We understand that prevention can sound very complicated, but the concepts behind the work are actually fairly simple. Prevention work involves a variety of methods, and here at RICADV we focus mainly on engaging our community and primary prevention. Primary prevention work is not just education. It is engaging you, our community, and our legislators in working together to end domestic violence. It is about changing attitudes and behaviors. It can be as simple as saying something when someone says a sexist joke, to as in depth as attending trainings or speaking publicly about domestic violence.
Primary prevention work involves promoting traits of healthy relationships and sexuality, such as equality, respect, communication, choice, empathy, enjoyment and boundaries. It also involves enhancing community cohesion and connectedness, and educating and skill-building with youth and adults.
Another main focus in our primary prevention work is increasing protective factors and decreasing risk factors. Risk factors are any characteristics that may increase the likelihood or chances of victimhood. Protective factors are any characteristics that may buffer someone from becoming a victim.
Some examples of different types of primary prevention work are:
The Social-Ecological Model provides the framework for prevention and shows us the levels in which we can get involved in prevention work. Below are just a couple examples of work that can be done within each level:
Individual: a program in schools that help students develop skills to build positive and healthy relationships
Relationship: a mentor program that pairs adults with youth at risk, couples therapy, training on child-rearing
Community: residents organize a board to address issues with the community (physical or social); ex: building a youth center, or hosting a forum about DV
Societal: legislation, changing social norms about violence
The Public Health Model is a model used by the CDC for many public health problems, and can just as easily be applied to domestic violence. Both risk and protective factors must be identified by each community independently, but can help to show patterns across different communities. They must be identified independently by each community because although there are underlying commonalities and similarities, every community is unique in their population, levels of violence, protocol and responses to violence, physical environments, etc. Once the prevalence and occurrences of domestic violence are defined within the scope of a specific community, then that community can begin to address the issue in an effective and proficient way. As the model above suggests, the next step would be to develop and test the prevention strategies, and ultimately spread the effective strategies.
We have mentioned that in order to prevent domestic violence, we need to start changing social norms. But what does this mean? What are social norms, and why and how do we need to change them?
Let's start with the example of smoking cigarettes. Before the 1990's, cigarettes were not only popular but actually advertised as cool and even healthy. Today, we see more anti-smoking advertisements than ever. Why? Because we as a society have shifted the norm that accepted smoking to a norm that educates the public on the real and harmful effects of cigarettes.
Starting at an early age, everyone in our society receives unhealthy messages about relationships and gender roles - messages that promote power and violence. We are all shaped by these ideas (whether we like to think so or not), and they directly influence harmful attitudes and behaviors that create a toxic environment conducive to, and tolerant of, domestic violence. Just as we have shifted norms about smoking cigarettes, we can shift norms about violence.
Traditional gender stereotypes are one example of a social norm that fosters a culture of violence. You might think to yourself that you don't believe traditional gender roles exist today, but they are embedded in our culture in discrete and not-so-discrete ways everywhere. Just take a look at the advertisements below. These advertisements are visual constructs of rules we have enforced in society about what it means to be a man or a woman. Bystanders are impacted by these rules and beliefs, which is why we still hear phrases like, "Boys will be boys" or "It was her fault".
These advertisements are teaching us that even our soft drinks need to be masculine or feminine as decipted in the Dr. Pepper ad, that men doing "feminine" activities or befriending women make them less than a man, and that men need to be dominant and women need to be submissive as depicted in the Dolce & Gabbana ad. These enforced gender stereotypes and social rules for men and women create attitudes that turn into behaviors such as domestic violence. So, what do we do?
Just as we see more anti-smoking ads today, we are beginning to see more ads that challenge gender stereotypes and norms that condone violence. Part of prevention work is to engrain healthy messages about gender and relationships early on, before these messages that promote violence are heard, so that we can be better equipped to combat abuse and sexism later in life. We know that beliefs in traditional gender roles are still abound. If we can change these standards, we can eliminate the forces that work to perpetuate abuse. We can be freed of the ways they confine and define us. We can change our attitudes and behaviors and prevent domestic violence.
Changing social norms is a major focus in primary prevention work. We also focus on increasing education on domestic violence in our communities (see our KNOW MORE page). Another useful tool in prevention work is looking at risk and protective factors.
It is actually proven to be more significant to look at the characteristics and risk factors of a perpetrator/possible perpetrator than a victim/possible victim. However, because we live in a victim-blaming society, we choose to look at the victims first and say, "well what did they do to get into that situation?" rather than "why did their partner hurt them?" If we start to focus more on the perpetrator's risk factors (without ignoring victim's risk factors), we can begin a more comprehensive approach to prevention. If we only focus on preventing people from becoming potential victims, we are ignoring a significant part of the equation that we could not reach a solution without. Therefore, we need to work on preventing people from becoming both potential victims and potential perpetrators.
How This Focus Helps Prevention Work
We can use our knowledge of our communities' risk and protective factors to better address the issue of domestic violence. If we know that age (youth) is a risk factor, for example, we can focus on teen dating violence prevention work. The same goes for protective factors. Research on protective factors is ongoing and scarce. However, we know that higher education is a proven protective factor. Education leads to greater economic independence and social empowerment. Economic abuse is extremely common, so economic independence could help to reduce the occurrence of economic abuse. Social empowerment is an extremely useful tool in preventing abuse; one can create strong social networks, build their self esteem and confidence, and develop the ability to utilize resources and information available to them. We also know that low self esteem is a risk factor, so if education increases self esteem, we can focus on increasing education to ultimately reduce domestic violence. Another example of a proven protective factor is positive attitudes toward women (meaning women are treated with respect, as human beings). These are just a couple of examples of ways we can utilize our knowledge of risk and protective factors to contribute to the prevention of abuse.
Part of the work we do with DELTA FOCUS involves increasing these protective factors. For example, on a state-wide level we work to engage more men in primary prevention through our Ten Men Project. This attributes to the protective factor about having positive attitudes towards women; if more men stand up and speak up about respect and healthy relationships, other men will listen and model after them. With DELTA we also work to build more community cohesion, which is a helpful protective factor as well.
Ultimately, primary prevention works to create social change. A huge part of our work at the RICADV is work in organizational and systems changes. We work in the criminal justice system, schools, community-based organizations, and other institutions across Rhode Island. By engaging all members of our community, the combination of knowledge and awareness will influence action and change. We want to see a community at large that does not tolerate domestic violence and that uses positive messages to promote healthy relationships and ultimately a healthy community. We can no longer treat domestic violence as exclusively a criminal justice issue pertaining only to those abused and those who abuse. Domestic violence is a community health problem, a human rights issue, and it affects all of us.