Violence against women is rampant in Australia. The estimated cost of violence against women and children is a staggering $13.6 billion per year. In New South Wales alone, the cost of domestic violence is more than $4 billion a year. Shocking levels of domestic violence have led the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to pledge a $100 million domestic violence package. The costs of domestic violence to our society in financial terms are clearly huge and significant. However the costs are not simply financial ones. We need to carefully consider how to address the shock waves of domestic violence that reverberate across the country and into the very fabric of society.

Domestic violence is engrained in the unequal gender relations and implicit misogyny that secretly threads itself through our family and social histories. It is therefore of vital importance that policy-makers create the systems and structures to challenge domestic violence as well as to provide much needed aid to the large groups of women and children who directly suffer the social epidemic of domestic violence. We must actively stop the vicious cycle that effects generation after generation.

On average two women a week are killed at the hands of her partner or former partner. Four women have been killed in this past week alone. The risk of homicide greatly increases when a woman attempts to escape her violent partner. Thus, finding safe, affordable and appropriate accommodation after fleeing domestic violence is often a woman’s most pressing concern.

A key problem is the lack of insight about the complex experience of living with a violent partner, or fleeing from domestic violence. Although the figures are shocking, hearing the stories of women survivors is a powerful tool for gaining more sophisticated levels of understanding of the lived experiences of domestic violence. Unfortunately, our shared cultural ignorance about domestic violence will continue to feed into the many misconceptions that tend to then wrongly lay the blame on individual female victims.

Domestic violence often involves multiple acts of abuse, control and manipulation, causing extreme forms of terror, confusion and disorientation, as well as numerous health problems. Examples include not being ‘allowed’to work, study or visit a doctor, and being held captive, isolated from friends and family, consistently sleep deprived, repeatedly raped, violently beaten for random ‘bad behaviour’, treated as a slave and/or denied access to even the most basic subsistence. This not only denies individual women the opportunity to exercise their freedoms and rights as human beings but has enduring and toxic ramifications for children, families and communities and our overall health, well-being and stability as a nation.

This requires that we do some careful but uncomfortable reflection on the ways that gender and sexuality might reinforce insidious patterns of male violence and female victimhood. Why do we tend to place the blame on female victims rather than understand the wider cultural attitudes that are complicit in the vicious circle of violence against women? Education has a central role to play in challenging those cultural attitudes that lie beneath the shocking domestic violence statistics. Men often face huge pressures to be ‘powerful’ and ‘tough’ while women are often expected to take the brunt of the emotional responsibility for their relationships, with enduring social signals that women should defer to male authority. Single motherhood is still widely denigrated, making it more difficult for women to have the courage to leave the violent father of her child(ren). The backlash against feminism in many communities, the forms of hyper-sexuality that are often seen to ‘empower’ young women, the forms of hyper-masculinity that reinforce particular images of ‘tough’masculinity in popular culture and social media, the normalised pornographic images circulating through social media and so easily accessible to young children, the moral panic that men are being ‘de-masculinised’ and thus need to reassert their power; all of these multiple processes form together to create toxic versions of masculinity and femininity that perpetuate rather than challenge the cycle of domestic violence.

As part of a project to put a stop domestic violence, and rid ourselves of these multiple and deeply damaging costs and traumas, we must put gender and sexuality on the curriculum. We need to educate ourselves and our children of the ways that unequal gender relations lies beneath the prevalence of domestic violence and other forms of male violence against women. Until boys and girls, and men and women, have the opportunity to challenge problematic forms of gender and sexuality, many will continue to find themselves locked into the vicious cycle of abuse, violence and trauma.

Penny Jane Burke, Global Innovation Chair and Co-Director of the Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education, University of Newcastle