This is Not a Wife Beater – Challenging violence against women

Alisa Draskovic is the woman behind the This Is Not a Wife Beater (NAWB) campaign, a ‘Canberra-based, not-for-profit campaign that challenges language, attitudes, stereotypes and behaviours that minimise and condone intimate partner and family violence’. I caught up with Alisa to find out how the campaign got started, what drives her to take action on the issue of violence against women, and where NAWB is headed. 

Tell us a bit about yourself!

My family migrated to Canberra as refugees from former Yugoslavia when I was three-years-old. My parents worked so hard to rebuild their lives here and that instilled in me a strong work ethic. My mum’s an incredibly strong, intelligent and compassionate woman and I’m very lucky to have been raised by her. I watched her regain her confidence and purpose when she started working in the community sector, which is where I also (partly) found my sense of self when I started working at the Domestic Violence Crisis Service (DVCS) at the age of 18.

I care a lot about the people of this community and promoting the interests and views of young women and young migrant women. I’ve worked really hard to get to where I am and I want to help make it easier for other people, especially those who face social, cultural and financial barriers to accessing opportunities. I’m also passionate about creating and taking part in safe spaces for women, and promoting awareness of their necessity and value.

What is This is Not a Wife Beater? How do you explain the campaign to newcomers?

This is Not a ‘Wife Beater’ challenges everyday language that normalises and trivialises violence against women. The campaign encourages people to see the connection between the use of a term like ‘wife beater’ to refer to a singlet – a term which both makes light of intimate partner and family violence, and stereotypes the men associated with wearing these singlets as violent – and the use of violence in our community.

What we say matters. The campaign isn’t about political correctness or politeness but about the connection between what we say and what we do. I want people to understand that it’s not enough that we don’t use violence in our personal lives. We need to take responsibility for the way we speak about and respond to violence against women, and stand up against a culture that minimises and even condones this violence. When your mates, family members or work colleagues make light of violence against women, say something or, if you’re not ready to do that yet, link them to the campaign or fantastic resources such as Our WatchMake the Link, or The Line. We are socialised from a very young age to devalue girls, women and what’s deemed ‘feminine’, and it’s never too early to challenge this.

Why did you start NAWB? What was the tipping point for you?

This is Not a ‘Wife Beater’ was established in 2013 by myself and the ANU Women’s Department following a ‘light bulb’ moment. One evening back in 2013, I was thinking about the ways in which we demean women and girls and how most (if not all) of us have been complicit in this. As a young person growing up in Australia, I was exposed to language and jokes that minimise and trivialise violence against women in television shows and movies, in the media and in my peer groups. I felt a sense of unease and discomfort about this but don’t think I ever spoke out about it enough. I’m a self-described raging feminist but don’t always speak out as loudly or as confidently as I could so the campaign is my way of speaking out on issues that I care very deeply about and hopefully encouraging others to do the same.

DVCS has been working around the clock for over 20 years supporting women, men and children affected by intimate partner and family violence in the ACT so I quickly learnt about the nature and prevalence of intimate partner and family violence in our community. I think this exposure so early on in my life made me acutely aware of and sensitive to the ways in which violence against women is still not treated as seriously as it should be. How could I find the term ‘wife beater’ funny when, as a DVCS worker, I supported many women who had been or were being beaten?

Why do you think it’s important to challenge the language we use when it comes to an issue like domestic violence?

Studies have shown that there is a connection between exposure to language that makes fun of or minimises gendered violence, and the use and acceptance of this violence. International research also tells us that attitudes, norms, behaviours and practices that support violence underpin and create a culture where violence against women can occur. In light of this, if we want to address, reduce and ultimately end intimate partner and family violence, we all need to acknowledge that our words have an effect on how people are treated in our community, and we need to speak up, challenge violence-supportive language and attitudes, and promote respectful relationships. If we want to end this violence, we need to move away from a culture that minimises and condones intimate partner and family violence, to one that celebrates respect and respectful relationships.

Violence against women seems like a more public issue this year – why do you think that is? Isn’t there a good and bad side to this exposure, in terms of frontline services receiving more calls that they don’t necessary have the resources to support?

