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Violence against young women in Australia: Interview with Madeline Clifford

Interview with Madeleine Clifford, Manager for Campaigns, Our Watch

Madeleine Clifford is the Manager for Campaigns for Our Watch, an organisation established to drive nation-wide change in the culture, behaviours and attitudes that underpin and create violence against women and children. 

Started in July 2013 as the Foundation to Prevent Violence against Women and their Children by the Commonwealth and Victorian governments, Our Watch has since developed as a national organisation with the Northern Territory and South Australian governments also becoming members.



Madeleine: The National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children 2010–2022 is the Australian Government’s plan for reducing violence against women and their children, and under that plan are a range of initiatives; one of those is The Line campaign which is delivered by Our Watch.

Madeleine: Our Watch was established by the Australian Government and the Victorian Government in 2014. It was established to drive nationwide change, to influence the attitudes and behaviours that can lead to violence against women and their children. We know from a huge body of international and Australian research that there are a range of underlying factors that contribute to violence against women and their children, and Our Watch has been established to address and challenge those factors, and that includes gender inequality, rigid adherence to gender roles, gender stereotypes and challenging the deeply ingrained attitudes and social norms to make sure that the issue is no longer justified, excused or hidden. 

Madeleine: Gendered violence in Australia is considered a national emergency. It is the biggest contributor to ill health and premature death in women aged 15–44, we know that through research conducted by VicHealth. And conservative estimates indicate that one woman dies at the hands of a current or former partner almost every week in Australia. 

Madeleine: We know, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, that young women, those are young women aged 18–24 years, experience significantly higher rates of physical and sexual violence than women in older age groups. Approximately one-quarter of sexually active Australian students in years 10, 11 and 12 reported an experience of unwanted sex, and around 8 out of 10 women advise that they had been harassed on the street in the past year and also in the past year 87% of young women changed their behaviour to ensure their own safety. Look, the reasons that young women are experiencing higher rates of physical and sexual violence than women in older age groups are varied … We know from the research that was conducted in 2014 for The Line Campaign that young people are more likely to hold problematic attitudes, and that is attitudes that can lead to support for of perpetration of violence against women. And those attitudes include a greater acceptance of rape myths, so for example, younger people are more likely to hold an attitude that sometimes some women deserve to be hurt or put themselves in a position that can lead them to being hurt. We also know that some young people have attitudes where women aren’t viewed as equal to men. And we also know that some young people do hold some very rigid, sort of, stereotypes around what the role of a woman is versus the role of a man and also that, you know, a sign of a strong man is control, and staying in control, and controlling his partner. So I think when we see, what that indicates is those problematic attitudes that young people are more likely to hold, have that flow-on effect to young women being more likely to experience physical and sexual violence.

Madeleine: Through international and Australian research we know that gender equality – gender inequality – is an underlying factor that contributes to violence against women. And the problem around gender [inequality] and how it can lead to violence is that when people view women as not equal to men, they are more likely to hold attitudes around what it is to be, stereotypical views about what it is to be a woman and what the role of a woman is, how she should behave, how she should dress, what kind of role she should be performing so, for example, attitudes around, potentially that, you know women, that their role is to be a mother, or a homemaker or to work in a particular type of field, or to not be as strong as a man physically or emotionally, or more likely to think that women’s role, particularly in sexual relationships, is to be that of a gatekeeper, so to be responsible for keeping men at bay or encouraging them. So there’s an expectation that women play, have a more responsible role in sexual relationships, but potentially are seen as less equal when it comes to other aspects of life. So gender inequality, well, people’s views towards gender inequality, underpins all of those attitudes that we see that can lead to support for or condoning violence. 

Madeline: The personal costs of gendered violence are enormous and it really is across the gamut, in terms of, it can impact somebody's, a person’s self-esteem, their belief in themselves, their ability to pursue meaningful personal and professional life, fear of being in relationships, or fear of other close personal relationships, distrust... it varies across the board and obviously it has different impacts for different people. But the important thing is to acknowledge and to believe women when they say that they have been hurt. In terms of the cost to the community, when women are hurt or are seen as unequal, we don't get the full... the community and society suffers because we don’t get more women fulfilling their potential in life and being able to pursue their goals and being able to contribute fully. And we don’t get an equal voice, so, you know, that is a big proportion of the population therefore who [are] underrepresented. So as you can see there's a wide range of personal and community effects that violence has. 

