This time last year in a Brisbane suburban street, Hannah Clarke and her three beautiful children were murdered by the children’s father.
The shocking circumstances in which the young family perished rocked the nation, leaving us to question how this could have happened, and what needed to be done to stop another woman or child suffering the same fate.
With the wisdom of hindsight, Hannah and her children’s murders came with clear warning signs.
Hannah’s former husband, Rowan Baxter, was later reported to have been emotionally, financially, sexually and physically abusive. Like so many perpetrators, Baxter controlled every aspect of Hannah’s life, even after she bravely left the relationship.
Sadly, the murders of Hannah, six-year-old Aaliyah, four-year-old Laianah and three-year-old Trey were one of many tragic outcomes of family violence, with separation a particularly dangerous period for women and children.
In Australia, on average one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner. There were 55 women killed in 2020. Already this year, three women have been allegedly murdered by men intimately known to them.
Violence against women doesn’t happen in a vacuum or as one-off incidents. In fact, in more than 80 per cent of cases of intimate partner homicides in Australia, the killers had a history of abusing their victims.
When a man kills his partner, it is not because he is simply “driven too far”, as was inferred at the time of Hannah’s murder. It is also not caused by family circumstances, stress or disadvantage. It is a horrific, violent crime and it can never be excused or justified.
Unfortunately, homicide is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to violence against women. Rather than seeing these incidents as shocking anomalies, we must look at the broader patterns.
We need to understand these incidents in the context of the high rates of violence against women in Australia, including relationship and family violence, dating violence, workplace sexual harassment and street harassment. We must see all this violence as existing on a continuum, examine what causes this violence and what role we all play in stopping it happening in the first place.
We know violence against women is driven by gender inequality, which is deeply entrenched in society through policies, laws, systems, workplaces, attitudes and behaviours. It is present in all the places we spend our time, including recreational sports clubs, workplaces, education facilities and in the media.
It is evident in things such as the prevalence of sexist and disrespectful attitudes, women shouldering more of the unpaid work burden than men, being under-represented in leadership positions and being paid less than their male counterparts.
We need a shared national goal and a commitment to taking action, one that involves individual women and men, whole communities, governments, workplaces and diverse organisations, from local sporting clubs to universities.
We’re starting to see progress towards a shift in attitudes and a greater acceptance of some aspects of gender equality, such as attitudes towards women’s full participation in the workforce. But we must dial up our efforts and stay the course.
We need to see all levels of governments across the country continue to improve policies that support gender equality; we need to develop and support prevention initiatives in every workforce to ensure women feel safe when they go to work and are supported when they do report incidents; we need to increase the focus on challenging harmful forms of masculinity, those stereotypes of men always being in control, aggressive and dominant, and we men must be engaged in efforts to prevent violence against women.
The COVID-19 pandemic shone a light on and amplified existing inequalities that drive violence against women, further reinforcing the need for continued commitment to this goal.
The other issue to gain significant media and public attention in the wake of Hannah’s murder is the increasing impetus to criminalise coercive control. Coercive control encompasses emotional abuse, controlling someone’s movements, image-based abuse and financial abuse.
Those for criminalisation say it would enable victims to be able to prove a pattern of non-violent behaviour and have their abuser prosecuted, while others suggest we must approach the topic with caution, given the proposed law may have unintended consequences, such as causing harm to marginalised communities.
While there are good points on both sides of this important conversation, one thing remains clear – a focus on preventing all forms of violence against women is critical.
While it’s tragically too late for Hannah Clarke and her three children, we must turn our pain into action and accelerate our efforts to prevent the loss of any more women.
One year on, this is one lesson we can’t let slip.
This opinion piece was originally published in the Brisbane Times on 19 February 2021.
*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, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.”
To access guides for reporting about violence against women and their children, visit Media Making Change.
About Our Watch
Our Watch leads Australia’s work to stop violence against women and their children before it starts. The organisation was created to drive nation-wide change in the structures, norms and practices that lead to violence against women and children.
Find out more about our work to end violence against women in Australia.