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The challenge of gender equality in the Women's Safety Strategy Policy (2002) in Victoria, Australia/Avustralya-Viktorya'da Kadinlarin Guvenligi Staratejisi politika dokumaninda toplumsal cinsiyet esitligi.


This paper explores the use of language in the Women's Safety Strategy: A Policy Framework document (2002), which outlined the five-year Victorian State Government initiative to incorporate a public health approach in policies to reduce violence against women (VAW). The Women's Safety Strategy (WSS) is an important document in the recent history of Victoria as it is an early example of how policy-making communities first combined a public health, or ecological, approach with a more traditional punitive treatment of VAW prevention. It is a combination that still has traction today, with the implementation of primary prevention policies working alongside the criminal justice aspects of violence management.

The WSS stated throughout that gender inequality, from institutional to familial, is one of the major underlying causes of VAW, however it is my argument that the underlying discourse of the Strategy remained one in which the answer will be found in traditional, punitively-focused policy responses to violence against women. This argument is built on a method of critical discourse analysis that draws on the work of Foucault (1972) to focus on the way language functions to construct and re-construct power dynamics. In analysing statements and themes found in that document, I found that the dominant discourse in the Strategy is one of a rigid gender binary, and biologically determined sex-roles, used as both a way to explain the problem of VAW in Victoria, and to validate the appropriateness of the proposed solution. In conclusion, I ask: how can we better talk about VAW in policy?

Keywords: critical discourse analysis, critical policy studies, gender inequality, violence against women prevention, discourses, gender binary.


Bu calisma kamu sagligi yaklasimiyla Victorya Eyaletinin kadina yonelik siddetin azaltilmasini hedefleyen devlet insiyatifinin bes yillik hedeflerini ve buna bagli uretilen politikalarinin ana hatlarini cizen politika belgesinin, Kadinlarin Guvenligi Stratejisi belgesinin (2002) dil kullanimini analiz etmeyi amaclamaktadir. Kadinlarin Guvenligi Stratejisi (KGS) Victorya Eyalet'inin yakin gecmisine ait onemli bir belge olmasinin yani sira, politika yapicilarinin kadina yonelik siddetin onlenmesinde geleneksel kamu sagligi ya da ekolojik yaklasimlari nasil birlestirdigine erken bir ornek olusturmasi acisindan da onem arz etmektedir. Belgede bugun hala izleri surulebilen, temel siddeti onleme politikalariyla ceza yasasini birlikte kullanma yaklasimi benimsenmistir.

KGS her ne kadar kamusal ve ozel alandaki toplumsal cinsiyet esitsizliklerine vurgu yapiyorsa da calismanin bulgularina gore daha cok geleneksel bir yaklasimla, kadina yonelik siddete bir tepki politikasi olarak ortaya cikmistir. Bu bulgu elestirel soylem analizi ve Foucault'un dil'in guc dinamiklerini yaratma olusturma ve yeniden olusturma yaklasimi kullanilarak tespit edilmistir. Belgede kadina yonelik siddetin aciklanmasinda ve cozum Berilerinin dogrulanmasinda kati toplumsal cinsiyet ikiligi ve biyolojik cinsiyet temelli kadin erkek rollerini temel alan bir yaklasim soz konusudur.

Anahtar Kelimeler: elestirel soylem analizi, elestirel politika calismalari, toplumsal cinsiyet esitligi, kadina yonelik siddetin onlenmesi, toplumsal cinsiyet ikiligi.


In analysing a painting, one can reconstitute the latent discourse of the painter; one can try to recapture the murmur of his intentions [or] ... set out to show a discursive practice that is embodied in techniques and affect ... shot through with the positivity of a knowledge (savoir). It seems to me that one might also carry out an analysis of the same type on political knowledge (Foucault 1972, p. 214).

Foucault and Discourse

The work of philosopher Michel Foucault has been hugely influential in disciplines of study associated with the political and social sciences. In particular, his ideas about history and power have been applied and developed in the many years since his death. In 1969 Foucault explained the concept of discourse in his book The Archaeology of Knowledge, building on the earlier theory of episteme, which referred to underlying structures regulating systems of knowledge and thought. Following its publication he wrote that there was 'anxiety as to just what discourse is, when it is manifested materially, as written or spoken object' (1971: 8), and indeed the definitions vary. For the purposes of this study I use a definition of discourse derived from Foucault that describes it as 'context, environment, and conditions within which a defined body of knowledge is produced and made accessible to others' (Darvill, 2002:122). Importantly, Darvill has stated that discourses can be 'people, buildings, institutions, rules, values, desires, concepts, machines, instruments, and anything else that could have played a part in the constitution of knowledge.' (2002: 122). However, discourses do not just arise haphazardly. Foucault observed that 'in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organised and redistributed' (1971: 8).

The quote at the start of this section provides a good metaphor for a Foucauldian method of critical discourse analysis. When that metaphor is applied to my work here, language as discourse is shown to work at an abstract level, which differs to how language and the study thereof is treated in linguistics. Paul has pointed out that while linguists view language as a 'neutral means of communication' (2009: 241), those engaged in critical discourse analysis address the ontology of language and are interested in its underlying meanings. It is a social constructivist view that treats language as a socio-cultural formation acting as a site for different bodies of power/knowledge (Weedon, 1999). The analysis of language as 'what we think with, not translate into' (Drolet 2004:13) is central to understanding both the historical development and current hierarchies of discourses that shape our lives.

Policy and the Interpretive Turn

Ball (1993) has stated that policy is a complex social issue that can be described as both text and discourse. As the product of a socio-political process of collective discussion, disagreement, negotiation, and decision-making between various stakeholders, policy is enacted through a range of institutions and produces social effects (Ball, 1993; Bacchi, 1999; Bessant, 2008). Using Foucauldian terms, Ball described how policy can 'exercise power through a production of "truth" and "knowledge", as discourses.' (1993: 14). In order for policy to work, its underlying discourses must be located within recognisable social and cultural norms, or context (Weedon, 1999). It follows that part of the aim of policy studies should be to analyse those discourses in order to, as Walker said, 'evaluate the ... impact of existing policies and proposals and the rationales underlying them' (1981: 225).

Interpretive methods offer a good way of undertaking the task Walker has described. Such methods have been used in policy studies since the so-called 'interpretive turn', which some claim to have started in the second half of the 20th century (Rabinow & Sullivan, 1979). The method influenced by branches of philosophy like phenomenology and hermeneutics, interpretive methods 'focus on meanings as central to ... collective endeavours' (Yanow, 2007: 111). Others like Paul have warned against applying interpretive methods like critical discourse analysis, at the risk of obscuring the 'fluid and dynamic nature' (2009: 243) of policy processes and ignoring other areas typically excluded from formalised policy decisions. Social scientists like Bessant (2008) have noted that discourse analysis is a useful tool in understanding some aspects of policy, but argued that it does not investigate questions of human agency, such as in the dynamics of relationships and the role of intent in the policy-making process. That observation calls for more than one method in the policy analysis 'toolbox' to gain a rigorous understanding of social policy (Ball, 1993).

Bacchi (1999) has applied a method of critical discourse analysis in her dominant representation model, used to uncover successful and subjugated discourses in political debate and policy outcomes. Yanow is another who has argued that interpretive methods should be applied to study 'highly contextualised' meanings 'rather than aiming for generalisations that might be applicable, in a context-free manner, to all situations' (2007: 111). Interpretive approaches are usually contrasted with more scientific methods of policy analysis. For example, positivist approaches can be broadly defined as methods interested in the production of normative truth-claims (Yanow, 2007). However, forms of critical discourse analysis can be used to 'denaturalise categories' (Paul 2009: 241) and explore socially produced meanings assigned through language to events, concepts, people, or objects.


Foucault claimed that the gendered body is constructed by socio-symbolic codes, and acts as the main site of social control (1979). In this way, gender is understood as determined and delimited by a range of social, cultural and political forces (Acker, 1990; Anderson, 2005). Such an understanding also shows that just as meaning is never fixed in language, so too the meanings assigned to our gendered bodies are plural and changeable (Weedon, 1990).

Authors like Seidman have argued that the gender binary works to reinforce rigid definitions and dictate roles and characteristics associated with either the 'man' or 'woman' category (2004). The construction of those categories as natural opposites is perpetuated through social and political institutions, making gender 'a site of ongoing social conflict' (Seidman, 2004: 220). Further, certain discourses reinforce traditional differences between those two gender categories, depicting women as subordinate to men, thereby validating the dominance of the male category. Derrida (1976) was one interested in the function of language binaries, and claimed that meaning in language is produced in hierarchical binary oppositions such as strong/weak or man/woman. In this way, we can see how binary oppositions can represent gendered social positions and power dynamics (Weedon, 1999).

Butler has argued that gender roles are produced through action, stating that gender is 'the cultural significance that the sexed body assumes, and that significance is co-determined through various acts and their cultural perception.' (1988: 524). Generally described as a postmodern feminist, Butler called for a more critical analysis of the processes that produce gender (1989). She explained the performativity of gender as a cultural means of creating and sustaining sexed nature, noting how people actively shape themselves to fit into the established gender order (1990). Butler viewed gender as a learned behavior, one that is observed and repeated. Moreover, it is constantly reconstructed in discourses attached to different sites of power/knowledge.


