Yes, I write about domestic violence regularly. And I have also worked in the violence against women sector on programs I hoped would help stem the tide of violence that sees, on average, one woman a week murdered by her current or former partner.
To be honest, I was just too heart broken. I felt hopeless. I wondered what the point was of writing yet another comment piece saying the same things: expressing outrage at the victim blaming in the investigating police officer’s comments and the media headlines that, inevitably, declare the perpetrator a “good bloke”. Or highlighting the wealth of research that counters the predictable observation that these are “murderous acts of violence none of us can comprehend”.
The latter were, actually, the words of Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a vigil held for Hannah Clarke and her children. With respect Prime Minister, experts and those working at the coal face of these issues do not find it “difficult to comprehend”. They know exactly why this happened. It’s called coercive control.
But what was the point of saying all these things…again? Would anything really change? Would this latest tragedy be met with another round of “bold” front pages pledging to “stand up” against violence, another series of “crisis summits” and then, ultimately, inaction?
Then this piece from this past weekend’s edition of the Sydney Morning Herald, flagging a crisis meeting of state and territory women’s safety ministers in Canberra this Friday, came along and it has been on my mind ever since. I feel I have to say something.
“The Morrison government says it is open to ‘new ideas’ for reducing domestic violence,” trumpets the opening paragraph.
Firstly, I vehemently disagree that we need “new ideas” to tackle domestic violence. We need to ask ourselves why we have not acted on the advice of experts and those working at the coal face in refuges and men’s behaviour change programmes who have been sounding the alarm for years and put forward many evidence-based solutions. And we need to ask why we have underfunded services that keep women and children safe.
But what really alarmed me in the article was Minister for Women Marise Payne’s statement that a specific area of focus would be “examining access to mental health services to support both victims of domestic and family violence, and people at risk of perpetrating violence”. And then Sydney Liberal MP Fiona Martin’s comment that “mental health plays a vital role in domestic violence behaviour.” She added: “What lies beneath the surface of violent behaviours are specific psychological symptoms – poor coping skills, poor emotion regulation, poor distress tolerance, poor impulse control, a lack of empathy.”
These comments are, at best, grossly irresponsible, and, at worst, downright dangerous. They are part of a long-discredited view that men who are violent “snap”, that they have mental health problems that “drive them” to commit these horrendous crimes.
Decades of research have pointed to the cultural underpinnings of men’s violence against women — men’s entitlement to power and control and their shame and frustration when they are not able to live out their version of what it means to be a “man” or head of the house.
As Our Watch, the national foundation to prevent violence against women, put it in its’ ground-breaking national framework to prevent violence against women, Change the Story, this is what’s called the “social context necessary for violence against women to occur”. This “social context” includes, according to Change the Story, the condoning of violence against women, men’s control of decision making and limits to women’s independence in public and private life, rigid gender roles and stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, and male peer relations that emphasise aggression and disrespect towards women.
The recent comments from Payne and Martin suggest that the Morrison government is categorically rejecting the cumulative advice of hundreds of experts and decades of research –not to mention the national Our Watch framework it funded via the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women — in favour of the old (and convenient for those ideologically disinclined to tackle gender equality in all its manifestations) trope of mental health.
These atrocities are the actions of a few “sick” individuals, they would have us believe. They are certainly not the consequence of a sick system, but an individual problem with individual, not systemic, solutions.
Having an “is it just me” moment, I checked in with Professor Liz Kelly in London, a leading international expert on violence against women at London Metropolitan University and Co-Chair of the UK’s End Violence Against Women Coalition (really, she is the stuff of legend). Professor Kelly shared my concerns regarding the comments and their implications.
“It is back to the ‘they are sick’ narrative, as if there is no cultural foundation to the behaviours,” she said. “This is not to say that in some cases there might ALSO be mental health issues, but those alone can never explain who does what to whom.”
Then, a powerful rebuke. “Some weasel words never die,” she added.
Harsh, yes. But true.
The women and children of Australia deserve more than “weasel words” dragging us back to a time when men’s violence against women was excused as the inexplicable, tragic acts of “sick” individuals. If this government so woefully (or wilfully) misunderstands domestic violence and its drivers, how can it possibly endeavour to successfully tackle it?
Kristine Ziwica tweets @KZiwica