Skip to main content

Rural responses to rural challenges: The need for a contextualised response to family and domestic violence

Sex Discrimination

Rural responses to rural challenges:
The need for a contextualised response to family and domestic violence

National Rural Women’s Conference
Plenary Session: “Big ... Challenges”
National Convention Centre (NCC), Canberra, Royal Theatre

Elizabeth Broderick
Sex Discrimination Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission

19 February 2013


Thank you, Anne, for that warm welcome.

Let me begin by acknowledging the Ngunawal people, the traditional owners of the land on which we are now gathered. I pay my respects to your elders, past and present, and all the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and men here at the conference.


Last year was a big year for standing up for women and their human rights.

There was Julia Gillard’s speech on sexism and misogyny, which made national and global headlines.

Then there was the outrage that followed Alan Jones’ remarks that ‘women are destroying the joint’. A favourite response of mine was the call to arms made by commentator Jane Caro to share new ways for women to ‘destroy the joint’ and the ensuing twitter phenomenon that followed the creation of the hash tag #destroythejoint.

While 2012 was a big year for calling out sexist and misogynistic behaviour, I’m confident that 2013 will be an even bigger year for addressing sex discrimination and gender equality in all areas of our lives. And, as always, the strength and resilience of rural women will be an important part of this.
So, I can’t think of a better way to start the year off than by joining you all for the first National Rural Women’s Conference, with its inspired themes:

  • Big ... Challenges


  • Big ... Inspiration


  • Big ... Business and


  • Big ... Networks.

The advancement of gender equality and women’s human rights in Australia requires nothing less than big ideas.

I’ve been asked to talk today about the first theme – Big ... Challenges – the challenges that women face because they live in a rural, regional or remote location. I’ve also been asked to share some of my ideas for how those challenges can be addressed.

There are certainly many challenges to choose from – too many, if we’re being honest. However, the challenge that I have chosen to focus on today concerns the experiences of victims and survivors of domestic and family violence in rural and remote areas of Australia.

I’ve chosen domestic and family violence because of the gravity of the challenge, but also because I think we have only just begun to have a serious conversation about how we can effectively meet the distinctive needs and experiences of victims and survivors in rural Australia.

Today I want to talk about three things:

  • I want to talk firstly about what it means to be a victim or survivor of domestic and family violence in Australia.
  • I want to talk about why women’s ability to live lives free of domestic and family violence can be influenced by where we live and about some of the common challenges victims and survivors face in rural communities.
  • And, finally, I want to say a few words about the importance of tailoring responses to domestic and family violence to the rural context.

I am excited to share my ideas about this particular Big Challenge. But I am most excited to hear about your ideas. After all, it is going to take all of us working together to address and overcome the challenge of domestic and family violence in rural and remote contexts.

Violence against women in Australia

When I travel around Australia I often ask – “Where do you think violence against women is a problem”? People will reel off a list of country’s like PNG, Afghanistan, Pakistan – what they fail to recognise is the size of the problem right here in Australia.

Before I talk to you about the prevalence data let me tell you a story. Because, it’s women’s words and experiences – your words and experiences, really – that convey so powerfully what it means to be a victim or survivor of domestic and family violence and that help others to understand the particular issues for women living in rural communities.

There is one story, in particular, that I have told many, many times – in fact, I’m sure some of you here may have heard this story before, but it’s a story worth hearing more than once. It’s the story of Catherine Smith, a truly courageous and inspiring woman from a farming community in New South Wales, and her children. And it really brings to light some of the challenges that rural women face when experiencing domestic and family violence.

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

Catherine sought assistance from police on multiple occasions, but the police failed to take effective action to ensure the safety of Catherine and her children. When the police did take action, there were often substantial delays before assistance was offered.

The lack of effective action by police meant that Catherine’s former husband was never held legally accountable for his actions. It also meant that Catherine and her children were vulnerable to further and even more severe forms of abuse.

