18 Sep, 2014 Last updated: 30 Mar, 2015

By Jerril Rechter, VicHealth CEO

Opinion piece first published in The Age newspaper on 18 September 2014.

VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter

A woman is knocked unconscious with a single, calculated, punch. The prominent athlete towers above her, at six feet high and almost as wide. He pauses to inspect his work and drags her out of the lift at the next floor, carelessly dropping her at the door before security come to her aid.

The CCTV footage goes viral. And at once the public spotlight is on her. Why didn’t she leave him? How could she let this happen? What kind of person would stay with an abusive man who attacks women in elevators?

No-one thinks to ask why he hit her. Or how he got away with it for so long. That man is American pro-football player Ray Rice.

Compelled to respond, last week, domestic violence survivor Beverly Gooden invented the hashtag #WhyIStayed because she too had felt obliged to explain herself. And it began trending globally on Twitter. Hundreds of women took the extraordinary step of using social media to recount their experiences of what it’s like to be a prisoner of intimate partner violence.

Many, not physically constrained, were shackled by the financial control the partner held over them. Or his threats to kill her, to murder her children, to slay the family pet. Or the very real chance she, and her children, could become homeless.

Others felt frozen by fear of judgement from their friends, family and communities. Those who had suffered years of emotional belittling truly felt that this was their lot in life. That no-one else would ever want her. That no-one will help. That no-one wants to hear it.

Today, VicHealth releases its third National Community Attitudes to Violence against Women Survey. This important survey of 17,500 Australians serves as a sobering report card of how our society feels about violence against women, gender equality and victim blaming.

The majority of us (78%) can’t understand why women stay in violent relationships. Half think a woman can simply leave a violent relationship if she wanted to.

One in five say violence against women is a private issue to be handled in the home.

I know women who, after being dealt horrific abuse, finally gathered the courage to talk about it, only to be met with what they describe as an embarrassed silence. A sharp absence of words that screams: ‘we don’t want to know your business’, ‘this wouldn’t happen to anyone I know’ - or worse, ‘you deserved it’.

So it’s no wonder social media has become a loudspeaker through which women can project their experiences and seek support from strangers who have lived their experience.

For these women, this 140 character window into their suffering might be the first time they’ve spoken publicly about it.

A global movement of women refusing to remain silent about violence is significant. But there’s one intrinsic problem with this discussion. It again places the onus on the victim of violence to explain her actions.

Some have suggested we need to ask #WhyTheyHit. But this too, ignores the fact that violence is much more than broken bones and bruised eyes. It can be emotional, financial and social. Threats can be just as damaging as the punches thrown.

Why not ask the good, decent, supportive men - and there are many - to instead explain to other men, #WhyIDontHurt. To make it clear that violence isn’t a man’s right, it’s a man’s decision. And it’s always the wrong one.

We should all be very concerned that most of us (68%) believe that violence results from men being unable to control their anger and that so many in our community (43%) think men rape women because they can’t control their sexual urges.

It’s hard to believe, after all of our efforts, that this is where we are in 2014. That violence against women is still the leading contributor to ill-health in young to middle aged women in Victoria. That one woman each week dies at the hand of a current or ex-partner.

Allow me to make it very clear. Violence is a choice, not an instinct. It’s never excusable, under any circumstance.

It doesn’t matter if you’re drunk, if she’s drunk, if he’s in a jealous rage or if she’s goading him. Every human being – woman, man and child - deserves to live a life free from violence. It is a fundamental human right.

To ask a woman to justify the reasons she endured violence is akin to asking a cancer sufferer why they let themselves get sick. It’s unfair, it’s not helpful and it does nothing to stop victim blaming.

Instead, let us ask: what can I do to end the suffering?

As a society, we have a long road ahead, but it begins with the simple step of educating ourselves, our peers, and ultimately changing our perspective so that women are always on equal footing to men and the next generation of women can grow up in a world that is safe, supportive and free from violence.

- Jerril

Watch the Attitudes to gender equality and violence against women infographic.