Madeleine: Primary prevention is a key strategy for addressing violence against women and their children and it’s important to look at it as part of a whole-of-system approach to addressing and preventing violence against women and their children. Primary prevention is about looking at the opportunities at a structural level – and that’s within communities, within workplaces, within governments – to promote gender equality and to challenge the attitudes and stereotypes of, you know, ‘women do this, men do that’ and challenge rigid adherence to gender roles. So primary prevention is about targeting people and communities at a whole-of-population level, where we know, where the evidence tells us that interventions will work best. So, for example, we know through the research that we have conducted, and this is backed up by the National Community Attitudes Survey as well, is that young people, people are starting to form their attitudes towards relationships and respect from quite young ages. So a primary prevention approach looks at, ‘Ok, so it’s important to target young people before or while they’re forming those attitudes, where are those young people?’ So they’re in primary school or earlier, they’re in high school, they participate in sport or music or the arts. Then we look at, what are the systems and the structures and the processes around those institutions and where those young people are and how can a primary prevention approach then work with those institutions, those processes and systems to effect a deep change. And it’s not just about communicating a message that violence is obviously wrong, this is about promoting gender equality, and that is a key aspect of primary prevention.

Madeline: Part of primary prevention efforts should include targeting schools, because that is where young people are and that is where they spend a lot of their time and are obviously exposed not just to the curriculum but also to the behaviours and attitudes of their peers and their teachers and others who are involved in the school community. So a whole-of-school approach is about making sure that everyone involved in the school community – and that is the principal, the senior leaderships teams, teachers, coaches, parents involved in the school and others who are involved in the school community – are very aware of and understand the drivers of violence against women and their children, and those drivers being gender inequality, rigid adherence to gender roles and gender stereotypes. And it’s about making sure that those individuals understand those drivers and can clearly see the connection between those drivers and the results, which is violence against women and their children, and are able to then personally take responsibility for promoting and displaying respectful attitudes and behaviours and ensuring that the school systems and policies and curriculum reflect that.

Madeleine: The issues that we know that young people are facing, we know that they’re struggling to understand exactly what a healthy, respectful relationship looks like. And they really need this information and guidance from their parents and the people that they look up to, but across the board we know that, you know, that is sorely lacking, which is a problem. We know that parents and influencers in communities don’t feel prepared or don't have the resources or tools or the confidence to have conversations with their children and other young people. So what happens is that young people look at the behaviours and attitudes displayed by their parents and other people in the community, and use that as a guide for how they should behave. So obviously where young people come from, families or living in communities where there are problematic attitudes, they are more likely, potentially, to also have those attitudes as well. 

Madeleine: The Line campaign is for all Australian young people aged 12–20 years, and it also supports parents, caregivers, teachers and other influencers as well. So the resources being developed and delivered through The Line isn't dependent on young people only being exposed to respectful relationships [education] through the education curriculum. There is a very informative website, which is, which has been recently relaunched with brand new content, and we also have The Line's Facebook page, which engages at the moment around 75,000 young people in Australia and discusses and really unpacks the issues that lead to violence against women and their children. We have those conversations in a way that uses the language that young people use and also touches on the issues that they are experiencing day to day. So, the role of social media and mobile technologies, the world of dating, which is so much more different to what their parents or grandparents experienced, mainly due to social media, and shares articles, ideas, to provoke thought and discussion. And what we've really noticed over the last few years with the Facebook page and the community, is the nature of the discussions is changing. We see that young people engaged on that page are showing greater understanding of the causes of violence and the types of violence and are more likely now to see the connection between gender equality, and particularly gender stereotypes, which is a big issue that young people face, particularly when navigating relationships at a young age. We see them not only expressing some really positive views but also helping others within the Facebook community who may not be at the same point in the journey, and so often they're able to provide peer-to-peer information and guidance on the behaviours that are respectful and the behaviours that are not. So The Line campaign is critical to supporting – and it's quite a big age group, 12 to 20 years – so it provides content that is sometimes going to be relevant to a 12-year-old, and sometimes relevant to a 20-year-old, but hopefully much of the content that we address, which is around things like having sex, negotiating consent for sex, how to spot the signs of violence, what to do if your partner or friend is displaying controlling behaviour, and also providing advice to parents and teachers about how they can have those conversations with young people as well, not within the classroom but obviously in the home, or if a teacher is in a conversation with a young person or is able to spot the signs that maybe this young person is at risk, they can feel appropriately supported to have those conversations with them.

