Respect Matters: One aim, different outcomes?

Naomi Johnson

2/08/2019 3:20:54 PM

A new program aims to inform young people on consent issues, but inconsistent legislation across states could be hindering attempts at education.

School children in class
Questions have been raised regarding the consistency and effectiveness of Australia’s consent laws.

The Federal Government has invested $2.8 million into the Respect Matters program, which comprises new resources for schools to educate Australia’s youth on safety, consent and wellbeing.
But inconsistencies between state laws could be causing issues when providing education on consent, especially as the legal definition varies from state to state.
Dr Elizabeth Hindmarsh, GP and Chair of the RACGP Specific Interests Abuse and Violence network, believes more consistency across state laws would be helpful in many areas.
‘Many things are not consistent across Australia: abortion legislation, [writing] an advance care directive, incurring guardianship and enduring powers of attorney [are] all different across parts of Australia. It’s a big problem,’ she told newsGP.
‘The mandatory reporting requirements are slightly different in every state too.’
While there may be interest in employing similar laws across states, previous history suggests legislation is likely to differ.
‘Women in NSW who are involved in domestic violence can leave a house or a unit where they are a tenant without having to pay damages or ongoing rent if a doctor will sign a form to say that they’re involved in domestic violence,’ Dr Hindmarsh said.
‘But that’s not in every state. Other states are talking about doing it but it’s likely to be a different piece of legislation, it’s just one example of the problems we have that GPs can’t solve.’
Dr Hindmarsh added that while GPs can support changes to how the concept of consent is approached, there are not many ways GPs can initiate them.
The Respect Matters program involves educators working with classroom teachers to cover topics such as body autonomy and healthy relationships, from kindergarten through to high school.
The program promotes the emerging concept of enthusiastic consent, which has had a recent push to be adopted into laws in NSW and Victoria, following Tasmania’s tough lead on sexual consent. 

Only eastern states have implemented concepts from the Respect Matters program into school curricula, which has led some educators to call for the program to be rolled out across the country.
Dr Hindmarsh supports the rollout of school programs that promote safety, but emphasised the need to test and assess their effectiveness.
‘Trying to help children to understand some of these issues is an important thing to do but it needs to be done in a way that can be shown that it works,’ she said.
‘You may have a good idea about doing something but it needs to be evaluated to see what it’s achieving … I would like [each resource] to be piloted and assessed to see if it’s an effective tool; if it’s an effective tool, I would like it to be rolled out across Australia.
‘We do lots of things but we don’t [always] evaluate things properly. When [the resources] have been well-evaluated then [we] can say that this is useful and roll it out.’

Tertiary support of further education on the topic of consent has included 30 Australian universities incorporating a mandatory online course, ‘Consent Matters’, into syllabuses each semester. The success of the course has been controversial
‘It will be very interesting to see the evaluation of that,’ Dr Hindmarsh said.
‘We certainly need to be addressing these issues and if you look at the inquiry into sexual assault and harassment at universities, it’s still a huge issue for women and for some men as well.’
Dr Hindmarsh and Professor Kelsey Hegarty were the contributing clinical editors on Abuse and violence: Working with our patients in general practice (the White Book), which contains evidence-based information, tools and resources for dealing with family violence in general practice.

‘We’ve tried to address some of these issues within the White Book … [but] these issues need to be updated and reviewed and [we need] a chance to sit down and look at some of the evaluations and the evidence where [it’s] available,’ she said.
When asked about noticeable differences in the way the topic of consent has been approached over the years, Dr Hindmarsh said society’s attitude to sexual harassment and sexual assault is changing.
‘The #metoo movement and things that women feel more empowered to talk about [help], but it’s certainly still going on,’ she said.
Respect Matters builds on the Federal Government’s Australian Student Wellbeing Framework and aims to keep Australians safe by investing in educating children.

consent sex education sexual violence white book young people

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