Catherine’s daughter, Vicki, has explained how, over the years, she watched her ‘father become a more aggressive, enraged and threatening man, rarely with any consequence for his crimes’. Her father, she said, ‘was always outwardly empowered by his previous victories. He was proud of getting away with so much that was in the hands of the law. The inaction not only empowered [her] Father it rendered the rest of the family powerless’.[1]

So poor were the responses to Catherine’s numerous pleas for help that, many years later, she would receive an official letter of apology from the Professional Standards Command of the New South Wales Police.

However, in the absence of effective assistance when it mattered most, Catherine had to fend for herself.

On one occasion, Catherine and her four children, two of them in their school uniforms, walked almost 80 kilometres to the nearest domestic violence shelter. With only the clothes on their backs, they slept on a river bank as they attempted to seek refuge from the violence and abuse that, by that time, had become part of their daily lives.

But Catherine’s former husband would always find them. Vickie recalled how her father would stalk local refuges –there were not many where Catherine lived, you see – 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’,[2] she said.

And when he did find Catherine and their children, he would force them to return home with him.

I am pleased to say that Catherine eventually succeeded in leaving her former husband. And, finally, in July last year, her former husband, Kevin Smith, was found guilty on numerous charges, including multiple counts of attempted murder, rape and assault. He is currently serving a long overdue 17 year jail term.

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.[3]

Since the trial ended, Catherine has become a tireless advocate for victims and survivors of domestic and family violence and has been working diligently to raise awareness of the challenges faced by victims and survivors in rural Australia.

In fact, last year, she travelled from rural New South Wales to New York where she shared her story of violence in a rural community at the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

Prevalence of violence against women in Australia

Many people I talk to across Australia (and even beyond) are surprised to learn that Catherine’s story is not an isolated case of violence. Those same people are even more surprised when I tell them that domestic and family violence is one of the most common human rights abuses in this country.

In 2005, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that one in three women over the age of 15 has experienced physical violence, and that 85% of those women were assaulted by a current or former partner, a friend or family member, or other known male.[4] Though there is limited data available on the prevalence of violence against women in rural areas, there is some evidence to suggest that rates of violence in rural areas are just as high as those in urban areas.[5]

However, certain groups of women, many of whom often live in rural areas, do face a higher risk of violence. For example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are 45 times more likely than non-Indigenous women to be victims of domestic and family violence, and 35 times more likely than non-Indigenous women to be hospitalised as a result of such violence.[6]

And, of course, we know that all these statistics are just the tip of the iceberg, with many victims and survivors not reporting domestic and family violence to the police or even support services.

Statistics are important as they help us to understand the magnitude and nature of the problem of domestic and family violence in Australia. But, more than that, stories like Catherine’s provide an important context to the statistics. They tell us what the statistics can’t – about the day-to-day reality of living with violence in a rural context.

And that is why I tell these stories.

Challenges for victims and survivors in rural areas

I want to turn now to some of the common challenges that victims and survivors of domestic and family violence face when they live in a rural or remote area – those unique challenges that many rural women grapple with but that women in urban areas rarely have to consider.

University of California academic Lisa Pruitt has written extensively on the challenges of rural life, including in Australia, and has articulated the challenges that rural women face well. She has explained that

[t]he point is not that rural women are worse off than their urban or suburban counterparts; it is that their spatial circumstances and the consequences of those circumstances are relevant to the phenomenon of domestic violence, including law’s responses to it.[7]

The wonderful toolkit published by:

  • the National Rural Women’s Network
  • the Australian Women Against Violence Alliance and
  • the Queensland Centre for Domestic and Family Violence Research

illustrates this point clearly.

The toolkit recounts the experiences of a rural nurse, who is often required to visit isolated properties where violence is occurring. Even finding the women, she says,

is hard ... the gate’s padlocked. You park the car, you jump the fence and you walk and hope ... you pass the bulls in the paddock and hope they are not wild and then you come up to the dogs and then you have got to get over another fence to get into the house and then you get greeted with a guy standing there with a gun ....[8]

This is not a story that you would expect to hear from a nurse visiting victims and survivors of domestic and family violence in the inner suburbs of Melbourne or Brisbane!

A number of people here at the conference – and many others – have undertaken important work to identify the challenges that victims and survivors of domestic and family violence face in rural communities.

