Q&A: Men don’t need to hear other men speak out against violence in order to change

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Clementine Ford

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Rosie Batty heads Q&A panel on family violence

A special edition of the live panel show dealt exclusively with domestic violence and Rosie Batty offered clear and heartfelt responses to difficult questions.

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Last night, the ABC's Q&A program attempted to address the issue of men's violence against women with a special edition dealing exclusively with the topic of family and intimate partner violence. It was certainly an admirable venture, and a first for mainstream Australian television. The ABC's Amanda Collinge should be particularly acknowledged for working so hard to bring this topic to the forefront, especially in a media environment which is all too often content to merely pay lip service to those matters of import that significantly affect women.

Unfortunately, what could have been a fantastic hour of uncompromising truth-telling was let down by the same safe adherence to gender imbalance that mars so many of Q&A's episodes. Yes, Rosie Batty and Natasha Stott Despoja were invited to share their individual insight and expertise, and the panel was indeed the richer for it. But did we really need to have their presence offset by three other men (and four, if you include host Tony Jones)?

For me, the panel raised two extremely important issues that must be championed if we are to have any hope of changing the landscape of violence.

Rosie Batty on Q&A on Monday night.

Rosie Batty on Q&A on Monday night.

1. Women's equal representation and inclusion is essential to challenging the gender inequality that underpins violence

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It's tempting to think of the ABC as a refuge away from tabloid media and/or conservative politics. Unfortunately, the ABC is just as guilty of perpetuating gender inequality as any other media outlet. Almost every Monday night on the ABC, we are treated via selected panel to a representation of a world in which women occupy only 33 per cent of the space. As Jess Hill points out here, an audit of the previous year's Q&A episodes shows men outnumbered women on 35 out of a total of 44 panels - and that's before you even get into the overwhelming lack of racial diversity.

Gender inequality is one of the key drivers of men's violence against women. Limiting the access women have to both participate in and lead discussions that are politically and culturally important isn't just related to the structures of violence that oppress us - it is a fundamental part of its very foundation. It isn't good enough for women to just be given a scrap of space to speak, particularly when it's about matters that directly affect our lives. When minority groups are only allowed to operate on the periphery, their experience of the world is naturally treated as peripheral, making it easier to further marginalise and abuse them.

Natasha Stott Despoja on Q&A

Natasha Stott Despoja on Q&A

Worse, this marginalisation means any efforts made by those on the outskirts to redress this imbalance are seen as aggressive, greedy and even unreasonable. It's how Catherine Deveny can have been crucified for apparently dominating the conversation and repeatedly interrupting Archbishop Peter Jensen when they both appeared on Q&A in 2012, despite the fact Deveny spoke for approximately half the amount of time as the Archbishop and indeed spoke 13 per cent less than the average guest.

Do not be fooled into thinking that the ABC and its audience are above the kind of shallow sexism that defines the rest of society.

So yes, it's admirable that the Q&A team put time and effort into addressing such an important topic. It's disappointing that their planning (perhaps inadvertently) reinforced the very inequality that creates such a fertile ground in which the abuse of women can reproduce itself. But it's nothing more than an insult to have that decision justified as an attempt to put men on the frontlines of change.

The Q&A panel on family violence

The Q&A panel on family violence

2. Men don't need to hear other men speak out against violence in order to change

The idea that men can only learn from other men is one that's frequently touted in discussions around violence. It certainly popped up a few times in the lead up to Q&A this week, and was repeated multiple times on both the panel and in the Twitter feed.

Frankly, it's bollocks.

Violence exists on a continuum, from the most seemingly inane examples of sexism to the most horrifying and abusive expressions of hatred. Women struggle enough as it is to have our stories and experiences of the world listened to and believed, and this gaslighting is fundamental to the evolution of violence. Insisting that men be given precedence to explain women's reality to other men only reinforces the deeply harmful idea that we are unreliable witnesses to our own lives. Patriarchal privilege has already wrought enough damage to the world without defending it as a weapon against inequality.

I do not accept that men need to listen to other men in order to accept the state of violence against women in this country. Replicating patriarchy under the guise of progressive activity will not save women from being killed. Effective violence prevention and real gender equality hinges on men being taught to respect women. It fundamentally cannot work by simply threatening them with the shame of losing the respect of other men.

Already this year, 14 women have been killed in Australia as a result of violence. Funding is being rapidly withdrawn from the frontline services and shelters that exist to help the already marginalised victims of family violence, while the legal system continues to fail women by enforcing lax sentences and bail conditions for perpetrators.

If you are a man and you want to challenge men's violence against women, don't tell men to listen to you. Tell them to listen to women. There were countless women in the audience of Q&A last night who were bravely telling their stories.

Imagine how much more powerful it would have been had more of them been on the panel and given a platform to speak directly to the people of Australia - no matter how uncomfortable those truths might be for some people to hear.