Challenging violence through creative intervention
For the first time in Australia researchers from the ArtsHealth: Centre for Research and Practice are investigating the effectiveness of creative intervention in building community awareness of domestic violence.
PhD student Leanne Schubert, who has a background in social work but is also a visual artist, has joined forces with Professor Mel Gray from the School of Humanities and Social Science and Professor Anne Graham from the School of Drama, Fine Art and Music to work on the Safe at Home project.
Based in the low socio-economic community of Cessnock, where there is a known high level of domestic violence and limited community support, this innovative research project will examine ways in which creative arts practice can raise awareness of, and therefore reduce, domestic violence.
"Domestic violence is a significant problem in Australia which touches the lives of many people," Ms Schubert said.
"While the most accurate measure available is Australian Bureau of Statistics data regarding violence against women, which indicates a national average of 363 incidents per 100,000 people, these figures don't clearly distinguish between domestic and other forms of violence directed towards women, men and children within the broader community.
"Given that those working in the area of domestic violence in the community service sector believe that domestic violence is significantly under reported, it is likely that total figures are indeed much higher than those quoted."
Ms Schubert said this was not the first time an arts-based methodology had been used to gather data for the purposes of violence prevention. In 1999, the Crime Prevention in Schools Project asked school children to either illustrate or write about crimes they had seen.
"On analysis, a rich source of data on levels of violence in the community emerged," Ms Schubert said.
"This study employs a similar methodology, not only to gather baseline data on domestic violence but also to, via a community survey, canvass residents' beliefs and attitudes on domestic violence in the community."
Although similar projects did exist, Ms Schubert believed this was the first systematic attempt to assess community attitudes to domestic violence, implement an arts-based intervention to raise awareness of domestic violence and then reassess community attitudes post-intervention.
"Using art as a form of creative social intervention to build awareness about issues of concern is a common strategy used in a wide range of community practice, particularly in relation to domestic violence. But so far, there has been no Australian research examining the effectiveness of this kind of intervention as a strategy for change," she said.
Initial results from the Safe at Home survey, which was sent to 18,500 Cessnock households as unaddressed mail, have supported Ms Schubert's theory regarding the level of violence being experienced in Cessnock.
We've been really pleased with participation rates to date - there have been about 1500 responses and more are still coming in - which gives us a sample of about 4 per cent," Ms Schubert said.
Of the respondents, about 20 per cent were male.
According to the survey, more than 30 per cent of respondents had experienced domestic violence themselves and 62 per cent said they knew someone who had been a victim.
"What we have found staggering is that 18 per cent of respondents still don't think domestic violence is a crime."
Of those who had experienced violence themselves, about 38 per cent said the violence had occurred within their immediate family or relationship, 33 per cent in their family of origin and 17 per cent reported violence after a relationship had ended.
Ms Schubert has also noted that when asked about levels of domestic violence in the community, 20 per cent of respondents estimated that between 21 and 30 per cent of people were victims of domestic violence.
"What this says to me is that we have a very aware group of respondents and that most of them have possibly been affected by domestic violence themselves in some way."
Another interesting outcome was that 32 per cent of respondents said they had witnessed violence by children against their parents, whereas only 12 per cent reported experiencing such violence.
"This indicates a gap between incidence and reporting," Ms Schubert said.
One surprising outcome of the research to date was a lower than expected level of people being pressured for money by a family member - an issue of particular interest to Cessnock service providers. Ms Schubert said only 16 per cent reported being pressured for money under the banner of 'family need,' 15 per cent for drugs and alcohol, and 9 per cent for gambling.
The survey also asked respondents to answer some attitudinal questions, about who they thought were the main perpetrators of domestic violence, why they thought people remained in abusive relationships and from who they would seek help in an abusive situation.
Ms Schubert said with this baseline data now available, the research team would be working with the local anti-violence network to formulate strategies for addressing domestic violence issues.
"We've put together a list of key attitudes of concern, or themes which have emerged as a result of our study, and we plan to use those themes as a basis for some grassroots community arts projects."
Already the group has worked with children and their families at one local playgroup to develop a series of children's cut-outs under the title 'Stop It. I don't like it.' The artworks will feature at a community event being held in a local park and go on display at highly-visible sites such as the local libraries, Centrelink offices and perhaps even the local emergency departments.
Ms Schubert said the next phase of the project, which will be completed with funding from the Australia Council, would involve working with the NSW Department of Housing to run a series of workshops in two of east Cessnock's poorest areas.
"We want to invite families to take part in art making and to help us develop ideas for a major sculptural piece that will serve as a constant reminder of the Safe at Home message," she said.
Other broad concepts being considered include a poster and coaster campaign in local hotels, a t-shirt campaign to engage young people, a project to make and distribute tea towels with the Safe at Home message into homes in the most affected areas and a dramatic performance drawing on real-life experiences in conjunction with the University of Newcastle drama department and local TAFE.
In order to gauge the effectiveness of her creative intervention in raising awareness of domestic violence and reducing the incidence of domestic violence, Ms Schubert will conclude her project with a follow-up survey. She also intends to draft a set of guidelines and recommendations for using creative strategies in social intervention.
She said the results of this project would be of long-term national significance because they would provide a model of community engagement, particularly in rural and regional areas, where the highest rates of domestic violence were reported.
"Our project will lead to the development of a new model of intervention for community practice which offers an innovative, creative medium for informal support, resource and partnership development, networking, information dissemination, advocacy, education, attitude change and also awareness-raising," Ms Schubert said.