I want to take this opportunity to highlight some of those challenges:

  • Firstly, the misperception that domestic violence doesn’t occur in rural communities.
  • Secondly, geographical isolation.
  • Thirdly, the limited employment opportunities available to victims and survivors in rural areas.
  • Fifthly, lack of privacy and anonymity.
  • And, lastly, the challenges that marginalised and disadvantaged women face in rural areas.

Let me explain.

Challenge 1: domestic violence doesn’t occur in rural communities

Women often tell me that there is a common misperception that domestic violence just isn’t a problem in rural communities; it’s something that happens only in big city centres, or so the thinking goes.

But, as you all know, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Domestic and family violence occurs everywhere in the world and can touch anyone at any time. It is not limited by national or state boundaries or to particular communities or areas. And it pays little regard to factors such as race, culture, sexual orientation, age and a woman’s social or economic standing.

Catherine lived in a rural community. It didn’t afford her any protection against her abusive former husband, just as it doesn’t afford other victims and survivors such protection.

Whilst rural communities are by and large safe places to live – which is one of the reasons many people choose to live and raise families there – they are no safe haven from violence. Moreover, the misperception that domestic violence doesn’t occur in rural and remote communities is just plain dangerous.

Challenge 2: geographical isolation

Another challenge I hear a lot about in my travels is geographical isolation:

  • The limited services and infrastructure available in isolated areas – the fact that, in some towns and communities, there just isn’t a shelter, a health service or public transport.
  • The physical distance victims in isolated areas need to travel to access shelters and support services, including police and health and legal services.
  • Isolation from family members and friends who could offer support and assistance.
  • And isolation from the means and infrastructure needed to escape violent situations.

I’ll never forget, as I explained earlier, that Catherine and her four children had to walk over 80 kilometres to access a domestic violence shelter. Not only wasn’t there a domestic violence shelter near where she lived, the closest one was 80 kilometres, and the only means available to Catherine and her children of getting there was their feet.

I’ll also never forget the time she told me that screaming doesn’t help in rural areas: ‘there are no close neighbours’, she said. ‘Violence has no limits and without any witnesses their violence and control grows unchecked’.[9]

Geographical isolation puts a strain on the few services that do exist in rural communities, with high demand for services and limited opportunities for domestic violence training and primary prevention.

Something as simple as enforcing an apprehended violence order becomes particularly difficult where the closest police station is 45 minutes away by car or there is only one police officer on duty.

Isolation can also be part of the violence itself, with perpetrators using that isolation as a further means of exercising control over women.

Challenge 3: limited employment opportunities

Access to employment can provide important pathways out of violent situations for victims and survivors. But where there are limited employment opportunities, as is so often the case in rural and remote communities, these pathways become increasingly difficult to access.

Without access to regular income and the financial security that gainful employment brings, victims’ dependency on their abusers may increase. And they may end up facing the unenviable and chilling decision of choosing between remaining in a violent situation or potential homelessness and impoverishment.

It’s hard to imagine yourself being in a position where you are forced to make such a decision. And, yet, many women know all too well what it is like to make such a decision; they don’t need to imagine it.

Challenge 4: intimate and interconnected social relations and lack of privacy and anonymity[10]

Life in a rural or remote community, where everyone knows each other, can present particular challenges for victims and survivors of domestic and family violence. Concerns about a lack of privacy or anonymity or disclosing violent situations to individuals who are known either to the survivor or the perpetrator may stop a survivor from taking action against their abuser.

Catherine’s story is again illuminating. During her speech to the UN last year, Catherine highlighted how

[p]olice stationed in country towns ... mix and socialise in the local community. ... [T]hey play in sports teams, drink at the local pub; often with the abuser his family and mates. In isolated areas being accepted locally is important. The policeman’s children go to the local school; their wives make friends with the local women. In other words the young policeman is under extreme pressure not to upset the locals. It is much easier for them to leave the woman in her isolated private situation. Police don’t realise their dismissive attitude empowers the abuser; and every time they are let off with a warning the violence grows along with their control.

Challenge 5: challenges faced by marginalised and disadvantaged women

Of course, for particular subgroups of women – women with disabilities, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, culturally and linguistically diverse women – the challenges of experiencing domestic or family violence in a rural or remote location can be compounded by other factors.