Interviewer: That's great and it sounds like that's a really great space for addressing these issues in a way that young people might be more reluctant to do face to face.

Madeleine: Our research tells us that young people … you know, I guess, there are certain issues that they probably are very uncomfortable talking about with parents or teachers. The idea of talking about sex can be quite uncomfortable for young people. The Line campaign gives them a safe place to learn about the issues through the website, and then if they want to discuss the issues or listen in, or have a look and see what other people are thinking, through Facebook page. It's important though that we help parents and teachers understand how important talking to their children is about sex and respect and relationships, and particularly to start those conversations as early as possible and to integrate them into the normal day-to-day discussions of the family. So it isn't an issue that is embarrassing or something that young people don't really want to talk about. It's basically bringing those issues into the light and making it ok to talk about. So The Line campaign is also, that is one of our goals as well help to facilitate those conversations.


Madeleine: So, The Line campaign is for young people and the input of young people is absolutely critical. And we're doing a lot of work in this space at the moment. So as part of our usual day-to-day operations we make sure that we evaluate all of our creative content – all our messages, the website, et cetera – with young people, and we do that formally through research, and we also do it informally through questions to our Facebook community, encouraging feedback on our website. We're also establishing a Youth Digital Feedback Committee, which will see a representative sample of around 12 young people [from] around Australia and coming from different cultural backgrounds, to be really representative young people, to give us advice about the types of information and topics that they think we should be covering, and advice on how we should be presenting that information. So they're really critical components of the campaign. Also another area that we're exploring, and we've just started to kick this off, is we recently worked with a higher education college in Sydney, as part of their students' assignments, they wanted to cover the topic of preventing violence against women and their children. So I talked to them about the role of Our Watch, and the role of The Line campaign, and as a result the students came up with their creative ideas for, 'how do you engage young people on the issue of violence against girls and women?' And that was an excellent experience; it was wonderful to work with the college and to see the students' ideas and as a result we will be using some of their ideas and hopefully using that as a launching pad to invite other schools and colleges, and individual students, to come up with creative ways to communicate the issue that we can hopefully incorporate into the campaign. 

Madeleine: We know that young people would like clearer guidance around what behaviours cross 'the line', what behaviours are ok and what aren't. So the types of behaviours that we want The Line to be able to encourage is the development of healthy, equal and respectful relationships. We want to be able to change attitudes that lead to violence, so we need to challenge the social norms around gender inequality, rigid gender roles and sexism. We also need to redefine what it is to be a 'strong man', because we know through our research that a lot of young people believe that being a strong man, you know is about physical strength, is about controlling others, it's about, you know, exerting influence. What we need to do is actually help young people understand that a strong man isn't those things. A strong man is a man that, a young man, that can take no for an answer. A strong man respects women. A strong man treats women as equals. So there is work to do around that, but essentially, at the end of the day, what we want to change are those behaviours so that young people are able to understand the importance of, and pursue, you know, healthy, safe, equitable relationships.

Madeleine: The Line campaign is particularly innovative because the campaign is very much rooted in a very strong evidence base. So there has been a lot of evaluation and a lot of research that has gone into the campaign, into how we are best to inform and engage young people. And the use of Facebook, while on the surface is not particularly innovative because a lot of brands and a lot of campaigns engage with Facebook, it is the way that the campaign does it. It is not, I suppose, a bureaucratic or very rigid sort of Facebook page. It's engaging, it uses memes, we use a lot of images, we reflect back a lot of the questions that young people send in to us and ask the community for input. It's genuinely engaging, and I think that is innovative because it is an ongoing discussion that we're having with young people. It is not something, we're not just putting information out there online and letting people, you know, sort of read it and take away from it whatever they will. We're helping to guide those conversations and helping young people to understand for themselves, come to the realisation themselves, about what's right, what's wrong, what behaviours are ok and what are not. That is particularly innovative. We are also making sure that the campaign is reaching people – young people and their influencers – where they are. So, obviously social media plays such a major role in young people's lives, but they're also using a lot of mobile technologies. So we've made sure with the new website that it is optimised for, you know, looking on a mobile phone, and it actually looks way better on a mobile phone than it does on a desktop computer. Also at the moment we're running a campaign with street posters around transportation hubs in major cities, and postcards in cafes and universities and high schools. So we are developing a very good understanding about, you know, what young people want to hear about and where they are. So The Line campaign is where they are and it also is presenting information in a way that they can engage with and go, 'that's for me'.

