How can women and children stay safe?

Domestic and family violence is now the leading cause of homelessness for women and their children.

Already this year a new horrific record has been set: domestic violence homicides of women killed by their current or former partner have exceeded the shocking average of one a week.

Just as shocking is the fact that the rising rate of domestic violence homicides is not prompting the measures we need to stop this major social crime. There has been no government funding increase for specialist services or any serious effort to implement recommendations from previous inquiries into a crime that affects one in six women.

The scale is immense, as the chilling 2018 Data Report from Australian Domestic and Family Violence Death Review Network makes clear.

Between July 1, 2010 and June 30, 2014, there were 152 intimate partner homicides. They took place after an identifiable history of domestic violence (including a reported and/or anecdotal history of violence).

Most involved a man killing a woman (current or former) intimate partner. Most men who killed a woman had been that person’s abuser prior to her death. Most deaths were men killing their current woman partner; fewer killed a former woman partner.

The same report also found that:

• Almost half the men who killed a former woman partner killed within three months of the relationship ending;

• Almost a quarter of men who killed their current or former woman partner had domestic violence orders taken out on them by the woman victim at the time of their death;

• Almost half of all men who killed a woman partner were using alcohol at the time;

• Most men who killed their women partner were sentenced for murder;

• More than 20% of men who killed a woman partner died by suicide after the homicide;

• Of the 105 cases in which a male abuser killed a woman, most had previously used physical violence against the same woman; most had previously used emotional or psychological violence against the woman they killed; more than half had been socially abusive towards the woman; and fewer were known to be sexually abusive towards the woman; and

• More than a third of male abusers who killed a woman had stalked her either during the relationship or after it had ended.

The horrific murder of Hannah Clarke and her three children is yet another reminder that such violence is not an isolated incident by a drunken, mentally-ill perpetrator who was “pushed to the limit”, as the now stood-down detective-in-charge saw fit to remark.

Rather, they are the end product of an entrenched patriarchal system.

These murders and the perpetrator’s suicide took place after Clarke had suffered a long history of domestic violence. The perpetrator was subject to an apprehended violence order, which he had apparently been in breach of for some weeks.

We also know that Clarke had left her family home to live with her parents, and that she had good family and local domestic violence support.

Systemic failures

These horrific murders point — again — to the systemic failure of governments and the specialist services that are supposed to help people escape domestic violence.

A 2016 Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) survey showed that almost 40% of women continue to experience violence from their partner while being temporarily separated.

Criminologist and director of Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre Jude McCulloch said a major problem is that the policies to help victims are not being properly implemented.

“Intimate partner violence is the most common type of violence … We’ve put in place a lot of good policies, invested quite a lot of money.

"But what we find is, even if the woman reported the violence and has an intervention order, those procedures that ensure that violence does not escalate are not followed. The majority of women don’t report, but when they have, often they’ve been let down.”

Our Watch CEO Patty Kinnersly said to stop violence “we all have a part to play”.

“As individuals, it starts with calling out sexist or derogatory comments at work, at home or in social situations. As parents, it is as simple as modelling behaviours that promote gender equality and by expanding their options beyond the confines of blue or pink.”

There is a long way to go. Surveys show that young people today are struggling to work out what respectful relationships look like.

A 2015 Our Watch study for The Line Campaign, a federal government-funded initiative to reduce violence against women and children, found that gender stereotypes “appear to be having a significant negative impact on young people’s expectations and behaviours when it comes to intimate relationships”.

It found that:

• One in four young people think it is pretty normal for men to pressure women into sex;

• One in three young people do not think controlling someone is a form of violence; and

• One in four young people do not think it is serious when young men insult or verbally harass young women in the street.

Homelessness

Domestic and family violence is now the leading cause of homelessness for women and their children, according to the government.

Most women leaving a violent relationship have to move out. The 2017 ABS Personal Safety Survey reported that almost half of intimate partner assaults take place in the victim’s home.

Even with the support of her family, domestic violence services and contact with the police, Clarke and her three children were not saved from a fate she foresaw days before her death.

For women with less capacity to navigate “the system”, who are socially and linguistically isolated and do not have the resources to relocate to safe accommodation, the situation is worse. Not only is there a need to significantly boost funding for specialist women’s refuges, we also need to continue to support campaigns aimed at raising awareness of systemic sexism.

With no safe alternative accommodation, many women are forced to remain with their abuser. It is very rare for a magistrate presiding over domestic violence cases to rule that the perpetrator move out of the family home. This should change.

There are not sufficient places in women’s refuges for those who need them. Many refuges no longer provide the special services women and children need when leaving violent relationships. Women need more than inadequate emergency housing, they need secure, safe, well-located, long-term accommodation. However, funding for this has all but dried up.

A huge emergency housing construction program is necessary as part of a reinvigorated campaign to end violence against women and children. Such a program would have positive outcomes for employment and training.

It would also reduce other remedial domestic violence expenditure. Apart from unquantifiable long-term psychological costs, violence against women and children was estimated to cost $22 billion a year in 2016. Such a sum would be better spent on domestic violence specialist services and funding for public housing.

The mainstreaming of specialist women’s refuges, many of which are now being run by religious charities, also needs to be reversed.

The penalties for breaching intervention orders need to be strengthened and enforced, particularly during the three months following a woman leaving an abusive relationship.

There needs to be more monitoring of perpetrators under intervention orders, including the greater use of tracking bracelets. All these measures rely on the police taking a woman’s complaint seriously, which domestic violence workers say is not always the case.

In addition, we need to work on reviving the social movements to combat sexism and misogyny. The 1960–70s second wave of feminism successfully raised public consciousness about women’s lack of rights, prompting a raft of anti-discrimination laws to be enacted. It also led to funding boosts for specialist services.

Clearly, much more is needed. International Women’s Day is a good time to reflect on how women and our allies push forward on campaigns for the material necessities for those fleeing domestic abuse, while challenging the patriarchal and misogynist system that allows violence against women to continue unchecked.

[Margaret Gleeson participated in the Sutherland Shire Domestic Violence Network for 10 years. She is a retired community development worker in local government and is a life member of the Australian Services Union.]

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