospitalised from assault by a partner; and Indigenous women are hospitalised due to family violence at three times the rate of Indigenous males.

Therefore this program’s training sessions often reinforced harmful and incorrect attitudes and beliefs which could drive further violence against women.

Comparing these two vastly different programs highlights the importance of minimum standards for programs working with men to prevent violence. Appropriate frameworks for these programs need to be built from evidence about what works, particularly in remote communities and alongside First Nations people.

If not conducted correctly, programs working with men can put women and children at continued risk. Funding and support should be directed to programs that can show evidence of being grounded in frameworks of good practice.


Read more: Men are more likely to commit violent crimes. Why is this so and how do we change it?


The importance of community-driven programs

Prioritising the safety of women and children must be at the forefront of everything any men’s program does. This includes elevating the voices of survivors and the inclusion of women in leadership. In particular, the perspectives of Aboriginal women must inform these programs, and Aboriginal people and communities must have decision-making roles in their governance.

When women’s voices are not included, there is no chance to model gender equality in relationships. In the case of men’s behaviour change programs, without women’s insights, the opportunity for accurately monitoring and assessing risks has been lost. If only the man’s assessment of risk is heard, there is no way to tell if the potential for violence is escalating. This can lead to staff minimising a man’s use of violence.

Staff employed in these programs working with men must be given comprehensive, ongoing training. This is to minimise the risk of collusion and to empower staff to challenge men’s use of or justification of violence. Understanding why some men minimise and justify their behaviour is a skill that specialist facilitators constantly work at. They need to balance holding men accountable within a non-shaming and non-judgemental space so men are able to explore and take ownership of their behaviour.

Programs working with men must also address additional drivers of violence against Aboriginal women, such as the ongoing impacts of colonisation on Indigenous people and communities. Programs must be equipped with an understanding of intergenerational trauma and how colonisation has undermined gender roles and relations in First Nations communities, and respond to the gendered impacts of these compounding traumas.

The ongoing impacts of colonisation on non-Indigenous people and society also drives violence against Indigenous women. Colonisation has created systems and structures which privilege non-Indigenous people and reinforces power imbalances between them and Indigenous people. Programs working with men must therefore take an intersectional approach, and in addition to gendered drivers, address structural and racist violence.

We must also engage men and boys in preventing violence against women. On day two of the Women’s Safety Summit, Thelma Schwartz expressed the sentiment that men are not always the problem, they can be the solution.

The ANROWS Warawarni-gu guma statement says:

We invite our men, our brothers, uncles and cultural leaders to stand with us, to come together to work on solutions for us all, our young ones, our men and women together.

A good example of this is the partnership between Darwin Indigenous Men’s Service and the Darwin Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Shelter. This partnership shows how communities can work together to break the cycle of violence.

However, such local strategies are rarely given the opportunity to build their capacity and become effective programs, through a lack of government support.

To create and support community-led violence prevention programs, Indigenous people must be involved in conducting the research and informing what is best practice in their respective communities. Kinship and traditional Aboriginal family structures and ways of maintaining relationships, must be integrated into these practices.

We need place-based models, conceived, designed, and delivered by the community for the community.