No safe place — yet

A paean to the police and prisons as 'the solution' to domestic violence is a travesty against a terrible truth.
December 1, 2015

Viewers of the ABC TV documentary Hitting Home, screened to coincide with the International Day against Violence Against Women on November 25, could be forgiven for thinking Australia's “domestic violence crisis” is finally being taken seriously.

Produced by ABC TV's Sarah Ferguson in cooperation with NSW Police and the NSW Department of Justice, Episode 1 of the two-part series took viewers inside DV refuges, specialist police units and courtrooms and featured interviews with incredibly courageous survivors. Their message to victims, and Ferguson's, was clear: “Get out. Now”.

If only it were so easy.

Ferguson's narrative focuses on the controlling behaviour and psychology of men who commit violence against women. It is a crucial point, but far from the only issue. It certainly doesn't point the way to a solution.

Domestic violence — or, more accurately, violence against women — was perfectly legal in Australia until quite recently. Under English law, upon which the Australian common law is based, “rape” was originally a crime of property — property in a female relative's “chastity” — perpetrated against the male head of a household. It was once impossible, at law, to “rape” an unchaste woman. Wives and sex workers were fair game. Husbands were at liberty to rape their wives under Australian law until as late as 1981. It has taken decades of bitter struggle by feminists to overturn these laws, and their legacy stubbornly persists.

But in the Blacktown of Hitting Home the NSW Police and Department of Justice are making real progress. They have specialist police units, safe rooms in the courts and a program that provides victims with SOS bracelets, closed circuit video security systems and fortified safe rooms. Women's evidence in court trumps men's and violent men go to prison for a thorough re-education. In Hitting Home Blacktown refuges welcome all comers to safe, comfortable accommodation and they, and their children, can stay “as long as they need to, to rebuild their lives”.

Ferguson set out, laudably, to problematise the victim-blaming question “Why didn't she just leave?” but I think, ironically, her doco ends up reinforcing it. With all that marvelous professional support on tap you'd have to be a glutton for punishment to stay in a violent relationship. Wouldn't you?

Ferguson worked with NSW Justice and Police for six months to make the program, gaining precious access to their officers and facilities. But she paid a terrible price for their “cooperation”. For one thing she utters not one word of criticism of police or government, despite current and ongoing deep cuts to funding for women's refuges and legal services by both the NSW and Commonwealth governments.

But even worse, a paean to the police and prisons as “the solution” to domestic violence is a travesty against a terrible truth. For many women the sexist, and racist, violence of the police, or other government institutions, is precisely what traps them in violent relationships. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women this is especially true — and an important reason they are more likely to suffer terrible injuries and death from intimate partner violence.

In the same week Hitting Home aired, an inquest started in Perth into the death of 22-year-old Yamitji woman Ms Dhu (her family has requested that her first name not be used).

Ms Dhu was taken into custody by WA police last year for $3622 in unpaid fines. According to her family she had septicaemia and pneumonia as a result of broken ribs (fresh and old) inflicted in domestic violence incidents. The “support” she received from WA police and health services resulted in her, entirely preventable, death from cardiac arrest in terrible circumstances. The family's requests for video of Ms Dhu's treatment to be produced to the inquest has been denied.

Perhaps if the ABC really wants to get serious about combating violence against women in Australia it could campaign for full disclosure by the WA government at Ms Dhu's inquest. Real progress towards the elimination of violence against women is going to take serious analysis of the role of the state in entrenching and perpetuating that violence.

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