Addressing gender-based violence in sport

  • Women's sporting team hugging
Kirsty Forsdike
Kirsty Forsdike
Associate Professor and Principal Research Fellow at La Trobe's Rural Health School and Co-Chair of La Trobe’s Researching Gender-Based Violence Network (ReGen).

In 2022 the Victorian Government released new guidelines to support community sport to engage in the prevention of gender-based violence.

With its prominent role in Australian culture, sport is often seen as a vehicle for social good and a key setting for primary prevention work. In regional and rural areas, sport can be viewed as a second ‘family’ for participants, and is recognised as a social glue.

Yet with the release of these guidelines, something key was missing.

Gender-based violence occurs in the sport setting, with research suggesting prevalence rates of interpersonal violence experienced by women and girls in sport range from 26% to 74% across psychological, physical, and sexual violence.

Research I have just co-authored, reviewing 25 years of studies examining women’s experiences, also found perpetrators are rarely held to account.  

As outlined in the profile of the Mount Alexander Falcons AFL team in the previous Partyline issue, to support sport’s role in primary prevention, we need to support them to address the violence already occurring. Responses can be fraught. While sport is perceived as a community hub, the intimate networks in rural areas pose unique challenges when both victims and perpetrators are deeply ingrained in recreation, health and justice services.

Our ReGen team, based at La Trobe University’s Violet Vines Marshman Centre, worked with Sports Focus and Loddon Campaspe’s regional sports assembly to develop a project proposal that focused on responding to gender-based violence.

Sports Focus knew the issue existed locally, having fielded calls from sports clubs trying to deal with incidents. We were joined by advisors from Safe & Equal, No to Violence and Centre Against Sexual Assault Central Victoria in the project’s development.

The Department accepted our proposal, which aimed to assess sports’ readiness to respond to gender-based violence and how the rural/regional community could work together to develop response initiatives.

Aside from a survey to find out what was happening in sport and what participants knew about gender-based violence, we used some innovative methods to explore the issue. This included an online concept mapping exercise in which 31 sports leaders considered the challenges in responding to the disrespect and abuse of women and girls in community sport, and the capacity to address them.

We then used a participatory action method called a World Café Forum, a technique designed to create a relaxed, supportive environment for diverse perspectives. Our aim was to consider and design solutions through discussion and activity prompts.

Twenty-seven people attended from 14 different sport, health, policy, government, specialist services and research organisations. A key success was the attendance by community sport members who recognised their club or association needed support.

The data told a compelling story of the existence of gender-based violence in our regional sports, the recognised need for action, but also of the challenges in addressing ingrained attitudes and cultures. We developed a model for action that supports community sport and community tailored resources. A core group of local sport champions reflected upon this and, following consensus, the team started developing materials for local sports to raise awareness and take action in response to gender-based violence.

The project has shown the importance of knowing our communities’ starting points in order to understand their readiness to respond to gender-based violence.

Most importantly, it reinforced how tailored initiatives need to be developed collaboratively for a whole-of-community approach to address gender-based violence through sport. The work of this project has fed into the development by the Victorian Government of new guidelines for sport, which are soon to be released.

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