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The causes of family violence

Discrimination Sex Discrimination


Thank you Chief Magistrate Peter Lauritsen for your introduction, and thanks to Samantha, the Judicial College and Magistrate Anne Goldsbrough for inviting me to speak here today.

I am delighted to be here and to have an opportunity to contribute to this important two-day workshop.  Through this workshop, Victoria is once again demonstrating that it is leading the way in bringing family violence out of the shadows and tackling it head-on.  Congratulations to the organisers and to all of you for being part of this change.

I would like to acknowledge that we are meeting on traditional lands and pay my respects to elders – past, present and future – and to all the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women who work tirelessly to end violence against women.   

I have been Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission for the last seven years. It is a job that takes me from 200 metres under the sea in a submarine to the United Nations in New York, to spending time with young women survivors of acid attack in Dhaka, to camping out with Aboriginal women in the Kimberly in Western Australia, to the abattoirs and boardrooms of Australia, to the White House, NATO, the Pentagon, the World Bank and everywhere between. 

That is the tremendous privilege of this role – whether I am working to support workers, refugee women, defence force personnel, survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, aboriginal women, women with disability or women in low paid jobs – every day I meet inspiring individuals – individuals committed to using whatever influence they have to create a more equal world.

One common thread emerges from all the people I have met and the stories that I have heard.  That is the transformative power of law and justice – whether it is the role of discrimination laws in creating more equal and inclusive workplaces, the international legal principles that build consensus among nations, or indeed the role of courts in holding perpetrators accountable and delivering justice.

Which is why I am so pleased to be here today to speak to you about what is in my view the most significant gender equality issue in Australia – men’s violence against women, and in particular family violence. Men’s violence against women is both a cause a consequence of gender inequality. It happens every day in areas of public and private life – from our workplaces and the shopping mall, to the place where we are meant to feel most safe - our own homes.  Yet both the violence, and the women who experience it, are often invisible.

And here is where the transformative power of the justice system does its most important work. Only the justice system is able to confirm that family violence is indeed a crime and focus attention on perpetrators. At a personal level, such confirmation affirms the experience of women survivors and provides some closure that might otherwise be beyond grasp. Equally important, the judicial system plays a crucial role in dispelling the societal myths that not only perpetuate violence but that keep victims silent and unable to seek the very justice that the court can provide.

If more Australians took a moment to really conceptualise the scale of family violence in this country there would be resounding shock and collective outrage.

Did you know there are now more women living in an intimate relationship characterised by violence than malnourished people in the world? Yes, 980 million – almost 1 billion women (World Bank).

And in Australia, there are 1.2 million women in today living in an intimate partner relationship characterised by violence. That’s enough to fill the MCG Stadium almost 12 times over. Something to think about the next time you’re watching the AFL, NRL, Cricket or union.    

• More than one woman is murdered every week in Australia by a current or former partner – more than 75 a year. Six women in Australia were murdered in the first 17 days of this year alone. 

• Three quarters of female homicides in Australia are the result of domestic or family violence.

• Many more women are severely injured and for some those, injuries are permanent. In fact, in Victoria (indeed in Australia as a whole), intimate partner violence is the leading contributor of disability and illness in women aged 15-44.  It is responsible for more of the disease burden in women than many other well-known risk factors, such as smoking or obesity.

• One in four children in Australia have witnessed violence against their mother or step mother.

And yet, we do not see the collective outrage that we should see at such widespread human rights violations and crimes committed in our community.

As Charlie Pickering, an ambassador for the national Our Watch violence prevention campaign, recently wrote, "If this was a bus route killing pedestrians, there would be an inquiry. If it was a level crossing causing accidents it would be closed and politicians would lose their jobs. If it were shark attacks off the coast of Western Australia I can barely imagine the scale of the lynchings that would be organised."

And as Rosie Batty recently said to a group of Male Champions of Change CEOs of Australia’s most powerful and iconic organisations, ‘This is an issue of national concern. Why aren't we more outraged as individuals and as a nation, that domestic and family violence now constitutes the majority of police business?'

Men’s violence against women is a global and national emergency. It is occurring on epidemic proportions and yet there is an appalling lack of interest and urgency in preventing and addressing this emergency

We need to bring family violence, in all its myriad forms, out of the shadows and have it recognised and treated, for what it is – both a crime and a human rights violation. Magistrates are already playing a crucial role in this emergency as courtrooms deal with increasing number of matters brought before them

We know that family violence includes physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, financial and spiritual violence all aimed to control, dominate, hurt, humiliate and demean. But we tend to hear mostly about the physical violence of family violence and especially when that results in serious injury or death – especially as reported in the press. What we hear about much less are those other forms of violence women experience. Women experiencing family violence invariably experience sexual assault as part of the continuum of violence. Many women also speak of the lasting impact of the emotional abuse – “‘give me a black eye any day.  That’s gone in a fortnight, it’s the words that hurt, it the words that stay with you’.

I get asked sometimes, why are we naming it “violence against women” or “men’s violence against women”– “what about women’s violence against men?”  Language is important in conveying what is really happening, and this is an area where I don’t think sugar-coating helps.

The vast majority of perpetrators are men. And the vast majority of victims are women. Men do not experience violence on pandemic levels nor as a result of gender inequality. Men largely experience violence at the hands of other men and most likely in a public place.

Men’s violence against women usually comes with a fear of death and is part of a longer and ongoing cycle of violence. There is no parallel to men’s experiences where violence is largely an isolated event.  Having said all that, violence is never okay.

Those who experience trauma as a result of family violence experience many emotions. Shame, fear, anger, feeling dirty, feeling somehow to blame and feeling like everyone knows. Most will have trouble eating sleeping and concentrating. Nightmares and flashbacks are common. It impacts on women’s capacity to engage in work. Many just want to hide away and many will never talk about what happened. This pressure on victims to be silent about the violence they experience is all encompassing.

Like Kristy, who I have had the privileging of working with, who lived every day in fear.  For nearly four years, this fear meant that she was not able to tell anyone including her close family, friends and work colleagues what was happening to her.  She worked hard to hide her situation.  She did everything she could do avoid the anger of an increasingly volatile and violent partner, in a situation that she wasn’t in a position to control. For Kristy, she reached out for help for the first time one evening after enduring hours of violence, including sexual violence at the hands of her husband, and she realised that she and her daughter were going to die if she stayed, so in spite of her fear, she made the courageous decision to leave and seek help from the justice system.

In order for courage to trump fear, victims need to feel able to speak out. But there are many myths and misbeliefs which keep those who experience violence silent..

These myths have two roles. One is to blame the victim and the other is to give excuses to the offender. These myths are prevalent in media reporting and, heartbreakingly common, in the minds of some women experiencing violence. These myths are one reason it can take years for a woman to leave or to seek relief through a family violence order.

Let me spend some time debunking the most common of these myths.

Firstly we continue to hear victim blaming, such as: “She provoked him”; “They both have problems”; “She was drunk”.

In a recent extreme family violence homicide attack the offender shot his 3 children and then his wife. He then took his own life. In the media reports we were told that there were 5 victims.

No. The legal position is clear. There were 4 victims and a murderer.

We also heard what a good bloke he was because he coached a local team and after all his wife had had a car accident which resulted in long term injury.

As the late Stella Young wrote at the time, "When we hear that a murdered wife is also a woman with a disability, we can find ourselves a little bit less horrified. As though her status as a disabled woman gives us a little more empathy towards the perpetrator of violence. It's victim blaming at its very worst."

Blaming the victim/survivor for the abuse stops people from reporting abuse or seeking help and it reinforces and justifies the abuser’s perspective.

Secondly, we hear, ‘why doesn’t she just leave?’

As a courageous survivor of family violence recently told me, ‘the most hurtful thing you can ever say to someone who is or has experienced family violence is ‘why didn’t you just leave’?. The fact is, women are the best judge of their safety.

The research bears this out. A woman is most at risk of being murdered when she attempts to leave a violent relationship. 

She also fears the abuse will escalate and children may be hurt. She does not feel confident that she and her children will be protected. She may be financially dependent. She may want to protect the family or community reputation. Or she may lack the support and help needed to take such a courageous and often dangerous step.

The third myth that we often hear is that family violence is caused by stress and poverty.

It is a mistake for anyone to assume violence against women and children happens only in areas of social and economic disadvantage. Family violence takes place, behind closed doors, in Toorak and Broadmeadows and in every suburb and region in between. It is happening every minute of every day in this country.

Indeed, the National Community Attitudes Survey shows that rather than stress and poverty, the causal relationship to violence is relationships with unequal power and rigid gender stereotypes.

The fourth myth is that family violence is a result of poor anger management skills, a violent upbringing or alcohol and drugs.

Research does show some moderate causal links between increased levels of violence and men that have experienced a violent upbringing or have taken alcohol or drugs.

BUT, many violent men were not victims as children. Many men who misuse alcohol are not violent. And many men who are violent are sober and/or do not have alcohol problems. Violent upbringings and alcohol and drugs do not account for the pattern. The exhibition of controlling behaviours is much more strongly correlated with violence.

Furthermore, many people believe men’s violence is the result of poor anger management skills. But these men are not violent in other contexts that would also give rise to anger. And they are often very calculated in the way in which they inflict violence on their family to avoid detection proving that they are far from ‘out of control’.

The point is that there is NEVER an excuse for violence. Violence is always a choice. To claim differently is an insult to the many good men in our community who abhor family violence and are not perpetrators of this serious crime and human rights violation.

Understanding violence as a choice also means that there can be better outcomes for perpetrators, including in court processes. Recognising violence as a choice better focuses attention on the responsibility of men, whilst at the same time engages their sense of agency and engagement with family violence processes to support prevention and changed behaviour.

So why do some men choose to be violent towards their family? And why are we seeing family violence on such epidemic proportions in this country?

We know that regardless of where violence is taking place or the form of violence, at the core of all violence against women is inequality between men and women.

Violence against women, including family violence, is driven by three key factors:
• the unequal distribution of power and resources between men and women – gender inequality;
• an adherence to rigidly defined gender roles and identities; and
• attitudes and cultures that excuse violence or inequality.

The recent National Community Attitudes to Violence Against Women Survey showed us that the main influence on people’s attitudes to violence against women was their narrow understanding of what violence against women looks like, as well as how supportive they are of gender equality. The more they subscribe to conservative stereotypes about men and women, the more likely they were to excuse, trivialise or justify violent behaviour.

The survey revealed some disturbing attitudes in our community, for example:
o 17% of Australians think that domestic violence is a private matter, to be handled in the home.

o More than 20% of Australians believe domestic violence can be excused if the attacker cannot control their anger or regrets it

o 16% of Australians believe women often say "no" when they mean "yes"

o 1 in 5 people believe if a woman is raped while drunk or drug-affected she is partly responsible

This data reveals that we need to do much more to change attitudes and stamp out violence against women in our community.

Research undertaken by the World Bank shows us that in countries with greater gender equality, violence tends to be lower. The more a society works to address gender inequities, in public and in private life, the less violence women will experience. So we need to start addressing sexism and gender inequality in our community wherever it occurs. From casual sexist comments in the workplace or the street, to the gender pay gap, to the lack of women in leadership positions, to the unequal sharing of unpaid care work between men and women.

If we are to address violence against women then we must address gender inequality, negative gender stereotypes and attitudes and behaviours that justify violence.

In order to address negative stereotypes and attitudes, we must bring family violence out of the shadows and into the public arena and language to talk about domestic violence and family violence in workplace.

I have seen how small actions can have a powerful impact in doing this.  Two years ago now, I delivered the Vincent Fairfax orations around Australia where I chose to speak about family violence.  One of the women attending, Margot, rang me the next day.  She told me that following my speech she called her staff together (several hundred); she has responsibility for many staff being a senior manager for a large bank. 

She said - I told my staff that today I wanted to talk about something different – domestic violence, the prevalence data, its overlap into the workplace and what we can do. She started by recounting her own story – a story she’d never told before. The story of growing up in a violent household, of wiping the blood off her mother’s face, of taking her to hospital - of the shame and silence.  She concluded by saying to her staff “Now I want you to do one thing.  I want you to tell everybody in the bank my story and maybe in that way I can make it easier for others to tell theirs.”  That bank is now a leader in supporting employees living with violence.

Just like Margot did by telling her story, we need to talk about family violence and ensure that family violence is understood as a public issue.

When Rosie Batty came to spend time with the Male Champions of Change she told them: “prior to Luke’s death no-one wanted to hear my story of living with violence.  Now everyone does.” 

As Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, it saddens me that when women living with violence speak, the system doesn’t listen. If someone had listened to Rosie’s story earlier would she have lost her son?

The justice systems plays a crucial role in helping women who have experienced violence gain a voice and access much needed support and advice. For many women, they experience many years of abuse before they are able to reach out for help let alone enter the justice system. And we know that the number of women that reach the court system are few and far between compared to the number that experience family violence on a daily basis.

We cannot underestimate the power of the justice system in a women’s journey towards a life free from violence. Nor can we underestimate the impact of the justice system telling a perpetrator that they cannot choose violence.  If they do they will be held to account. 

This was powerfully brought home to me when I met Catherine Smith.  Let me share with you Catherine’s story. 

Catherine Smith experienced more than three decades of violence and abuse at the hands of her former husband. 

As is so often the case, the violence started out as an isolated incident, Catherine explained that she was pregnant and “he just pushed me … sort of a bit of a punch in the back and knocked me to the ground.  I never told anyone because I didn’t want anyone to think that there was a problem with my marriage”. As time went by, however, the violence escalated. 

Catherine sought assistance from police on a number of occasions.  Yet, at the time, her former husband was never charged.

In the absence of assistance from local authorities, Catherine attempted to take matters into her own hands.  She fled the family home and sought refuge for her and her children in domestic violence shelters.  Often an 80km walk along a river bed.

However, Catherine’s former husband always found them.  Catherine’s daughter, Vickie, recalled how he would stalk local refuges to find her mother.  “He was obsessive.  He had to find her.  He had to have her.  He had to control her.  He had to own her”, she said.

When he did find them, he would force Catherine and their children to return home with him.  Catherine has explained that people often ask her why she didn’t leave and why she kept going back.  She tells them that “[i]t’s not a simple thing when someone’s a control freak, a psychopath.  He always found me any time I got away, and it made it far worse.”   

Catherine did eventually succeed in leaving her former husband but only once her adult children had left home.  The violence did not end there, however, with Catherine and her children remaining in fear for their lives as they were stalked, threatened and, in the case of one son, kidnapped at gun point.

Finally, two years ago – after more than three decades of violence and abuse – Catherine’s former husband was found guilty on 17 charges, including two counts of attempted murder, multiple counts of rape and assault. 

After the verdict was handed down, Catherine said:

It’s really hard to believe that I’m actually free.  I don’t have to run and hide anymore.  There's so many things I’ve wanted to do for so long and now I can finally do them.  The first thing I want to do is get rid of the cameras, open my curtains, get a dog – a little pup.  And I’d like to start painting again.  And I’d love to get a pottery wheel and put it on my back veranda and pot to my heart’s content.  To me it’s like the end of our sentence and the start of his. 

This is the power of the justice system. To profoundly change the lived experience of a woman and her family. To send a clear message that it is not ok to choose violence, and you will be held to account if you do.

As Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, I cannot stress enough that it will take each and every one of us to create a more equal  and a  more just Australia – an Australia in which family violence has no place.

You have seen firsthand the myths, stereotypes and attitudes in your courtrooms and witness boxes. I know you walk a fine line in balancing the need to engage both women and men, victims and perpetrators, in these processes. I applaud your efforts.  It is no easy task.

We must also remain vigilant to the changing face of family violence and its impacts, especially the increasing use of technology to control and abuse women.

There is much work ahead – particularly when I see the great advances that are taking place in Victoria and the level of co-operation between the Government, civil society, the police and judiciary.

Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner