Domestic violence prevention

Author: Narelle Smith, 2008


Domestic violence is a widespread problem which affects every level of society and is a major impediment to the health, wellbeing, and economy of the nation. This paper looks at the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of domestic violence prevention for practitioners working in the community development field.

Despite the prevalence of domestic violence, there are still a lot of myths about domestic violence. These myths serve to isolate the victims even further. Community development workers can do a lot to create awareness, inform, and enable the community to confront domestic violence.

Much of the literature on domestic violence targets men as the perpetrators, and certainly the statistics indicate that the majority of victims are women and children. However, in an effort to recognise that men, and male children and adolescents, are also victims of domestic violence, there has been an attempt to write this paper in more generic terms.

‘Why’ domestic violence prevention?

Domestic violence is the physical or psychological domination or harm of a family member, partner, or ex-partner (Carrington & Phillips, 2003). Domestic violence includes a wide range of behaviours including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, spiritual abuse, economic abuse, or social abuse (Office for Women, 2008). Domestic violence occurs in every geographic area, cultural and racial group, age group, and socioeconomic group of Australia, although some groups are more at risk for domestic violence than others (Carrington & Phillips, 2003).

As many as 408,000 Australian people are affected by domestic violence every year, and 87% are women (Access Economics Pty Ltd, 2004). For this number of victims, there is a similar number of perpetrators, and 98% are male. Approximately 263,800 children live with the victims of domestic violence, and it is estimated that 181,200 are witness to the violence. Attachment A provides further domestic violence statistics obtained from a personal safety survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2005.

The cost of domestic violence to the Australian economy is estimated to be $8.1 billion per year (Access Economics Pty Ltd, 2004). The largest proportion of this cost, $3.5 billion, is attributed to pain, suffering, and premature mortality. The remaining costs, $4.6 billion, include costs arising from poor health, loss of productivity, consumption, short and long-term effects on the second generation, legal, accommodation, income support, victims compensation, etc. 

Domestic violence has a significant impact on the adult victim’s mental, psychological, and physical health, and reduces the caregiving parent’s ability to provide adequate care and nurture to the children (Coker, Davis, Arias, Desai, Sanderson, Brandt, & Smith, 2002; Campbell, Jones, Dienemann, Kub, Schollenberge, O’Campo, Gielen, & Wynne, 2002). Thus, children are exposed to the terror of the violence and are unable to seek comfort, leading to a long list of negative effects on the child’s development, particularly psychological and behavioural disturbance, impaired socioemotional and cognitive functioning, intergenerational transmission of trauma, and post-traumatic stress (Ehrensaft, Cohen, Brown, Smailes, Chen, Johnson, 2003; McIntosh, 2003; Cunningham & Baker, 2004; Margolin, 2005; Holt, Buckley, & Whelan, 2008). Domestic violence erodes the emotional and physical resources for coping of both individual family members and the family as a whole, and lowers the threshold for further violence (Margolin, 2005).

People’s perception, assumptions, and beliefs of family violence impact on the success or failure of prevention campaigns, and also on the choices people make in their response to family violence (Carlson & Worden, 2005). Studies examining the public perception of domestic violence indicate that the public has an understanding of: what domestic violence is; the behaviours that constitute domestic violence; and the prevalence, seriousness and impact of domestic violence (Carlson & Worden, 2005; Worden & Carlson, 2005; PADV, 2000). However, public attitudes about domestic violence still condone the use of violence in certain circumstances, attribute blame to the victim, underestimate the perpetrator/victim power differential, and there is indifference to families struggling with domestic violence. Whilst not quite the ‘taboo’ subject that it was in the past, domestic violence is still largely regarded as a private matter.

Public perception about men’s violence towards women and children is that boys are socialised to be violent and violence is perceived to be associated with masculinity (PADV, 2000; Worden & Carlson, 2005). In some culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) populations, there is a greater tolerance of domestic violence as men hold a dominant position in society, and it is the man’s role to maintain order in the family and protect his honour (PADV, 2000). In Indigenous communities, violence is often justified when it is provoked, self-defence, or pay-back for wrongdoings. Perpetrators of family violence in Indigenous communities are frequently regarded as victims due to limited life opportunities (PADV, 2000).

