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Epidemic: Domestic violence isn’t a “women’s issue”. It’s everyone’s problem.

March 06 2015 By Our Watch Ambassador Charlie Pickering

I remember when I first twigged to the idea that in Australia violence against women is not an issue or a problem, but something more. I had to make a brief appearance at my local Magistrates Court to regain my licence after a traffic infringement. In the foyer, a clerk of the court helped me find my way. I was looking a little confused because there were two identical reception desks.

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‘The desk on the right is for domestic violence cases. The one on the left is for everything else.’
It turned out the foyer originally had only one desk. But soon after the court opened it rapidly became clear that the sheer volume of domestic violence cases was going to require it’s own infrastructure. As well as the additional reception desk, there were courtrooms, waiting rooms and other facilities entirely dedicated to dealing with domestic violence cases.

The rest of my visit passed in something of a blur. I recall being asked a few questions by the magistrate and having my licence reinstated, but I spent the whole time trying to get my head around the fact that so many people required the court’s help to be protected from violence in the home. And they were just the cases that had made it to court. The ‘lucky’ few who had managed to get police assistance, legal assistance and the safe passage of time for their file to make it to the desk of a magistrate.

I left the court with the indelible impression that I had no idea about the scale and seriousness of family violence in Australia. And the more I learned, the more I realised that my brush with the courts was a tiny part of the picture.

A woman dies every week at the hands of her partner. One a week.
Well, actually a little over one a week. Somewhere around seventy women die every year at the hands of a person they are meant to trust.

One a week. Seventy a year. Continuously.

Imagine for a moment that something else was causing that many fatalities. Imagine the level of public outcry, media hysterics and political action it would elicit. If there were a level crossing that was killing a person a week, you wouldn’t be able to get near it for federal, state and local politicians wanting to have their photo taken next to it while promising that the ‘something’ that must be done, would. If it were an energy drink, it would be pulled off the shelves, exposed on current affairs programs and the manufacturers run out of town on a rail. And if it were shark attacks, we would have a flotilla of vessels hunting the culprits with complete impunity afforded to them by the Environment Minister.

Or for perhaps a more analogous example, consider the response to one-punch attacks in King’s Cross. These particular examples of violence perpetrated by men garnered coast-to-coast, wall-to-wall media coverage. There were endless editorials about our problem with violence, our problem with alcohol, how people just weren’t feeling safe and how we would respond to this scourge. There was a public discourse about how we talked about the attacks, which led to ditching the quasi-heroic ‘king hit’ in favour of the more emasculating ‘coward’s punch. In a matter of weeks there were public information campaigns and rapidly passed legislation to change opening hours and liquor licence provisions in identified hotspots. The way the community, media and government responded to these tragedies was concentrated, effective and nothing short of impressive.

That was for a very small number of violent attacks. Yet when it comes to domestic violence we are facing an epidemic. Like other epidemics it is curable but the cure is difficult. It requires a frank and fearless diagnosis. It requires a robust treatment of the condition. And it requires inoculation to prevent the epidemic’s return. It also requires strategy, patience, diligence and hard, difficult work. But to leave it untreated is not an option.
The symptoms we need to recognise are many, and go far beyond the unacceptable rate of fatalities.
One in 3 women over the age of fifteen reports having experienced physicalor sexual violence at some point in their lives. If that’s not you or anyone close to you, you’re lucky. Where are you reading this? Are you at work? Or on a train? Look to the woman on your left, now look to the woman on your right. One of you will experience physical or sexual violence in your lifetime.

And this is an epidemic that overwhelmingly affects women. Women in Australia are three times more likely than men to experience violence at the hands of a partner. One woman in five has experienced sexual violence. One woman in four had experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner.

And these are just the incidents that get reported. A Bureau of Statistics report from 1996 found that only 19% of women who were physically assaulted contacted the police. That means four out of five women who suffer physical abuse are not reporting it to police and not receiving help from the courts. Imagine how many extra reception desks we’d need if all the cases were reported.

This in turn affects families and future generations. Almost half of the women who experience violence by an ex-partner said children had seen or heard the violence. The blows of childhood echo into adulthood. Adult perpetrators of violence were often victims of violence in childhood.

The costs of this epidemic to all of us are extraordinary. KPMG have estimated that the cost of violence against women last year was $14.7B. Something that is not only unnecessary, but abhorrent, illegal, brutal and unacceptable is costing us all $14.7B a year. Our politicians spend a lot of time talking about deficits. What about that deficit? What about the financial, physical, moral and emotional deficit we face ever year because of violence perpetrated against women. Just think of the other things that money could be spent on. Quality health care, comprehensive school funding, tertiary education, aged care and pensions need not be talked about like luxuries we can’t afford.

So what of treatment? Initially when I was approached to be involved in a response to this problem, I wondered how I could help. I came from a family where violence was never present and I had never been a victim or witness of family violence. I doubted I had any expertise to offer.

But I have come to learn that violence in the home doesn’t just come from the personal failings of individuals, but also from the attitudes that we, as a society, tolerate. Sexist attitudes in the broader community are their own coded message; a tacit approval for the belief that women are less than men. It reinforces a misguided and harmful belief that women are less deserving of respect or opportunity than men; and in turn that a woman’s need for safety and security is less important that a man’s need for power and control.

And it goes beyond sexist jokes in the workplace, accusations of ‘running like a girl’ at school or TV shows where women participate in an ever-more-ludicrous audition for a man’s affection. It can be seen in government spending cuts that target frontline domestic violence legal and support services, but do not reduce funding for men’s sport. It is evident in the growing pay gap between men and women as well as the under-representation of women on company boards and in government.

We have had high profile cases of domestic violence this country in which leniency to the offenders has sent a dangerous message to the community. One judge, when sentencing a well-known actor who was guilty of assaulting his partner, took into account the adverse affect a recorded conviction and custodial sentence may have on his career prospects in America. This communicates a warped sense of priorities in which justice for a woman comes second to the career concerns of a man.

So the cure lies not only in confronting and punishing those who perpetrate violence against women and their children, but by all of us taking responsibility for the values we communicate and pass on to generations that come after us. We should call out sexism when we see it, and also be aware of the cultural message we send. We should give our children and the young people we influence an example to follow that celebrates equality. We should tell them stories of male and female role models who have succeeded in diverse and non-traditional careers. And we should show them that true strength and power comes not from violence, but from learning to share power equally.

This is how we build herd immunity to violence. This is how we work towards a world where we can talk of violence in the same past tense with which we talk about polio. Violence is not a necessary evil. It is an epidemic that can be defeated.

Article written by Our Watch Ambassador Charlie Pickering.

“This piece was originally commissioned by Ideas at the House, Sydney Opera House’s Talks & Ideas program, and published in their ‘All About Women’ Medium publication. For more articles like this, head to: https://medium.com/all-about-women/ 
 

Media contact

For enquiries or further information: Hannah Grant, Our Watch, mobile 0448 844 930, email Hannah.Grant@ourwatch.org.au

*If you cover this story, or any story regarding violence against women and children, please include the following tagline:

“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”