Interviewer: Yeah, it sounds like you're using Facebook in a very authentic way, in the way that young people are using it anyway, it's not an artificial way of using it.

Madeleine: I think, one of the strengths of The Line campaign is that we aren't forcing young people to go somewhere they don't want to go or they're not already actually there. We know young people, you know, most of them are on Facebook, we are also exploring new social media channels for us to engage in, for example Instagram, and potentially Snapchat and Tinder. It's really important, for young people to pay attention, but also to disrupt their thinking, we need to be where they are, and that is, a really key aspect of the campaign is we're going to where they are, we're not creating a whole new channel or platform for them to engage with. You know, we realise that they are being totally consumed by multiple messages and influencers every day, and we need to make it as easy as possible for them to engage with us.

Madeleine: Young people can be exposed to The Line campaign in a variety of ways and it's really important that we do make sure that they know about us. Through Facebook, we do a very modest amount of Facebook advertising, so we'll do page-like adverts as well as sponsored posts, and what that does is makes sure that the campaign content is being exposed to a new audience. Another key way, and it's totally free but it's also one of the way I guess that we're a bit different to potentially other sorts of brands, or other campaigns that may be targeting the same age group, is that we actively encourage young people to tag their friends into Facebook messages against our posts, so how that helps is that a young person who's already engaged with the campaign tags friends in their comments who may not already be exposed to the campaign, they become exposed to the campaign through their friend's tag, and then are likely to then 'like' the page and stay engaged. We also, you know, make sure that, obviously, we optimise search engine results to make sure that when people are looking for information that is relevant for the campaign, or they might be interested in the campaign, that, the search results show that we're a source of information for them. And we also, you know, from time to time will undertake advertising, and also, street posters, postcard campaigns et cetera. So we do need to get out there, we can't just rely on young people just naturally finding us, you know, from time to time we do have to get out there and make sure that people are aware of the campaign and how they can engage with us. 

Madeleine: We have a very, very strong moderation policy and referral guidelines that we follow, as well as our moderators, to make sure that young people who disclose information about abuse, violence or self-harm are appropriately supported and protected straight away; there is an immediate response. We encourage young people to engage with us through personal message through the campaign Facebook page, just to make sure that they're not putting themselves at risk or others at risk by disclosing personal information about themselves or their situation publicly on the page, and once we engage with them through messages we listen to them, we find out, what, you know, I guess, they're experiencing and what they need, and then we have a range of services and supports that we can refer them to. 

Madeleine: On the Facebook page we have a strong moderation policy, but we also know that, you know, young people are also gonna use language that not everyone's gonna be ok with. They're going to use swear words, they're going to say things that are potentially, you know, quite shocking, I think, for older people. The key is we don't necessarily, we don't over-moderate. So if someone's used a swear word, we're not automatically, you know, going to hide the comment or, only at a last resort would we ever ban a person and it would only be under very specific circumstances. We look at the context of the comment. We have zero tolerance for people displaying disrespectful attitudes on the page, particularly those against, you know, girls and women, but, you know, even other attitudes about boys as well. Rather than, I guess, coming down hard on most young people, it's a matter of really unpacking, 'What did you mean by that comment? Please tell us , you know, what your thoughts are.' And we have a ranking system for the types of comments that we might get which will then dictate how we might moderate it. So, you know, we won't always take a very, very hard line on a comment; it's very contextual and it depends on the situation. But we have zero tolerance for, you know, really poor behaviours and particularly if they're repeated, and we will try to engage with that person through the personal messages so they can understand why we've taken the decisions we have, but our duty, we do have a job to make sure everyone in the community, you know, is safe and able to have a conversation that's free of ... being ridiculed or abused by other people. And obviously, we're in the job of respectful relationships and we're always trying to model that and encourage that. With the evolution of the page over the last few years, what we've seen is a greater degree of peer moderation. So, peers calling out poor attitudes and behaviours themselves, so less of a job for us to do it, and, you know, young people are stepping up to the plate and really showing how it's done, really role modelling the kinds of attitudes and behaviours that we'd like to see amongst all young people. 

