Cover photo of Social Policy Journal

World Conference on Family Violence Sharing Solutions. Changing the World.

Janine Moss
Social Policy Agency

The first World Conference on Family Violence was held in Singapore from 8—11 September 1998, jointly sponsored by the YWCA USA and People to People Ambassador Programs USA. The goal of the conference was to focus on practical, sustainable solutions that can be implemented in different cultures to stem the growing trend of family violence.

Approximately 450 delegates representing 40 countries attended the conference. There was a large contingent of North American delegates, particularly from the United States. Well over half the delegates represented non-government organisations, for example, the YWCA, women’s refuges, sexual abuse and domestic violence crisis centres, and other social service providers. The second largest contingent of delegates were health professionals (health educators, nurses and doctors), followed by teachers and university lecturers. There were around 30 delegates with a background in law. There were even fewer delegates, like myself, representing government agencies. Altogether, six New Zealand women attended the conference (no men attended): three represented the National Collective of Independent Women’s Refuges; one was a lawyer; another was a lecturer in film studies from Waikato University; and I represented the Social Policy Agency, Department of Social Welfare.

Rather than focusing on themes of child abuse, partner abuse or elder abuse, the working sessions were organised into more generic themes, for example, cross-cultural, legal/judicial, workplace, programme models, psychosocial, public policy, research/evaluation, medical. The organisers did not attempt to define family violence, which made the conference inclusive of different perspectives. Generally, this approach worked well. It ensured the conference was not captured by a particular interest group. However, it also meant that some important issues, such as the provision of services for children and young people, became somewhat lost in the general sessions.

Claire Chiang, President of the Society Against Family Violence and Singaporean MP, made the keynote address. Ms Chiang was of the view that "harsh Western legislation" focusing on punishing the perpetrator is not enough. In her opinion, a distinction needs to be made between the violent offence and the relationship, including involving men (as perpetrators) more frequently in finding a solution to the violence. Ms Chiang promoted the view that, wherever possible, family violence issues should be managed within the context of a relationship. She made available a brochure from her organisation, the Society Against Family Violence, entitled "I Do — Marriage, Making and Keeping the Commitment".

Ms Chiang’s address raised a debate about the status of the family, which polarised many delegates, perhaps not surprisingly, along cultural and religious lines. On one side, delegates agreed with her view that the family unit ought to be maintained and protected; on the other, delegates were of the view that an individual’s safety should be the paramount concern. Her address also illustrated the difference that culture and religious beliefs can make in interpreting causes of and solutions to family violence, which became for me one of the salient issues of the conference. For example, I spoke with delegates from India where women are struggling to be recognised as equal to men, rather than as chattels to be traded in marriage. For them, addressing family violence was almost a secondary issue to dealing with the multiple oppressions many Indian women face every day. For this reason, the conference goal, quoted at the beginning of this review, was perhaps a little over-ambitious in that no one solution is likely to be found that will fit all cultural settings.

The remainder of this review will summarise five topics which made an impression on me at the conference: services for children, screening through the health sector, an example of a rural family violence initiative, consequences for the workplace, and models of masculinity.

Services for Children

Dr Howard Spivak gave a plenary address on child abuse in family violence. One of his five themes (he also discussed the role of guns, the media, discipline and community violence in child abuse) was the effect on children of witnessing or being exposed to adult violence. He suggested that early exposure to adult violence is one of the strongest predictors of risk of violence in later life, as either a victim or an assailant. Further, there is growing evidence to suggest that witnessing adult violence may be a greater risk factor than suffering physical child abuse.

Dr Spivak suggested that there is a high correlation between the victimisation of a mother and her child(ren), and yet too often services are provided solely for the woman. He challenged women’s refuge providers to consider whether they were providing adequate services for the children of abused women, especially for teenage boys who sometimes are not allowed to stay in the refuge with their mother.

Dr Spivak also discussed the effects of family violence on young children as secondary victims. First, there is growing evidence (e.g. research undertaken by Dr Bruce Perry) to suggest that being exposed to violence as a young child may negatively impact on the biological development of neuro-pathways. Second, a woman may be unable to care for and nurture her child(ren) if she is a victim of violence. Dr Spivak suggested that practitioners should be careful not assume she is a bad parent, but should question whether there are other things going on, like family violence, that are affecting her capacity to mother.

Other than Dr Spivak’s address, the issue of child abuse in family violence and services for child victims was not particularly visible at the conference. Many of the sessions describing programme models, for example, focused on domestic violence services for abused women.

Screening Through the Health Sector

The theme of screening for family violence in the health sector was repeated throughout the conference. There was a strong contingent of health professionals at the conference. One study quoted by a presenter had found that on average, an American woman will present herself nine times to hospital staff with injuries caused by domestic violence before she is identified as an abuse victim.

Similarly, Emily Heilbrun and Evelyn Anderton (Womenspace, Eugene, Oregon) spoke of hospitals and public health services being a "gateway" for many abused women and questioned how often nurses and doctors ask the "right" questions. It would seem that New Zealand has some way to go to match the response provided by many health professionals in North America and Australia. Recent research by the Auckland University Centre for Injury Prevention has highlighted the need for medical professionals to be trained to screen women coming through hospital emergency rooms for injuries likely to have been caused by domestic violence. However, some hospitals appear reluctant to make routine screening official policy. For example, the head of Auckland Hospital’s emergency department has said he

"... did not want bashed women to be too scared to come to hospital for fear they would be interrogated" (The Dominion 8.10.98:8).