As many as 1 in 4 young people in Australia (aged 12 to 20 years) have witnessed domestic violence (Indermaur, 2001). Fourteen per cent of young people have witnessed domestic violence in the context of alcohol abuse.  In Indigenous communities, 42% of young people have witnessed domestic violence. Exposure to domestic violence increases the tolerance of young people’s violence in their intimate relationships both as perpetrators and as victims, and approximately 10% of young people support the use of violence (Indermaur, 2001). Currently, many of the prevention programmes are aimed at adolescents and young adults, however there is evidence that there needs to be a greater focus on children in primary school before aggressive and violent behaviours are established (Laing, 2001, cited in PADV, 2003a)

The majority of men and women charged for domestic violence either minimise the seriousness of the assault, deny that the assault occurred, or attribute blame to their partner due to provocation (Henning, Jones & Holdford, 2005). Personal characteristics and relationship issues are cited by people charged with domestic violence as precipitating the assault on their partner (ibid). Personal characteristics of the victim partner include jealousy, anger, reluctance to compromise, emotional instability, and relationship insecurity. Relationship problems include lack of commitment to the relationship, infidelity, and insecurity in intimate relationships.

The interrelated nature of domestic violence, child maltreatment, youth violence, and dysfunctional relationships, raises the importance of discussing healthy relationships and responsive parenting in domestic violence prevention programmes (Ooms, Boggess, Menard, Myrick, Roberts, Tweedie, & Wilson, 2006). Conversely, the pervasiveness of domestic violence warrants the inclusion of domestic violence discourses in prevention programmes not specifically related to domestic violence such as street barbeques, fairs, open days, parent groups, etc (Fullwood, 2002). There appears to be a strong need for community education to continue to bring the dynamics of domestic violence, the short and long-term effects on adult victims and children, and personal and community responses, into the public consciousness (Carlson & Worden, 2005). Discussions must challenge existing beliefs and values, and stimulate alternate constructions of masculinity, gender roles, and self (Flood, 2004).

‘How’ to do domestic violence prevention

The prevention of domestic violence is a major focus for the Australian government’s strategies for strengthening families and creating communities that are healthy and safe (PADV, 2003a). Commonwealth and State governments are responsible for community-wide prevention strategies which target the whole population (PADV, 2003b). These are top-down approaches which usually employ mass media campaigns and programmes based on community-wide research. Community-based prevention strategies begin at the grass-roots level (bottom-up) in communities by community development workers and health workers working with community members to effect change. Community based education is complementary to national media campaigns but is developed specifically for and in consultation with the community (PADV, 2003). The Victorian government has developed a comprehensive and logical framework to guide the primary prevention of domestic violence (VicHealth, 2007) connecting the key economic and social determinants of mental health with preventative actions, population groups, settings for activities, intermediate outcomes, and long-term benefits (refer Figure 1).


 Figure 1. Domestic violence primary prevention framework (VicHealth, 2007).  Click on the image for a larger view.

Using the primary prevention framework (VicHealth, 2007) community organisations and workers can create a planning grid which facilitates a focus on preventative actions at the individual, community, organisational, and societal levels (Women’s Health West, 2006). Figure 2 provides an example of the planning grid.

Figure 2. Public health model for the planning and implementation of activities in domestic violence prevention strategies (Women’s Health West, 2006). Click on the image for a larger view.

Direct participation activities have a focus on supporting and developing programmes that allow individuals to participate in activities that promote the prevention of violence. Organisational development increases the organisation’s capacity and the skills of workers to undertake activities that prevent violence. Community strengthening requires working with the community to identify conditions that cause and sustain domestic violence, and coordinating efforts to mediate these factors. Communication and social marketing involves creating new or utilising existing resources, and participating in media campaigns, forums, and meetings. Advocacy looks at ways that domestic violence prevention can achieve greater recognition, planning, and funding. Legislative and policy reform focuses on promoting social and gender equity, and improving the social and institutional structures which lead to disadvantage. Research, monitoring, and evaluation activities seek to improve the evidence base for the preventative work that workers are engaged in.

