Australian governments have been swift to introduce legislation and enact public health measures to stop the pandemic from taking off in Australia. Comparatively speaking we have been quite successful. What would happen if governments approached the other pandemic in our midst – violence against women – with the same level of urgency and leadership?
Ahead of an upcoming national domestic and family violence summit and galvanised by Anne Summers’ International Women’s Day speech in March, which suggested that little has changed in relation to the extent of violence against women in Australia for generations, governments need to go hard on driving attitudinal and behavioural change, to promote gender equality and respect towards women.
Why is this urgent?
Violence against women and girls is the most widespread human rights violation in Australia and the world, with approximately one in four having experienced physical and/or sexualised violence by an intimate partner. The most common characteristic shared by survivors is their gender, and people who perpetrate are predominantly male. We also know that other aspects of women’s identities including, culture, class and disability intersect to increase the magnitude and likelihood of experiencing violence, as well as their risk of receiving a poor legal and social response. Pregnant women and unborn children are at increased risk, as are women who upend the gender norm and earn more than their partners. Aboriginal women bear the legacy of colonial government policies, which contribute to the vastly elevated rates of violence and poor social responses.
Failing to control the spread of violence against women has resulted in this crime remaining stable over the years, whilst other crime rates have fallen. The financial cost of violence against women to the Australian economy was estimated to be $26 billion dollars, when factoring in costs associated with lost workforce productivity and service provision to address health, child protection, education, criminal justice, housing and homelessness issues.
Early contagion control prevents transmission
Children and young people are frequently overlooked but suffer greatly, with one child a fortnight dying in the context of domestic and family violence (DFV). Many first experience abuse in utero: 1 in 4 women who experience DFV are abused for the first time when pregnant. Stopping the contagion requires that the impact on children is identified and responded to early. Many women separate from abusive partners to protect children, only to find that their children are exposed to unsupervised time with ex-partners who often continue the pattern of abuse, through their child. Sadly, such practices can contribute to training the next generation in tactics of abuse and disrespect.
Australian society is a fertile breeding ground for producing men who are violent, coercively controlling, and who perpetrate sexual assault, harassment and stalking against women. A sizeable minority of young Australians hold violence-supportive attitudes, including endorsing gender inequality, violence, and discriminatory beliefs, and having a limited understanding of violence against women. Violent pornography as a training ground for initiating boys and men into ‘sex education’ cannot be ignored. It is easily accessible and an anathema to everything that we should be educating boys and young men about, in terms of consensual sexual relationships.
How do we vaccinate against this pandemic?
Decades of research and numerous government inquiries have provided us with answers to the question: ‘how do we produce perpetrators of violence against women?’ There are no simplistic, single axis explanations; for example, ‘he was drunk’, ‘she provoked violence’, ‘violence is part of their culture’. These are commonly advanced but insufficient to explain why some men make a decision to use violence and coercive control.
Perpetrators’ choices are contextual, influenced by an interplay of factors at individual, family, community and societal levels. Societies with higher levels of gender inequality have higher levels of violence against women and children. On the latest Global Gender Index measuring the gender-based gaps of 156 countries against 4 measures, Australia does well on the education of girls, and then we rapidly lose all benefit when women move into the workplace and public life. We have slipped from being ranked 15th in 2006 to 50th in 2021, escalating downwards year on year. This represents not only an appalling waste of women’s skills and talents but is also a marker of the inequality and disrespect towards women in Australia.
A multi-layered, coordinated community response is urgently required.
A starting place is to get one’s own house in order. Parliament House, the leading house of the nation, has provided an extremely poor model in relation to respect, equality and non-violence towards women. The implementation of the Respect@Work report, with 55 recommendations, is a start, and provides a blueprint for all workplaces, yet more leadership on this issue is needed.
Beware the backlash or the next wave
We don’t have to go with the equivalent of a ‘herd immunity’ approach, wherein DFV is left to spread and continue its path of devastation: ‘eradication’ or, better yet, ‘suppression’ are worthwhile strategies. Articulate women survivors like Rosie Batty, Brittany Higgins, and Grace Tame are leading the way. They bear witness and have refused to be silenced. Speaking out comes at considerable cost, and only the most courageous and well supported are able to sustain themselves against the backlash that inevitably ensues.
Brave journalists like Samantha Maiden have been under personalised attack, but thankfully other journalists have supported and defended her. It is to be expected and it is sadly an expression of the lack of respect and misogyny that is part of the underbelly of Australian society and provides a demonstration of the problems which underpin DFV.