Violence against women is definitely a more public issue. Even in the last few years I’ve noticed a significant shift in public awareness of and willingness to talk about violence against women. When I first started working at DVCS, I remember feeling this sense of anonymity as a worker and an organisation. We were providing a crucial service to the community and were highly regarded by our service users and our community and government partners and yet, the broader community didn’t know about us. I’m very glad that that’s changed significantly and people have a greater understanding and appreciation of the work that DVCS and other specialist community organisations do.

I think the claim that violence against women has reached ‘epidemic proportions’ is somewhat misleading. Violence against women in Australia has been occurring at high rates for a long time, we’re just paying more attention now, which is due, in part, to some high profile incidents of intimate partner and family violence such as the murder of Luke Batty and the alleged murder of Canberra woman, Tara Costigan. It is likely this increased awareness has led to increased use of services and as you point out, the good side is that more people are accessing support and are hopefully safer as a result but the bad side is the added pressure this puts on services and frontline workers. The community sector provides crucial and often life-saving services to people in our community and yet, it’s one of the most vulnerable sectors. We need to fundamentally change the way we view and value community-based work and frontline workers, and there needs to be secure, sustained and long-term resourcing of the sector.

What do you think is needed to end violence against women?

Essentially, a lot of things all at the same time. We need to understand and respond to violence against women as a cause and consequence of gender inequality. We can’t end violence against women when women’s lives, contributions and voices are valued less than men’s. We also need to acknowledge and address the ways in which various forms of discrimination women face intersect and compound their subordinate position in society. And we need to move beyond an understanding of gender equality as 50/50. I’m not sure how we do all of this. What I do know, though, is that we can all do something. For starters, don’t claim you’re not complicit in a system that undermines and disadvantages women. Check your privilege, educate yourself about the issues and listen to what people with lived experience have to say.

What’s next for NAWB? What have you got planned?

Our blog is launching very soon! It’ll feature interviews with campaign ambassadors and community members, and will provide practical strategies on how to stand up against a culture of violence and promote respectful relationships.

A video project and tool kit are in the works for next year. I would love for NAWB to have national and international reach but I’m committed to establishing the campaign in the ACT community first. A real strength of the campaign is the support it has from the people of Canberra, and the community, business and government sectors, and I’m excited to build on this year’s success.

This year’s launch exceeded my expectations (which fluctuated between absolute failure and world domination on a daily basis leading up to the event). It’s difficult to recognise what you’re doing and its value when you’re in it but in retrospect, it was a huge deal. Over 100 people descended on the ACT Legislative Assembly on a typically miserable winter’s night in Canberra. There were your usual community sector suspects (who, might I add, have been fighting the good fight for decades) and so many new faces which I was pleasantly surprised about and speaks volumes about the broad reach of the campaign. Yvette Berry MLA hosted the event, which was MC-d by the inimitable Genevieve Jacobs, and spoke alongside Andrew Leigh MP, Ngunnawal elder, Aunty Janette Phillips, and advocate and entrepreneur, Kylie Travers. I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard in my life but I’m getting ready to do it bigger and better next year.

No doubt, my commitment to improving the lives of and opportunities for women and girls (and ultimately making the community a better place for everyone) is going to be a life-long thing for me.

How can people get involved?

Talking to the people around you about these issues and calling out sexist language and attitudes that support violence against women is the best way to get involved. You can also show your support by purchasing a ‘respecter’ singlet or pin and sharing a ‘respecter’ selfie or donate to local organisations responding to violence against women in our community. The campaign is not-for-profit and run by volunteers so all proceeds go towards funding events and projects, and we also make donations to community organisations when we can.  Check out the website and Facebook page for more info and links to resources, articles and photos. If you’d like to get involved, email me: contact.nawb@gmail.com.

Image: This is Not a Wife Beater

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One Comment

  • Caroline Yego commented on January 13, 2016 Reply

    This interview is really interesting. The topic too is emotive. Women have been devalued for ages and its time to speak out against it. If the government could introduce life skills studies to be taught in schools especially in primary schools, It will b one avenue that will bring up children who appreciate and value each other as they grow up. In the end, the world will have an equal society devoid of gender decrimination. Good work Alisa.

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