One woman a week: Casualities in the war on women

Turning Point. A painting by Terri Thompson.

Last year was the year of women’s truth-telling about sexual and domestic violence. It was also the year that 49 Australian women met violent deaths.

In the second month of this year, there has been no respite from the unceasing onslaught of violence against women and the resulting murders.

To study these deaths is to uncover a blunt, chilling fact: the most dangerous place in Australia for a woman to be — and the most dangerous company for her to be in — is at home with her male intimate partner on a Saturday night.

On average, one woman a week is killed by a current or former intimate partner, but during particularly brutal months that figure can be up to 2 women a week.

Male intimate partner violence contributes to more death, disability and illness in women aged 15 to 44 than any other preventable risk factor. It is responsible for more disease burden than high blood pressure, smoking and obesity.

Women are almost twice as likely to be assaulted by an intimate partner or family member than by a stranger. One in four women has experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of an intimate partner. More than half of these women have children in their care and almost half of the children witness the violence against their mothers.

According to Femicide: An overview of major findings by the Australian Institute of Criminology, women are five times more likely than men to require medical attention or hospitalisation as a result of intimate partner violence. They are also five times more likely to report fearing for their lives.

Domestic or family violence against women is the single largest driver of homelessness for women.

On average, police are alerted to 657 domestic violence incidents every day — in other words, one incident of domestic violence every two minutes.

Destroy the Joint, which is dedicated to gender equality, has counted 9 women who have met violent deaths since the start of this year. This is tracking above last year’s average.

Who are they?

1. Margaret Indich (38) died on January 3 in hospital from injuries sustained at her home in Cloverdale, WA. Her unnamed partner (40) attempted to deny paramedics access to treat her, and left the scene before police arrived. He was arrested hours later and has been charged with murder.

2. Antonia Tatchell (43), was found dead on January 11 by her 17-year-old son, at her home in Brunswick, Victoria. On February 12 an unnamed teenage boy was charged with her murder.

3. British backpacker Amelia Blake (22) died on January 12 from extensive injuries, including head injuries. Her body and that of her partner Brazil Gurung (33) were found at an apartment in Newtown, NSW. Police have indicated that they are treating the deaths as murder-suicide, but are still awaiting post mortem findings.

4. The body of Nancy Barclay (83) was found on January 24 after police were called to her home in Alexander Heights, WA. Her husband Harold Barclay (85) has been charged with her murder.

5. Nowra Khatib (61) was found with stab wounds after emergency services were called to her home in South Granville, NSW, on January 25. She died at the scene. Her daughter, Poi Siham Khatib (33), was arrested a short distance away by police and is assisting with inquiries.

6. An unnamed woman (41) was stabbed to death on January 27 at a home in Hallam, Victoria. An unnamed man (43) presented himself to a police station a short time later and is assisting police with their enquiries. It is understood he was known to the woman.

7. Radmila Stevanovic (65) was found dead by police on February 2 at a home in Noble Park, Vic. Her husband, Dragan Stevanovic (71) has been charged with her murder.  

8. Sally Rothe (54) was found dead with “significant injuries” at a home in Murray Bridge, SA, on February 4. Travis Kirchner (43), was arrested by police in Melbourne on February 9 and has been extradited to Adelaide and charged with her murder. Two other South Australians were also extradited from Melbourne and charged with helping Kirchner to flee the state.

9. Le Ngoc Le (77) died in hospital on February 6 after being assaulted and left with critical injuries on February 1, while walking her dogs near her home in St Albans, Vic. Amy Tran (30), believed to be a stranger to Ms Le, was charged with intentionally causing serious injury. The charge will be upgraded to murder at her next court appearance.

Funding crisis

As overflowing domestic violence refuges buckle under the pressure to turn women away, the major parties’ politicking and pseudo-solutions obscure the reality of a crippling funding crisis. The sector does not have the physical capacity to accommodate all the women and children in immediate danger.

Almost 90% of women's refuges in NSW are full. As one Sydney shelter manager told Fairfax, women in search of emergency accommodation “are on a wild goose chase”. Domestic Violence NSW CEO Moo Baulch said women’s refuges are often, if not always, full.

Last year’s federal budget did not commit funds specifically to women’s domestic violence shelters, preferring instead to allocate funds to homelessness services beyond 2017. It has funded the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement, which was reformed into the National Affordable Housing Agreement, which includes some services that accommodate women fleeing violence.

However, the push to generalise specialist domestic violence services with homelessness services means women and children escaping domestic violence are being placed into general homeless shelters.

Refuge workers say that emergency accommodation services that do not cater specifically to women and children fleeing violence can be traumatising and unsafe. Women and children are being housed with women who experience psychotic episodes or have significant drug or alcohol issues or have just left prison.

Dr Susan Heward-Belle from the Sydney School of Education and Social Work at Sydney University, conducting a research project on women’s refuges in NSW, said her findings indicate that some women were choosing to stay in violent relationships rather than take their children to a homeless shelter.

“Women would tell staff that they felt that at home at least they had some predictability around the violence and they felt it was harming their children even further by placing them in yet another highly unpredictable situation," she said.

Staff at the Beryl Women’s Shelter in Canberra, Australia’s longest-running domestic violence refuge, which is funded under the National Affordable Housing Agreement and matched by the ACT government, said there is a “significant risk” it may be forced to close its doors as demand rises while the funding is drying up.

Staff wrote to an ACT parliamentary inquiry into government responses to domestic violence saying that the ACT Specialist Homelessness Services funding model is “inadequate and overwhelmed by demand” because their funding is linked to their homeless services.

However, the federal Coalition government has backed away from a planned 30% funding cut to community legal services, which are vital for helping those escaping violence to navigate the family law system, and instead has allocated an additional $5 million in funding.  

These funding commitments are significant victories for embattled frontline services, but even with these commitments most services are barely treading water. Experts say the sector needs an urgent injection of $4 billion to be sustainable.

It will only be with a mass expansion of well-funded sexual and domestic violence services that the sector will be able to seriously stem the incessant rate of domestic violence and the gut-wrenching weekly death count. Refuges must be maintained and cater specifically for women fleeing domestic violence rather than being lumped in with homelessness services.

Better yet, management of these services should be handed over to feminists and feminist organisations, such as Rape & Domestic Violence Services Australia, which ran the previously renowned 1800RESPECT Trauma Counselling Service before the government handed the hotline to for-profit insurance company Medibank Health Solutions.

‘Domestic terrorism’

The failure by the federal Coalition government on this issue is resounding. There is blood on their hands. But one has to wonder if they like it that way.

Consider the paltry funding allocated to the domestic violence services against the $200 billion over the next decade that the 2017-18 budget allocated to the Australian Defence Force.

In justification of this imperialist violence, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull evokes fears for our “safety”. Last June, while addressing the House of Representatives on the topic of defence and national security, he said: “We are all entitled to feel safe and secure in our own country.

“And we are all entitled to ask the question: what more must we do? And we must also be resolute. We must be united.

“My unrelenting focus is to do everything possible to keep Australians safe and maintain our way of life, our values and our freedom.

“We must be clear eyed and recognise that this is the new reality we face.”

Where is the commitment to the safety of those women and children who are terrorised in their own homes?

Compared with the billions of dollars allocated to global bloodshed, the allocation of funds to preventive and supportive family violence services are just bread crumbs.

In the past two decades, only five people have been killed in terrorist attacks in Australia.

If terrorism is a crisis, what should we call the ever-growing body count of women who were murdered by their male intimate partners?

In January, Sydney magistrate Michael Barko presided over the withdrawal of an alleged common assault charge in which a woman was grabbed and pushed to the floor. He referred to the actions as being “on the lower end of the scale”.

Barko said: “I daresay that sort of pushing and pulling goes on in every second household in NSW every second day, most of which does not see the light of day in court.”

After accepting the withdrawal of the charge due to the complainant’s non-attendance in court, Barko added insult to injury, accusing the complainant of “slapping the court in the face, as so many domestic violence victims do”.

These comments demonstrate the victim-blaming culture that is propped up by courts. If it is true “that sort of pushing and pulling goes on in every second household in NSW every second day”, then what reaction is too severe for such a culturally ingrained violation of women’s human rights and bodily integrity?

We need to break the culture of complacency around these horrifying statistics. One dead woman a week is not incidental. The fundamental and systematic violation of the rights of women and girls must be taken seriously as a national — and global — crisis.

It would not be an overreaction for women to call for the defence budget to be redirected wholesale to the domestic violence sector.

It would not be an overreaction for women to riot in the streets each time a woman is murdered.

It would not be an overreaction if we were to be, as Turnbull says, “clear eyed” and to recognise the “new reality we face,” to name the crisis of male violence against women as a war on women.

Certainly, if one in four Australian women has experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of an intimate partner, then every fourth household is a war zone.

[Author’s note: I acknowledge the heartbreaking and difficult work of the Counting Dead Women Australia researchers who produce the most reliable and timely information about women’s violent deaths which I have cited above. Thank you.]

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