Madeleine: The Line campaign is for all young people aged 12–20, however we do know that there are specific activities and ways of reaching and engaging young people, you know, from particular backgrounds and that includes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people and young people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. We know through the evaluation of the campaign that the majority of our campaign is, you know, reaching those audiences well, so, you know, it is whole-of-population and it is making a difference and it is actually working. However there are additional strategies that we can implement. And we're about to undertake some additional research to help us identify which channels and activities would work to reach CALD and Indigenous young people, and also young people with disability, and also support their parents and communities. So research will tell us what additional strategies or channels that we can implement, and that is something we'll be doing in 2015 and 2016.

Madeleine: The Line campaign is evaluated against its objectives, and those are primarily around ensuring young people understand the dimensions of violence, so that, what are the types of violence, the signs of it and the consequences, also helping, encouraging to change attitudes around gender inequality, gender stereotypes and sexism, and also to break out of the cycle of violence. And how we do that, we set a range of key performance indicators that are related to attitudes and behaviours that [were] identified in previous rounds of research and also the new research we commissioned in 2014. So over time, when we undertake tracking research, we can see what shifts we're having in those attitudes and behaviours that we've established as indicators for the campaign's success or otherwise. So over time we'll be able to see what impact that has had. When the campaign – the campaign was owned by the Department of Social Services up until 2014, they undertook extensive tracking research. And the research did show that when young people were exposed to The Line campaign they were more likely to understand you know, what behaviours crossed 'the line', what behaviours were acceptable, what weren't, and many who had been exposed to the campaign had reported that they'd actually thought about their behaviours and actually changed their behaviours, which is really positive. So the previous research tells us that being exposed to the campaign can have a very positive impact. So we'll be able to continue that work and be evaluating as we go forward. 

Madeleine: The Line campaign reaches young people and the youth market is very difficult to target. And a lot has changed as well since The Line commenced in 2010: so the rise of mobile phone technologies, you know, more and more use of social media and not just Facebook, and the nature of relationships, young people's relationships are more so being played out on social media than ever before. So, you know, amongst all of those challenges, the challenge for the campaign is to actually make an impact and to really, sort, of grab the attention of a young person and say, look, you know, this is actually really relevant to you and it could be really helpful. You know, that's not an easy task; it's something that we feel is definitely achievable, and we've got results, with 75,000 Facebook members, and the young people engaged already with the campaign demonstrate that, you know, it is working. However, it's an ongoing challenge because, you know, they have so many competing influences, to stand out as the voice that they can come to, and trust and engage with, you know, that's an ongoing challenge and so that's why we involve young people in the campaign, in its development and implementation, and also, you know [we are] constantly refining our messages and the ways we try to engage and inform young people. So it's a constant evolution. So one of the challenges is to be really nimble and to be flexible in terms of the approaches that we use to reach and engage young people. 

Madeleine: The Line campaign, in 2015 and 2016, is, has started to see some big changes already and there will be more to come. One of the major changes is we've rebranded the campaign, so new campaign logo and imagery. And that reflects, you know, the need to sort of, like, reflect that changing youth market, to reflect the kinds of images and communications that they respond really well to. And we involved young people in the development of the new branding so we know that it works. We have a brand new website, so over the next few months it's going to be very important to raise awareness of the website and the kind of information that's there. And we'll be building on the content on that website substantially so we would always like to think that, whenever a young person – or their parent, or a teacher – goes to that website, they'll be exposed to new content that's really super relevant to their situation and to the kinds of issues that they're facing. We'll also have additional strategies and activities that will support parents and teachers; it's really important that the campaign supports parents and teachers in understanding the issues and how to have the conversations and support young people. So there'll be a bigger emphasis on that. And we'll also have additional strategies that will target young people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people as well.