An Example of a Rural Family Violence Initiative

Professor Barbara Elliott of the University of Minnesota, Duluth, presented a useful paper on an initiative that aims to decrease the incidence of family violence in rural Minnesota communities. The initiative focuses on communities with fewer than 10,000 inhabitants that are unlikely to have refuges for abused women. In 1995 the Centre for Reducing Family Violence was established after a Minnesota newspaper company made a substantial grant. The initiative works from a "community-plus-expert" model with the ultimate aim of helping communities to help themselves. Communities identify their local needs (for example, reducing violence amongst young people at school, or providing "stopping violence" programmes for men), recruit key stakeholders, develop an action plan and engage local resources. The community is encouraged to apply for a grant from the Centre for Reducing Family Violence. The Centre offers technical support by way of a resource person who regularly visits the community. The resource person is available to facilitate community meetings, tailor the project to local needs, access information, and provide evaluation assistance. Grants per community usually range from US$20,000—40,000, which includes the cost of the technical support person.

This initiative was typical of other North American programme models described at the conference, which had a strong emphasis on multidisciplinary community collaboration. It is a model which New Zealand is beginning to emulate with the Strengthening Families project, but with a difference being that Strengthening Families is, at least in the first instance, government-led rather than starting at a grassroots level.

Consequences for the Workplace

An emerging issue that featured at a number of sessions during the conference was the theme of domestic violence in the workplace. Employees may be subject to telephone calls, stalking and physical violence at work. Domestic violence experienced in the home may also carry over into the workplace through absenteeism, lowered productivity and low staff morale. Joan Zegree, a social worker from Seattle, reported on two surveys of abused women in the USA. The results indicated that, due to abuse, over 60% of the sample of abused women had been late for work, over 50% missed work, and 74% were harassed at work, by phone or in person by their abuser.

Speakers highlighted the need for employers to recognise the manifestations and impacts of domestic violence in the workplace, in order to support their employees. Employers can play an important role in creating supportive environments for victims and encouraging treatment for employees who abuse. Some large corporate businesses (e.g. General Motors) have begun employing social workers and strengthening their Employee Assistance Programmes in order to support employees who are victims of abuse. Indeed, employers have a vested interest in creating workplaces that are intolerant of domestic violence as there are high associated costs such as a reduction in productivity, low morale and absenteeism.

Models of Masculinity

While men were in the minority at the conference (there were probably fewer than 40 males among the 450 delegates), the session on models of masculinity was well attended. The male delegates speaking at this session focused on critically examining the male sex-role stereotype and "what it means to be a man". Interestingly, unlike other sessions where cultural and religious differences tended to be barrier to understanding or (at least) sharing models and work practices, this session seemed to address a universal issue. Presenters from Canada (Michael Kaufman, White Ribbon Campaign), Nepal (Ranjan Poudyal, Save the Children Federation and film producer) and Norway (Marius Raakil, Alternative to Violence) all spoke with a common theme of mobilising men against gender violence by encouraging men and boys to create new models of masculinity A brochure promoting the White Ribbon Campaign, entitled "Breaking Men’s Silence to End Men’s Violence", put their argument succinctly: "Confronting men’s violence requires nothing less than a commitment to full equality for women and a redefinition of what it means to be men, to discover a meaning of manhood that doesn’t require blood to be spilled".

The real message from this session was that while men are a large part of the problem, they are also an integral part of the solution. This was a refreshing and constructive approach. I particularly appreciated the focus on the prevention of family violence through an exploration of how men and boys are encouraged, or even required, by society to adopt a dominant, patriarchal stereotype. In my experience, programmes with such a preventative focus sometimes get placed in the too-hard basket, in favour of rehabilitative "stopping violence" programmes.


The conference organisers do not intend to publish conference proceedings. However, each delegate did receive a full collation of all abstracts and the contact details of all registered delegates. A significant outcome of the World Conference on Family Violence was the creation of an International Network on Family Violence (INFV). The objectives of the II\JFV are to:

  • share promising practices which include holistic approaches to reduce violence in the family against children, spouse/partners and older people;
  • raise public awareness on the issue of family violence;
  • facilitate interdisciplinary networking, peer support and technical assistance across cultures;
  • promote social change involving both men and women;
  • advocate for commitment by governments to address family violence issues;
  • conduct future world conferences and promote regional, national and local meetings; and
  • enable participation from every part of the world.

The secretariat is the National Council of Child Abuse and Family Violence (NCCAFV) in the USA ( To date, four Standing Committees have been established covering issues ranging from conference planning, to recruitment and communications. Delegates from the conference have nominated themselves to be members of particular Standing Committees. A primary focus of the INFV will be planning for the next World Conference on Family Violence.


In January the International Steering Committee for the World Conference on Family Violence promulgated to conference participants recommendations from the conference and "The Singapore Declaration — Summary Statement". The Declaration concludes that conference participants resolved to:

  • increase public awareness;
  • promote professional education and training;
  • encourage research in the identification, treatment and prevention of family violence; develop effective models for legal and judicial intervention;
  • work together locally, nationally and internationally; and
  • work for the full implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the Universal Convention on Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and any other recognised Conventions on the Family.

Cover photo of Social Policy Journal


Social Policy Journal of New Zealand: Issue 12

World Conference on Family Violence Sharing Solutions. Changing the World.

Jul 1999

Print this page.