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Understand the primary prevention approach

2 minutes

The primary prevention of violence against women is an emerging area of work and new to many people.

Much of the work to prevent violence against women has been informed by public health and health promotion theory and practice.

There are three key stages in the public health approach to prevention of violence against women.

A pyramid shape in red and orange colours with three layers representing the three tiers of health prevention.
The relationship between primary prevention and other work to address violence against women

Tertiary prevention or response

  • actions taken after the violence has already occurred to avoid it happening again or to prevent the recurrence of violence. This may include supporting survivors and holding perpetrators to account.
  • is essential, though unlikely to significantly reduce the rates of violence against women on its own.

Secondary prevention or early intervention

  • actions taken at the moments of risk to stop the violence or to reduce the severity.
  • aims to change the trajectory for individuals at higher-than-average risk of perpetrating or experiencing violence.
  • is essential, though it’s unlikely to significantly reduce the rates of violence against women on its own.

Primary prevention

  • stops violence before it starts by addressing its deep-seated drivers.
  • is not about working with people at risk of either perpetrating or experiencing violence against women.
  • works with all people, across all levels of society, making preventing violence everyone’s responsibility. We all have a role to play in changing the culture, structures and attitudes that drive violence against women.
  • questions and challenges our beliefs and seeks to change the practices and behaviours of all of us.
  • enhances early prevention and response activity by helping reduce recurrent perpetration of violence and shifting attitudes and practices in service and justice systems that may inadvertently tolerate, justify or excuse violence against women and their children.

A socio-ecological model for prevention

In the past, attempts to understand violence against women have focused on individual-level causes, such as the perpetrator’s mental health, life experiences (such as childhood exposure to violence), behaviour (such as alcohol use) or personal circumstances (such as unemployment).

While such factors may well be relevant, we need to explain why most men to whom they apply are not violent, and why other men not exposed to any of these factors are violent. 

The notion of a ‘social ecology’ is a useful way of understanding individual behaviour in a social context.

Factors associated with higher levels of violence against women include the ideas, values or beliefs that are common or dominant in a society or community – called social or cultural norms. These norms are reflected in our institutional or community practices or behaviours, and are supported by social structures, both formal (such as legislation) and informal (such as hierarchies within a family or community).

A radiating circle shape with arrows around the outside, showing how societal structures, practices and norms operate together..
The socio-ecological model for prevention.

Introducing primary prevention