Make no mistake: Domestic violence remains a national crisis in Australia

Make no mistake: Domestic violence remains a national crisis in Australia

It is prolific and inexplicable. It isn’t new but the past few weeks make it clear, once again, that domestic violence poses a very real threat to women and children in Australia. In the most extreme cases, we know, this threat is fatal.

Twenty four Australian women have been killed violently in the first five months of 2018: research by the Counting Dead Women Australia researchers of Destroy The Joint indicates that at least half of those were killed by a former or current partner.

But death is far from the only threat domestic violence presents.

Last week Dr Angela Jay, an obstetrics trainee, spoke at the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons Annual Scientific Congress in Sydney, about her horrific experience of violence. In November of 2016 she was stabbed 11 times and had petrol poured over her head and her face by a man she had been on a few dates with.

“In that moment of indescribable horror, waiting to be lit on fire, I found the courage to run for my life,” Dr Jay told the assembled delegates.

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It was – yet again – tangible proof that domestic violence doesn’t discriminate.

Partner violence contributes an estimated 5.1 percent to the disease burden in Australian women aged 18-44 years. It means that

It impacts one in every six women and this violence, in whatever form it takes, rarely only scars a single individual.

It is estimated that half of all women who experience violence in Australia have children in their care. Research indicates that children who witness violence in the home display similar behavioural and emotional problems to physically abused children.

Broadcaster, and advocate for eradicating violence against women, Sandra Sully describes it as a “chronic national crisis”.

“What I read on the news is the absolute tip of the iceberg and that’s what is so frightening,” Sully told Women’s Agenda. “These women and children are living in fear. How do they process what’s happening to them?”

They can’t.

“Children are a product of circumstances,” Sully says. “Not every act of domestic violence will end in injury or death, but every act of domestic violence will have a traumatic impact on the children who bear witness to it. These children live in an environment that is unpredictable, filled with tension and anxiety and dominated by fear.”

In Sully’s career at the news desk spanning almost three decades the narrative around domestic violence has changed.

“There has been a monumental shift in the acknowledgement that the problem exists,” Sully says. “It used to be something we didn’t talk about, something police almost avoided. Domestic violence disputes were dismissed as private and personal.”

That is no longer the case and the expectation is that intervention will occur. But the monumental challenge is intervening adequately to keep women and children safe.

“There is eternal frustration that we haven’t yet fixed it. Everyone from the government down is grappling with finding the right combination of solutions,” Sully says. “One size doesn’t fit all.”

But Sully says one obvious part of that solution is in desperately short supply.

“There aren’t enough services to help,” she says.

While the increased public discussion about domestic violence may encourage more people experiencing this violence to reach out for help, if there is not a safe place, where does that leave them?

“[Asking for help] is intensely personal, frightening and confronting which is why frontline services are so critical.”

Rob Ellis, the chief executive of BaptistCare, says many women wanting to leave a violent partner are acutely aware of the risk it entails.

“A woman’s choice about leaving is usually dominated by concern for safety – her own and her children – which means she is caught in a terrible dilemma. It’s not safe to stay but to leave safely she needs things in order,” he says.

The stress is immense.

“Because of the trauma of violence – and normally there’s more than one form of violence – their decision-making skills aren’t at their best at exactly the point a woman is making complex choices about housing and schooling,” he says. “Lots of women report their brains feels fuzzy from the pressure.”

It is one reason Ellis says improved coordination of services for victims of domestic violence is absolutely critical.

“What we have for women and children at the moment is a very fragmented support system. It’s very difficult for individuals to navigate to get the support they need,” he says.

To Ellis’s mind there is an appetite for making the system as simple and clear as possible.

“There is certainly the will from service providers and we are seeing signs that the state and federal governments want this to happen,” he says. “Lots of women report ‘falling into holes’, in their words, when they are seeking support.”

The reality is that even in the best cases where victims are able to leave safely, the problem isn’t solved.

“The journey to recovery is longer than anyone anticipates,” Ellis says. “We know that when it comes to financial abuse it takes 5 years for a person to feel like they are on solid ground again.”

As critical as crisis support is – and it is – Ellis says victims of violence also need support in the mid to latter stages of recovery.

“It is a very complex journey. We want to look at it through the eyes of women and children and focus on not putting any additional roadblocks in their way.”

Earlier this month BaptistCare hosted its annual Halo Ball. Over the past two years this event has raised $215,000 which has helped provide supported accommodation for 282 women and their children, group support programs for 355 women, no interest loans for 210 women, and hundreds of hours of counselling sessions for women seeking to rebuild their lives, free from the fear and trauma of their past.

This support is not the only solution to this national crisis – it can’t be. But it is providing absolutely critical support. If you wish to donate, you can do so here.

As we have written before there are things – big and small – that each of us can do to help women and children experiencing domestic violence. This list is not exhaustive but it’s a start.

  • Donate to a women’s shelter in your area: time, treasure & talent are always in demand.
  • Ask your employer to introduce a DV policy or if you are an employer introduce a DV policy.
  • Write to your local member and ask them to prioritise domestic violence policy.
  • If you see or hear something sexist – whether it’s an ad or something a friend has said – say so. Get comfortable with speaking out against things that are sexist or degrading.
  • If you hear someone blaming a victim of sexual assault by asking: “What was she wearing?” or “Was she drunk?” tell them that those kinds of questions contribute to a society that excuses violence against women.
  • If you think someone is being controlling towards their partner, like stopping them from seeing friends or family, calling them at work excessively, withholding money, tell them you’ve noticed and ask what you can do to help.
  • If a friend, family member or colleague tells you she’s experienced violence the most important thing you can do is listen to her, believe her and make sure she knows you’re there to support her.
  • If you experience sexual harassment at work, like suggestive jokes, explicit emails, staring, intrusive questions about your personal life, or unwanted requests for sex, report it to your manager.
  • If you experience sexual harassment in the street like catcalling, offensive comments or unwanted advances, call out the harassment and share your story at Everyday Sexism to help people understand how harmful sexual harassment is.
  • Talk to the people in your life about your commitment to preventing violence against women and their children.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au

In an emergency, call 000.

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