In this section I demonstrate how a method of critical discourse analysis was applied to the Strategy, and show that while gender inequality was noted as a major contributing factor to VAW therein, the underlying discourses of the WSS worked to re-construct harmful power dynamics. It did this chiefly through language: the use of the rigid gender binary and associated binary oppositions as part of hegemonic social conditions. Drawing on themes and statements from the WSS, as well as evidence from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and Crime Prevention Victoria that was used to support the Strategy, I show that VAW was constructed as a woman's problem rather than a problem affecting society as a whole. Binary oppositions stemming from biologically determined sex-roles operated in the WSS framing men as perpetrators and women as victims, and supported a punitively focused policy solution.

The Gender Binary

I argue that the use of the term 'violence against women' in the WSS reconstructed the traditional man/woman gender binary, which defined 'men' and 'women' as homogenous categories and supported the associated binary opposition of men as perpetrators and women as victims. The authors of the WSS provided a short explanation of the alternative 'gender-based violence', but chose not to apply it in the WSS documents even though they recognised that it was an inclusive and appropriate term (WSS, 2002). Part of the title for this paper has been taken from the following statement in the WSS policy document:

Women and men's lives are different, and therefore their experiences, needs, issues and priorities are also different. Inequality and power differences continue to exist between men and women in society (WSS 2002: 48).

That excerpt demonstrated how the differences between the social lives of individuals were founded on the biologically determined differences in the gender binary, which led to problems of inequality and power. However, that statement did not recognise the social forces that shape individual gender identity and the nuances of gender-based violence therein. It worked to support a policy tailored specifically for women by asserting that men and women, as homogenous gender groups, inhabited different social worlds. By classifying women and men in that way the authors of the WSS limited the possibilities of discussing gender, and the complexity of gender-based violence.

Part of the title for this paper has been taken from the following passage in the WSS document: Women and men's lives are different, and therefore their experiences, needs, issues and priorities are also different. Inequality and power differences continue to exist between men and women in society' (WSS, 2002: 48).

That excerpt demonstrated an underlying discourse of biologically determined differences between men and women that naturally translated into socially constructed differences of equality and power. It justified a policy tailored specifically for women by asserting that men and women inhabit different social worlds. By classifying women and men as homogenous groups the authors of the WSS do not acknowledge that gender is socially constructed, and therefore a fluid and plural thing, or that hierarchy exists within those categories; and they do not acknowledge other categories of the gender spectrum.

The Early Use of An Ecological Model in VAW Prevention

The WSS combined a public health approach with a punitive framework to address the policy problem of violence against women. The Victorian justice system was the basis of the punitive framework to address VAW at the time the Strategy was written, working to compensate victims and control violent behaviour. Punitive measures to counter VAW were enforced at a tertiary level, or after violence had already occurred, and were targeted at individual perpetrators on a case-by-case basis. In a way viewed by some as complementary to the punitive framework, the public health based ecological model was interested in combatting the risk of VAW at an individual, familial and societal level. It did this by incorporating primary prevention strategies that worked to eliminate risk factors of VAW before the violence had occurred.

Some sections of the WSS provide good early examples of the public health model which was becoming more apparent in Victorian violence prevention policy. The following statement provided one such example:

The power imbalance between men and women in society contributes to violence against women, along with other factors such as racism, homophobia, other forms of prejudice, and the dispossession of Aboriginal people from traditional lands (WSS, 2002: 5).

That statement showed the breadth of contributing factors to VAW in a way that was consistent with an ecological approach. However, the Victorian government still applied a dominantly punitive framework to its problemtisation of VAW, particularly in its use of evidence to support the idea that women were unsafe, or at risk of violence. While the above statement acknowledged the public health view of VAW, the dominant underlying discourses continued to fall back on the rigid gender binary that described how women--as the very title of the policy suggests--needed help to become safer.


To this day, one of the common features across the punitive and public health frameworks is the focus on risk. The risk factors of VAW have been described as causal factors which increase a woman's likelihood of experiencing violent behaviour (WHO 2002). As mentioned earlier, the ecological approach used primary prevention strategies to eliminate risk factors that increased susceptibility to the VAW 'epidemic' (WHO 2002), such as working toward cultural change in communities to promote respectful attitudes and behaviour towards women and girls.

However, the punitive framework predominately managed VAW at a tertiary level so the onus of managing risk rested chiefly on women as the potential victims of violence. Because the law (police, courts etc) could only be enforced once the violent act had occurred, women bore the responsibility for the task of primary prevention. In this way, we can see that risk, while defined in a similar way across the two frameworks, was constructed differently, providing the basis for different discourses of blame.

While the themes and language associated with the public health framework began to emerge in the WSS, the underlying discourses remained punitive. For instance, one of the main goals of the WSS policy was to 'improve women's safety, wellbeing and capacity to fully participate in Victorian life by reducing the level, and fear, of violence against women' (2002: 10). That statement expressed an understanding of violence that reflected public health principles.

