Domestic violence — or intimate partner violence — represents an increasingly visible crisis in Australia today. Yet policy makers and opinion shapers continue to deny that the system, which profits from sexism and misogyny, is responsible for perpetrating it. Instead, they blame individuals.
This year, two women have been killed every week — double the rate compared to 2014. One in four women will experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime. For women aged between 15 and 44 years' old, domestic violence is the leading cause of death, illness and disability.
Daily Telegraph columnist Miranda Devine says this is all the fault of individual women. On September 27, she proclaimed that “poverty is the cause of domestic violence, the desperate chaos of the underclass” and that “if unsuitable women stopped having kids with feckless men, domestic violence wouldn't be such a problem”.
Devine, like other conservatives, peddles the same, age-old, sexist victim blaming while attacking those receiving any kind of welfare. But blaming and stigmatising the victim leaves women even more powerless when faced with intimate partner violence.
Cuts to services
At a recent conference hosted by Anti-Poverty Network South Australia (as part of national Anti-Poverty Week) one of the discussions centred on policies undercutting women's access to income and vital services which have made them less safe.
National Council of Single Mothers and their Children CEO Terese Edwards spoke about the inadequate and hard-to-access payments and services for women when they leave the home. Although most violence against women is perpetrated by men in the home, intimate partner violence is the only crime where the victim is expected to leave the home, not the perpetrator.
She spoke about the “double tragedy” of the cut to Newstart Allowance and domestic violence when then Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard — having just made her famous misogyny speech — introduced legislation to cut the single parent pension and move sole parents onto Newstart when their child turned 8 year's old. Newstart remains at $140 a week below the poverty line for a single person. It is the lowest unemployment benefit in the developed world.
Cuts to family payments (such as the proposed cuts to Family Tax B), inadequate welfare payments, cuts to penalty rates and the “feminised care” industries (which are largely underpaid and casualised) disproportionately affect women.
Capitalism needs women as a largely dispensable part of the workforce. It also needs women to continue to do the bulk of unpaid domestic labour while bringing up the next generation of workers.
Rebecca Winter, from Melbourne-based Dole Action Group, said the unpaid care work that women largely perform makes up around 50% of GDP. She said this is integral to the current economic and political system whereby “productive” labour — the production of goods and services — is compensated monetarily and “reproductive” labour, largely carried out by women in the home, is unpaid.
Whenever intimate partner violence is mentioned, a chorus of “What about the men?” is never far behind.
Elspeth McInness from WEAVE (Women Everywhere Advocating for Violence Elimination) said that while men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of violence, when they are the victims, their experience is qualitatively different compared to women's. In general, men don't fear for their lives. When they do leave, “they have so many more choices, autonomy and income”, she said.
“It is the children who carry the additional layers of fear, trauma and stress through experiences of largely male violence. This follows them throughout their life if they don't get opportunities to heal”, McInness added.
On September 24, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said his government was determined to “take a stand against violence” and announced a $100 million special national domestic violence initiative over four years. But this measure — largely a publicity stunt that was already included in the previous May budget — is not going to bridge the huge and growing gap between what exists, and what is needed, to assist women fleeing violence.
Initiatives to tackle domestic violence are desperately needed: they require a long-term and huge funding boost for specialised and coordinated women's services. These are the same services that have been starved of funds and forced to close or handed over to umbrella homelessness services or religious charities to run.
This crisis is neither unexpected nor new. Susan Hopkins and Jenny Ostini, from the University of Southern Queensland, wrote in Overland on September 29 that politicians who claim that intimate partner violence transcend class tend to discount “how vulnerability to violence is compounded by intersections of social class, race and ethnicity”. They also said the push for “lean and mean” policy ensures that women will be “more vulnerable to abuse”.
Struggles for wage and welfare justice are also inextricably linked to the struggle against male violence. This is because unless women have adequate housing and a liveable wage, they cannot easily leave violent relationships. Decades of neoliberal attacks on family payments, wages and conditions and on legal and community services also undercut women's choices to leave.
Rising costs of health and education also disproportionately affect women.
The structural inequality of neoliberalism helps embolden sexist attitudes. This is manifest in the results of a VicHealth report Young Australians' Attitudes to Violence against Women released in September.
Attitudes of young people
According to the survey of 1923 Australians aged between 16 and 24, young people are more accommodating to violence against women than those aged 35 to 64 years' old. They are also generally less likely to support gender equality in relationships and have a lower level of understanding of violence as something that is more than just physical violence and forced sex.
VicHealth spokesperson Jerril Rechter said that while most young people recognised that violence is against the law and understand that there are several different types of violence, she was particularly concerned by the number of young men and women who believe that women are often partly to blame for rape.
“Attitudes that excuse or justify violence or that shift responsibility to the victim contribute to a culture that tolerates violence”, Rechter said. “Likewise, the belief that men should be in charge in relationships contributes to a culture that tolerates gender inequality, and research has shown that unequal power between women and men is a key driver of violence against women.”
Dr Anastasia Powell from RMIT, who partnered in the survey, said rape culture needed to be challenged at its source.
“We can start with early education with young people, delivering programs that teach respectful relationships and sexual ethics as the basis for consent.
“But these findings are not just about young people as individuals. Their attitudes reflect back to us the messages they receive in our culture and society more broadly.
“As such, efforts to address the underlying causes of violence, namely the attitudes and practices that tolerate violence or produce gender inequality, are likely both to reduce the risk of violence in the short term, and to provide a sound foundation for equal and respectful relationships into adulthood,” Powell said.
State-sanctioned violence against women is evident in Australia's detention centres. The shocking treatment of the Somali refugee known as “Abyan”, who became pregnant after being raped on Nauru, and was subsequently refused access to treatment, counselling and her requested abortion by the Immigration Department, is a reminder of just how deeply entrenched sexism and misogyny are in this society.
Real solutions to the epidemic of domestic violence are not going to be based on superficial and often counterproductive “law and order” approaches. For many, such an approach compounds the trauma and contributes to the significant under reporting of crimes.
This is also a reflection of a justice system in which the poor and marginalised are disproportionately criminalised and incarcerated.
Aboriginal activist Tanya Hunter told the conference that allowing the state greater financial control is a hidden contributor to domestic violence. She condemned the punitive cashless Basics Card that “takes away self esteem, takes away control and will not curb domestic violence in Indigenous communities”.
The money exists to fund the kinds of services and programs necessary to enact the changes we desperately need. Imagine if the tens of millions of dollars allocated each day for military expenditure was redirected to vital services such as health centres, rape crisis centres, women's refuges and counselling, education, training and employment services for all women and their dependents.
Or if Australia's biggest corporations were taxed in such a way that a portion of the billions of dollars of profits they make each year had to be spent on public and community education.
Domestic violence is not incidental: it is built into a class system that profits and maintains itself through women's oppression and exploitation. Addressing the underlying cause of violence against women requires ending sexism and gender inequality.
We need a feminism that fights for programs and services to help women survive right now, at the same time as it fights the structures which perpetuate sexism and gender inequality.