The research, monitoring and evaluation cycle of domestic violence prevention is best represented in the following diagram (Figure 3) which is derived from a community development model (Strategic Partners Pty Ltd, 2000). Domestic violence prevention has a poor empirical base as frequently attitudes and intentions are measured rather than actual behaviours (Hunter, 2001, cited in PADV, 2003b; NT Office of Women’s Policy, 2001, cited in PADV, 2003b). Thus, four stages have been added to the model measuring satisfaction with the programme, changes in skills and knowledge, changes in behaviour, and indicators of success (Hunter, 2001, cited in PADV, 2003b).

Figure 3. Research, monitoring & evaluation methodology for domestic violence prevention (Strategic Partners Pty Ltd, 2000; Hunter, 2001, cited in PADV, 2003b). Click on the image for a larger view.

“People in these neighborhoods used to go home and close the door, saying ‘That’s not my family’. Now they say, ‘Can I help you with anything?’” (Green, not dated, cited in Fullwood, 2002, p6)

The above quote encapsulates the power of community engagement. The aims of community-based domestic violence prevention programmes are to: create community awareness about the existence, causes, prevalence, and effects of domestic violence; call the community to action to work towards the prevention of domestic violence and to support the victims; call individuals to action to seek help if they are affected by domestic violence; and reduce the incidence and effects of domestic violence (PADV, 2003b). People in crisis often turn to the people they know before they turn to agencies and institutions (Fullwood, 2002). Building community capacity to deal with domestic violence requires concerted effort and a long-term commitment as disadvantaged communities are dealing with complex issues that need time and support to work through (ibid). Effective preventative community based programmes are comprehensive, intensive, relevant to the audience, and based on positive messages (Berkowitz, 2004b).

Comprehensiveness in programmes attends to who participates in the prevention activities (Berkowitz, 2004b). All of the appropriate community members and agencies are engaged in order to increase reach and capacity. Community agencies seek strong collaborative partnerships to avoid disconnected and fragmented services to the community. Comprehensive programmes consult widely, create links to and meaningful connections between people and systems (individuals, families, community, schools, agencies), and develop an inclusive prevention framework (Berkowitz, 2004b; Finucane & Finucane, 2004). Activities are offered to the whole community to avoid stigmatising sections of the community, but also offer targeted services where there is an expressed need from the community. Community development workers need to collaborate with front-line domestic violence services to ensure appropriate referral, support, and follow-up for community members who disclose domestic violence (PADV, 2003). 

Intensiveness in programmes addresses what happens in a prevention activity (Berkowitz, 2004b). Community education has been shown to be effective in creating awareness and changing attitudes, however prevention programmes should also incorporate strategies for changing behaviour such as conflict management, healthy relationships, and responsive parenting (Flood, 2004; Ooms, et al, 2006). Effective prevention programmes provide opportunities for interaction, and active participation (Berkowitz, 2004b). Long-term development of and commitment to the programme has greater impact and reach and allows for flexibility in addressing participants concerns, and facilitate the establishment of trust and rapport (Berkowitz, 2004b; Finucane & Finucane, 2004).  Longer-term programmes also provide multiple points of contact to reinforce the messages (Berkowitz, 2004b; Finucane & Finucane, 2004). The linking, sequencing, and integration of a number of programmes, is far more effective than programmes that are isolated, disconnected, and unrelated (Berkowitz, 2004b). Cultural values are respected and integrated into prevention programmes with an emphasis on the values and attitudes that are regarded as deterrents to domestic violence such as religious/spiritual practice, respect, and family harmony (PADV, 2000; Memmott, Chambers, Go-Sam, & Thomson, 2006), however at no stage is there dilution of the message that domestic violence is unacceptable. As behaviour is often influenced by an individual’s incorrect perception of what others think, preventive efforts can be targeted at widely held misperceptions to promote healthy and accurate norms (Berkowitz, 2004a).

