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Australians, you are safer than ever – unless you’re a woman

November 13 2017 By Mary Barry, CEO Our Watch & Moo Baulch CEO Domestic Violence NSW

Every few years, the Australian Bureau of Statistics checks how safe people are feeling and how much violence they have experienced in the past year through the Personal Safety Survey, the latest results of which have just been released.

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On the surface, the latest survey is the bearer of good news; over the past decade, the number of Australians who experienced violence dropped – from 8.3 per cent in 2005 to 5.4 per cent in 2016.

However, on closer inspection, the numbers tell a troublingly familiar story about violence against women.

While the proportion of men who had experienced physical violence had almost halved – from 10 per cent in 2005 to 5 per cent in 2016, for women, the proportion had fallen just a little over one point, from 4.7 per cent to 3.5 per cent.

Put differently, the rate of violence against men has fallen twice as fast as the rate of violence against women.

Perhaps unsurprisingly to anyone who witnessed the recent wave of #metoo posts on social media, the sexual violence data paint an even starker and more gendered picture.

The last Personal Safety Survey was run in 2012, at which time 1.2 per cent of women respondents reported experiencing sexual violence in the preceding year. In 2016, that figure had risen to 1.8 per cent.

An increase of 0.6 per cent may seem small, but this is the equivalent of 56,000 women. This increase is even more devastating when viewed alongside general violence rates that are moving much faster in the opposite direction.

Rates of partner violence against women also remained depressingly stable, rising from 1.5 per cent in 2005 to 1.7 per cent in 2016.

Those barely-perceptible movements send a loud message: as our society becomes less abusive overall, abuse of women is not only staying around, it’s on the rise.

In other areas, the changes were not so slight.

Around 17 per cent of women and 9 per cent of men had experienced sexual harassment in 2016, up from 15 per cent and 6.6 per cent respectively in 2012.

And this is in a context where one in two women – that’s 4.9 million people – had been sexually harassed by a male perpetrator in their lifetime.

The numbers related to child abuse remain deeply distressing, with one in six women and one in 10 men reporting having experienced some form of abuse as a child.

This is especially heartbreaking when read alongside another report, released on the same day as the ABS survey, by the NSW Domestic Violence Death Review Committee, which found that childhood experiences of violence are a predicator for adult suicides.

Almost one in five women who took their own lives had experienced domestic violence as children.

In the immediate term, this means we have a huge responsibility to ensure children experiencing or exposed to violence have access to specialist trauma support services, and that in general, education and other services and programs for children are sensitive to the violent reality that some children may be experiencing at home.

But what can we do to change the story for women in the long term?

Well, this is the part where there is truly good news to share.

We know exactly why rates of violence against women are shifting more slowly than other kinds of abuse, and we know how to change this. In fact, we are already working on it, and the government has a national action plan in place to get there. 

The underlying problem is gender inequality, and the reason it’s hanging around is that it is deeply ingrained in the kind of social norms, structures and attitudes that can take generations to change.

But change is possible. There are a few parts to the solution. The first is to teach children about respectful relationships from a young age, through their schooling. If we can agree to do this, nationwide, we will be on the fastest road to achieving gender equality and reducing violence against women in the next generation.

We must also work on improving gender equality right across our society. We must ensure that workplaces treat – and pay – everyone equally, and that sports clubs model gender equality in all of their activities. We need to challenge harmful ideas about masculinity that are based on a need for power and control or an attitude of disrespect towards women.

Our communications need to avoid rigid gender stereotypes, and our journalists need to report carefully and accurately on violence against women so that the public conversation about this issue is based on an understanding of the gendered nature of these crimes.

The government’s National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children began in 2010 and is slated to continue until 2022. It incorporates programs that cover schools, workplaces, sporting organisations and the media. This long-term approach to tackling the issue is commendable. But we must make sure it continues to be translated into concrete, sustained, nationwide actions.

Violence against women is an entrenched problem. But if we are brave enough to tackle the underlying drivers of this violence, we can prevent it.

The ABS’s most recent statistics underscore how important it is that we remain committed to this goal.