For example, for lesbian, bisexual and transgender women experiencing domestic or family violence, the challenges of rural life may be compounded by:

  • a fear of homophobia or transphobia
  • a fear of ‘outing’ oneself to their community
  • the absence or limited availability of inclusive and culturally acceptable services and information and
  • limited awareness in their local community about violence in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender relationships.[11]

To give another example, culturally and linguistically diverse women often face additional hurdles in accessing support in rural and remote areas due to the lack of culturally appropriate services.
Rural responses to rural challenges: tailoring violence responses to rural contexts

If 2013 is going to be a big year for women, including rural women, each and every one of us needs to take action right now to address, overcome and manage these challenges – and the many others that I’ve not had time to mention today.

Raising awareness of the challenges rural women face

One of the first things we can do is call attention to the specific experiences of victims and survivors in rural and remote communities.

Too often it is assumed that the experiences of victims and survivors are similar, regardless of where they live. But, as I’ve already explained, this just isn’t the case.

Raising awareness of the challenges rural women face is a critical step in ensuring that they can realise their right to live a life free of violence. I think Lisa Pruitt captured this point well when she said that ‘[t]he State can hardly do a better job of preventing these crimes or responding to them without a comprehensive understanding of the difference rurality makes’.[12]

If there is better awareness of rural women’s experiences, we can tailor responses, including implementation of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, accordingly. The risk of not drawing attention to the realities of rural women’s lives is that our responses to domestic and family violence will ultimately prove ineffectual.

I think elevating the voices and stories of rural women onto the national stage is one of the most powerful strategies for raising awareness of the challenges faced by victims and survivors in rural Australia. I have been fortunate to see firsthand just how effective this strategy can be, watching Catherine tell her story to Ministers, Parliamentary committees, on national television and, of course, at the UN.

We need to prioritise this conservation and we need to create space at available opportunity, so that the voices of more rural women can be heard. After all, as I said earlier, it is your stories that will help the community to understand the particular issues for women living in rural communities and that will galvanise the community to take action to address domestic and family violence.

Empowering rural women

This leads me to my next point: if we are to overcome the challenge of violence against women in rural areas, we need to empower rural women to take a stand against this most egregious violation of human rights.

In my experience, rural women are resilient and resourceful individuals – I’m sure you all agree. During my time as Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, I have been able to see the innovative work being undertaken by networks of rural women in Australia, including to address domestic and family violence. The toolkit is but one example of this important work.

But, as I mentioned at the Commission on the Status of Women last year, empowering rural women does not mean simply looking to rural women to shoulder the burden of bringing about their own empowerment, of ending the violence in rural communities.

Federal, state and local governments need to work closely with rural women to ensure that the necessary conditions and structures are put in place to enable their empowerment.

This will require a variety of measures, ranging from increased primary prevention to new and adequately funded domestic violence services and shelters that are both physically accessible and culturally appropriate to increased employment opportunities for rural women.

The implementation of the National Plan provides an unparalleled opportunity to put these measures in place. We must insist that the experiences of rural women remain front and centre.

Harnessing the power of technology

I’ve spoken previously about the potential of technology for addressing the unique challenges of rural life, including domestic and family violence.

I said then that we live in a moment where we have the opportunity to shape the development and use of these technologies for the good of ourselves, our communities and our children.

It really is quite amazing the windows that technology can open for communication, networking, education and empowerment. And, I think, we are still just beginning to realise the true potential of technology for improving women’s lives, particularly in rural areas.

I know the Rural Women’s Coalition has a number of pilot technology projects working. I presented at one forum from the UN where we connected through the technology women from rural areas across the globe.

When I was at the Commission on Status on Women last year, I gave the examples:

  • of the provision of legal assistance for a survivor of domestic violence living in a remote area, delivered via skype in the privacy and security of a neighbour’s home;
  • of computers in every women's shelter across the world connected to a safe space to share;
  • and of using Facebook as a way of bringing women together and enabling them to tell their stories about how they have overcome the challenges of living with domestic or family violence in a rural area.

Innovative use of technology is something that the Coalition already does particularly well.