Reducing the risk of intergenerational transmission of violence for children and adolescents includes developing resilience, non-violent adult role models, adult social supports, enhancing communication and conflict management skills, and structures that support and develop a young person’s sense of safety and security (PADV, 2003a). Prevention programmes with children and adolescents emphasise violence as a choice, and challenge the acceptance of violence as normal or cultural (PADV, 2003a). Children and adolescents who have experienced domestic violence may require additional support in the form of a therapeutic component in the programme to explore the narratives of their personal experiences, and discussions about who was responsible for the violence, feelings of safety, anger management, and help-seeking (PADV, 2003). A programme that only focuses on behavioural change for these children does not give them the opportunity to place their experiences within an appropriate context and may leave them feeling that they are the cause of the problems.

Relevant programmes suit the needs of the community and are modified for the demographic of the group, for example, age, culture, sub-culture, community, peer group, socioeconomic status, and education (Berkowitz, 2004b). They focus on issues, needs, and concerns relevant to the audience, and present information that is pertinent to the particular group rather than being based solely on information from community-wide statistics. Prevention programmes may be more effective if they encompass cognitive, affective, and behavioural domains (Heppner, Humphrey, Hillebrand-Gunn, & DeBord, 1995), in effect, addressing what people know, feel, and do. Segregation of the sexes and the use of peer educators have been effective in some forums to facilitate the space and safety for open and honest discussions, and the ability to freely explore topics without fear of rebuke (PADV, 2003a; Flood, 2004)

Programmes based on positive messages should build on the group’s values and what positive actions can be taken rather than apportion fear or blame (Berkowitz, 2004b; PADV, 2000). Activities provide information and reinforce healthy attitudes, behaviours, and social norms that encourage and support short and long-term change (Flood, 2004).  Men often feel defensive, blamed, or excluded in discourses about domestic violence, however consideration should be given to inviting men to become part of the solution rather than being the focus of the problem (Fullwood, 2002; Flood, 2004).


The prevalence and effects of domestic violence are too devastating to ignore. Sometimes the problem appears too overwhelming and it is difficult to know where to start. The domestic violence prevention literature provides some very useful frameworks which can be utilised to structure community-based domestic violence prevention programmes. This paper has provided an overview of these frameworks and discussed sound practices for initiating, developing, implementing, and facilitating sensitive but effective domestic violence prevention programmes and activities to get the community thinking about and acting upon domestic violence. There is a need to avoid and minimise the suffering.


Access Economics Pty Ltd. (2004). The cost of domestic violence to the Australian economy: Part 1. Commonwealth of Australia: Partnerships Against Domestic Violence.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), (2005). Personal Safety, Australia, 2005 (Reissue). Internet address:  Accessed 20/11/08.

Berkowitz, A. D. (2004a). The Social Norms Approach: Theory, Research, and Annotated Bibliography. Internet address:  Accessed 1/11/08

Berkowitz, A. D. (2004b). Working with men to prevent violence against women: Program modalities and formats (part two). VAWnet: The National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women. Internet address:  Accessed 10/11/08.

Campbell, J., Jones, A. S., Dienemann, J., Kub, J., Schollenberge, J., OÇampo, P., Gielen, A. C., & Wynne, C. (2002). Intimate partner violence and physical health consequences. Archives of Internal Medicine, 162, 1157-1163.

Carlson, B. E. & Worden, A. P. (2005). Attitudes and beliefs about domestic violence: Results of a public opinion survey: I. definitions of domestic violence, criminal domestic violence, and prevalence.  Journal of  Interpersonal  Violenc,  20, 1197.

Carrington, K. & Phillips, J. (2006). Domestic violence in Australia: An overview of the issues. Internet address: Accessed 1/11/08

Coker, A. L., Davis, K. E., Arias, I., Desai, S., Sanderson, M., Brandt, H. M., & Smith, P. H. (2002). Physical and mental health effects of intimate partner violence for men and women. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 24/4, 260-268.

Cunningham, A. & Baker, L. (2004). What about me! Seeking to understand a child’s view of violence in the family. Canada: Centre for Children & Families in the Justice System.

Ehrensaft, M. K., Cohen, P., Brown, J., Smailes, E., Chen, H., & Johnson, J. G. (2003). Intergenerational transmission of partner violence: A 20-year prospective study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 71/4, 741-753.

Finucane, M. C. G. & Finucane, S. S. (2004). 101 ways great and small to prevent family violence. Victoria: Domestic Violence & Incest Resource Centre.

Flood, M. (2004) Changing Men: Best practice in violence prevention work with men. Home Truths Conference: Stop sexual assault and domestic violence: A national challenge. Melbourne, 15-17 September 2004.

Fullwood, P.C. (2002). Preventing family violence: Community engagement makes the difference. San Francisco: Family Violence Prevention Fund.

Henning, K., Jones, A. R., & Holdford, R. (2005). “I didn’t do it, but if I did I had a good reason”: Minimization, denial, and attributions of blame among male and female domestic violence offenders. Journal of Family Violence,  20/3, 131-139.

Heppner, M. J., Humphrey, C. F., Hillenbrand-Gunn, T. L., & DeBord, K. A. (1995). The differential effects of rape prevention programming on attitudes, behaviour, and knowledge. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 42/4, 508-518.

Holt, S., Buckley, H., Whelan, S. (2008). The impact of exposure to domestic violence on children and young people: A review of the literature. Child Abuse & Neglect, 32, 797-810.

Indermaur, D. (2001). Young Australians and domestic violence. Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, No. 195. Australian Institute of Criminology

Margolin, G. (2005). Children’s exposure to violence: Exploring developmental pathways to diverse outcomes.  Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 20/1, 72-81.

McIntosh, J. (2003). Children living with domestic violence: Research foundations for early intervention. Journal of Family Studies, 9/2, 219-234.

Memmott, P., Chambers, C., Go-Sam, C., & Thomson, L. (2006). Good practice in Indigenous family violence prevention – designing and evaluating successful programs. Issues paper 11. Australian Domestic and Family Violence Clearinghouse.

Office for Women. (2008). What is Domestic Violence – Examples of domestic violence. Internet address: Accessed 10/11/08.

Ooms, T., Boggess, J., Menard, A., Myrick, M., Roberts, P., Tweedie, J., Wilson, P. (2006). Building bridges between healthy marriage, responsible fatherhood, and domestic violence programs: A preliminary guide. Washington: The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) & Denver: National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

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Attachment A

A 2005 Australian Bureau of Statistics household survey, Personal Safety Australia (ABS, 2005), reported men’s and women’s experience of violence (physical or sexual assault or threat) by male and female perpetrators. The information was collected from face-to-face interviews with 16,300 people (11,800 females, 4,500 males) aged 18 years and over, and randomly sampled from every state and territory of Australia. The survey found that:

  • Of the female respondents, 5.8% experienced violence in the 12 month period prior to the survey, and 39.9% experienced violence since the age of 15 years;
  • Of the male respondents, 10.8% experienced violence in the 12 months period prior to the survey, and 50.1% experienced violence since the age of 15 years;
  • 31% of women and 4.4% of men who were physically assaulted in the 12 month period prior to the survey, were assaulted by a current or previous partner;
  • Of the women who were assaulted since the age of 15 years, 46% had been assaulted by a current or previous partner;
  • Of the men who were assaulted since the age of 15 years,
  • Since the age of 15 years,  4.9% of men and 15% of women experienced violence from a previous partner;
  • 36% of women who experienced violence with a previous partner were pregnant when they were assaulted, and 17% reported that the violence started when they were pregnant;
  • 61% of men and women who experienced violence with a previous partner had children in their care at the time, and 36% of these children witnessed the violence;
  • Since the age of 15 years, 0.9% of men and 2.1% of women, experienced violence with their current partner;
  • 49% of men and women who experienced violence from a current partner had children in their care at the time, and approximately 27% of these children witnessed the violence.

About Narelle Smith

Child & Family Worker

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