However, the proposed means to reduce the level of violence were mainly to lower the attrition rates of perpetrators in court and to improve police responses to VAW (WSS, 2002)--both of which were punitive and tertiary strategies.

Women's fear of violence was also mentioned in a discussion about how violence in public places impacted on women. The WSS authors stated that 'the fear it causes may restrict women's freedom to travel and participate in community life' (2002:11). Another statement made mention of fear and risk in the workplace: '... women experience more fear in public places. Women are at risk of violence and harassment in the workplace' (WSS, 2002: 10). Those excerpts claimed that women were at a disadvantage in the public sphere, and that the fear of violence negatively affected their social and economic participation. Other statements in the WSS claimed that: 'women are more likely to experience violence from a current or previous partner than a stranger. Violence against women usually occurs in the home rather than in public places' (2002: 4).

The above statements described women as unsafe and at risk of violence in both the private and public spheres--that is: everywhere. The language binaries of man/woman and safe/unsafe constructed women as potential victims of violence, and men as potential perpetrators, which is consistent with the way VAW is explained in a punitive framework. The logic of language binaries meant that where women were described as unsafe and vulnerable, men were constructed as safe and empowered.


Here I question the way that the WSS used evidence from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Victorian Department of Justice to support traditional, punitively-focused policy solutions. In 1999, the Victorian Department of Justice released the results of the Crime Victimisation Survey, which looked at the types of crime experienced by individuals in the state. The statistics showed that 37 percent of women surveyed and 29 percent of men surveyed were likely to report a personal offence to police and that while 11.3 percent of women were likely to tell someone other than police about a personal offence, the same was true for only 4.4 percent of men (CPV, 2002). Interestingly, the Survey showed that '[A]lmost twice the number of females reported that the last... [personal offence] affected their usual way of doing things (72.1 percent) compared to males (42.6 percent)' (CPV, 2002:8).

Those findings worked to support the discourses of fear and risk in the WSS policy framework, and revealed gendered differences in perceptions of safety. For example, roughly 10 percent of surveyed men started to carry a weapon after they had experienced a personal offence, compared to less than 5 percent of surveyed women; and approximately 35 percent of surveyed women who had experienced a personal offence chose to avoid unsafe locations, compared with less than 25 percent of surveyed men (CPV, 2002).

The Survey showed that men experienced more violence than women on the whole, but also revealed gendered differences in how the categories of surveyed women and men chose to deal with those experiences. However, the statistics did not show men to be safer, or less at risk than women. The findings did not show the men surveyed to experience less fear than women. What the statistics showed was that the men surveyed felt more empowered to respond to their experiences in a way that was consistent with the social construction of the male category; albeit in a way that perpetuated interpersonal violence.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics' (ABS) Women's Safety Australia Survey from 1996 questioned women about their experiences in a nation-wide attempt to measure incidences of violence, namely sexual and physical violence occurring in the home and the public sphere. A year after the launch of the WSS policy framework, Neame and Heenan prepared a briefing for the Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Asssault (ACSSA) that investigated the evidence-base of sexual assault prevention policy, such as the ABS Survey, examining barriers preventing women and communities from reporting incidences of sexual assault in Australia (2003).

They found that culturally and linguistically diverse individuals, sex workers, young people, people experiencing homelessness, and male victim-survivors of sexual assault were excluded from national statistics (ACSSA, 2003). Further, the ABS Survey was shown to under-represent women in rural areas, thus excluding large populations of Indigenous women (ACSSA, 2003). The authors claimed that such exclusion 'underlines the limits of national surveys and other victimisation studies in exposing the prevalence of sexual assault for many specific sections of the Australian community' (ACSSA 2003: 11). It follows that those limitations may be transferred to policy frameworks like the WSS, which relied on such data. The WSS used evidence which excluded social groups that did not fit into a definition of VAW based on a rigid gender binary and the associated social roles.


In this study I have shown that the WSS applied a rigid gender binary dividing men and women into groups defined by biologically determined sex-roles, thereby re-constructing power dynamics that perpetuate gender inequality. The language and evidence used in the WSS worked to construct men as perpetrators and women as victims of violence, which limited the ways that gender-based violence could be thought about in that policy framework.

Women and men's lives are different (OWP, 2002:48).

Women experience more fear (OWP, 2002:4).


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Alissar El-Murr *

La Trobe University

Alissar El-Murr, The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS), La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia. E-mail:


(1) This article is based on a conference paper of the same title presented at the International Conference on Gender Equality and Law at the Eastern Mediterranean University, Famagusta-North Cyprus, October 2012.
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Author:Murr, Alissar El-
Publication:Kadin/Woman 2000
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Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Dec 1, 2013
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