How safe is the family?

September 7, 2018
We need to have a greater understanding of the role of the family in perpetrating abuse against women and children.

The five-year Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which presented its findings last year, opened up a greater understanding of the problems in religious and community institutions’ dealings with children.

However, the institution of the family was not included in its brief and its findings do not add clarity to the dangers of this institution.

Many religions portray the family as a “natural” and essentially private institution and reinforce the authority of the man at its head.

This, of course, bears no relation to reality: social institutions change over time, as do the legal obligations and restrictions applied to them.

Origins of the family

The term family is derived from the Latin familia, which meant the sum of slaves belonging to one man, including his wife or wives.

This emerged in the classical slave-owning societies of Greece and Rome and continued in different forms — bonded, indentured or unfree labour — in medieval or feudal times, depending on class structures and the domination of the Catholic Church, the monarchies or aristocracies.

It transformed again with the emergence of contract theory in the 17th century, in which the rights of the male-headed family included certain property rights, including over women, children and other dependents.

This was followed by a shift to individual rights, which categorically excluded women (and people of colour).

As change is inherent and constant, the rule of law has slowly extended to cover race and sex.

In the developed world, a shift from extended or multi-generational units to nuclear or single parent familial forms also occurred during the 20th century.

The legal situation for women in Australia also changed during the 20th century.

It was first established just after federation in the early 1900s, when women were granted the right to vote. Though women were finally recognised as legal citizens, their financial independence and equal status in society was not.

As late as into the 1970s and early 1980’s, women had no financial independence to open a bank account and needed a male guarantor to purchase a car or house. Rape in marriage was not recognised by the law.

And it was not until 1974, under Gough Whitlam’s Labor government, that the basic (minimum) wage for women rose to 100% of the male rate.

Even then industries remained sex segregated, with different rates of pay across different industries, and women often excluded from better-paid sectors.

Since then, the number of women in part-time and insecure work has risen dramatically.

Child abuse

The rates of domestic sexual assault, physical assault and deaths are staggering, particularly when it comes to children.

The extent of child sexual assault is extremely worrying; especially as we still do not know how widespread it is given the royal commission did not include scrutiny of the family institution.

We do have some estimation, however.

About 58,000 cases of child sexual assault occur each year.

This means that, on average, one child is sexual harmed every 90 minutes and one-in-five children are sexually harmed in some way before their 18th birthday.

The majority of sexual assaults are carried out by family members or close family friends.

These alarming figures do not taking into account that most incidents are not reported by the victim or are often dismissed if an abused child plucks up the courage to report it to an adult member of the family.

Family murders

Most people know about Rosie Batty and her ex-partner’s murder of their son Luke at cricket practice in 2014. This led her to actively campaign against family violence, for which she won the 2015 Australian of the Year award.

Other murders that have highlighted the need to act on this issue are:

• Sydney, New South Wales, July 2018: John Edwards shot his two teenage children at their new home after his wife took out an Apprehended Violence Order (AVO) against him and left with the children in 2016. He then killed himself on returning to his home.

• Margaret River, Western Australia, May 2018: Peter Miles killed his daughter, her four children, his wife and himself after a long and protracted child custody dispute.

• Winchelsea, Victoria, September 2005: Robert Farquharson deliberately drove his three children into a dam on Father’s Day.

• Melbourne, Victoria, 2009: Arthur Freeman threw his four-year-old daughter off the Westgate Bridge in peak-hour traffic, with her two young brothers watching.

Meanwhile, 44 women have been killed as a result of domestic violence so far this year.


How do you explain why a father would murder his own children or partner?

It is not good enough to say men are naturally violent. They aren’t.

Often these acts are explained by mental impairment or momentary psychiatric disorders — psychosis or depression. But this avoids dealing with the real issue, choosing to focus instead on the consequences of what they have done.

The reality is that men are socialised into beliefs about what manhood means, including their role in the family.

Men often come to view themselves as being ultimately responsible for the family, which in some cases extends to granting himself the right to kill them if he deems it necessary.

Others equate being the head of the family with ownership over the wife and children. Of course, if you believe you own somebody, then you probably also think you can do what you like with them, including destroying them. That’s the history of slavery.

More often than not, these actions are seen as payback and the best way to make a former partner suffer for the rest of her life.

These views are very much reinforced by religions, particularly those with fundamentalist views about the place of women in society.

One thing is very clear: the family home is not a safe place for children or women.

The staggering prevalence of domestic violence has been exposed by recent royal commissions in Victoria and Queensland. And yet effective measures and solutions to address these issues have not been put in place.

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