Another wonderful example comes from Women’s Legal Services NSW – Ask Lois.

For those of who you haven’t already come across it, Ask LOIS is a secure website that provides a free legal online information service for community workers in rural New South Wales who are assisting victims and survivors of domestic and family with their legal needs.

This innovative model of legal services provides community workers with free online training on a range of domestic violence issues, including apprehended violence orders and child protection. Importantly it also provides access to resources, case studies, discussion forums and links to domestic violence services in NSW.


I want to finish now by recounting a final story told to me by the head of one of Australia’s largest women’s organisations. It’s a story that gives me great hope about the potential to create change through education.

It is the story of Ella.

Ella is a woman in her seventies, who has been living in an abusive relationship in a regional area for around 45 years.

Over Christmas, Ella’s daughter and granddaughter came to stay with her. While they were there, Ella’s husband returned home drunk as he often did. He walked into the kitchen and – like he so frequently did – was violent toward Ella.

Ella’s 40 year old daughter hid, just like she had learned to do.

But it was Ella’s teenage granddaughter watching from the next room who, having just completed a Respectful Relationships program at school, decided to do something different.

Once the violence stopped, she went up to her Grandmother and said: “It doesn’t have to be like this, Grandma”.
For the first time, someone - Ella’s granddaughter offered her a way out. She arranged to take her Grandmother to the local domestic violence counselling service the next day. And the heartening thing about this story is that Ella’s granddaughter, the least powerful member of the family took a stand and spoke out - in support not in judgement - and in so doing changed the course of that family.

Just as everyone has a right to live free from violence, so do we all have a responsibility to reduce violence and create peace.

My invitation to you is - what action can you take, no matter how small or big that can move us to a world where dignity and respect lie at the core, a world in which violence has no place.

I’d like to congratulate the National Rural Women’s Coalition for organising this important conference – and for binging us all together.

Thank you



[1] Vickie Smith, ‘The Impact of Violence against Rural Women’ (Speech delivered at the 56th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, New York, 2 March 2012).

[2] Above.

[3] Catherine Smith, ‘The Impact of Violence against Rural Women’ (Speech delivered at the 56th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, New York, 2 March 2012).

[4] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Personal Safety Survey Australia 2005 (Reissue), Catalogue No. 4906.0 (2006). At… (viewed 29 January 2013).

[5] National Rural Women’s Network, ‘ Fact Sheet 4: What are the Issues for Rural Communities?’ in Stopping Violence against Women before it Happens: A Practical Toolkit for Communities (2012) (citation omitted).

[6]C Cunneen, 'Preventing Violence against Indigenous Women through Programs which Target Men' (2002) 25(1) University of New South Wales Law Journal 242, 242; Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Concluding Observations: Australia, UN Doc CEDAW/C/AUL/CO/7 (30 July 2010) [40].

[7] Lisa R. Pruitt, ‘Place Matters: Domestic Violence and Rural Difference’ (2008) 23(2) Wisconsin Journal of Law, Gender & Society 346, 355.

[8]National Rural Women’s Network , Fact Sheet 4: What are the Issues for Rural Communities?’ Stopping Violence against Women before it Happens: A Practical Toolkit for Communities (2012)

[9] Smith, above n 4.

[10] See T.K. Logan & Robert Walker, ‘Civil Protective Orders Effective Stopping or Reducing Partner Violence: Challenges Remain in Rural Areas with Access and Enforcement’ (2011) 18 Carsey Institute Policy Brief 1; Lisa R Pruitt, ‘Toward a Feminist Theory of the Rural’ (2007) Utah Law Review 421, 443-453; Margaret Alston, ‘Violence against Women in a Rural Context’ (1997) 50(1) Australian Social Work 15, 20.

[11] See generally ACON Lesbian and Gay Anti-Violence Project, One Size Does Not Fit All: Gap Analysis of NSW Domestic Violence Support Services in relation to Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Communities’ Needs (2011), 30-31; William Leonard et al., Coming Forward: The Underreporting of Heterosexist Violence and Same Sex Partner Abuse in Victoria, Monograph Series Number 69 (2008).

[12] Pruitt, above n 8, at 355.

Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner