Wendy Bacon: Domestic violence 'beyond crisis'

Vigil at the University Technology Sydney on May 25 for women killed in domestic violence. Photo: Christian Giles.

We are experiencing a crisis of domestic violence in Australia, but not in the sense that it has unexpectedly arrived. In fact, there has always been a domestic violence crisis in Australia.

It is a preventable epidemic that has been allowed to flourish in our communities through silence, neglect, a culture that promotes male power and violence and a failure by those in power to act.

Each woman’s life that is lost is a significant and grievous loss. Counting Dead Women researchers say 43 women have been murdered this year; 84 women were killed by violence last year.

We must name these homicides for what they are — in many cases premeditated murder, committed in anger or revenge. These killings are the ultimate act of patriarchal control. But let us also be clear that in failing to put in place policies that will keep women safe, our governments and our communities share in the culpability for these tragic deaths.

We stand in memory not just of the 43 women who have been killed this year, but of the thousands of women and children who have died at the hands of violent men over many years. We also acknowledge the suffering of those women who get up each day not knowing if they will be stalked, screamed at or have limbs broken by nightfall. We remember, too, the children who experience the debilitating anxiety of living in private war zones.

In remembering the suffering, we also don't forget the work of thousands of women who over 40 years — and more before that — have worked tirelessly to save the lives of thousands of women.

No wonder we are angry about the damage recklessly caused by the NSW government as a consequence of closing domestic violence women's refuges in many regions and cutting the services offered in others. This is the program that the NSW government named Going Home Staying Home.

Crisis not unexpected

There is nothing unexpected about this ongoing crisis. Compared with this ever-present scourge of domestic violence, threats to our community from outside Australia - the ones that our government would have us focus on - are minuscule. The huge resources that governments direct towards turning us into a fortress state only highlight the lack of action against domestic violence in homes, which too many men still regard as their private realm.

I reject the idea that this crisis has appeared unexpectedly while applauding the renewed public attention on it. You only have to scan news media from earlier years to see that governments have long known that a lack of services was putting women at risk.

To quote one example, in 2006 it was reported that Adele Lynch and her son Mason were incinerated in outer Sydney and that they might have lived if there had been more domestic violence services. At the time it was noted that domestic violence had increased over seven years by 50% across NSW. During that decade millions had been cut from women's services programs.

Government advertising and communication programs too have come and gone. In 2003, then-Prime Minister John Howard cancelled the No Respect, No Relationship anti-violence campaign. In July 2005, the Howard government launched its anti-domestic violence advertising campaign, Violence against women, Australia says no, spending $23 million on a helpline, broadcast ads and a national mail-out. But there were no extra funds for services.

No, the crisis is not new and nor is the evidence about what solutions work. There has been a lot of research done on domestic violence. We are by no means faced with a blank sheet when looking for solutions.

This year, feminist scholar Jane Bullen reviewed the research for The Conversation. She wrote: “Refuges continue to have an essential place in the response to domestic violence. While nothing keeps every woman safe, research consistently identifies two things as making women safer — going to a refuge and/or contacting a specialist domestic violence service.”

Bullen identified several features of women's refuges that are key to assisting women and children fleeing violence: “First, refuges’ specialist understanding of domestic and family violence and their emphasis on the right to safety is particularly important. Their approach that treats women escaping violence as partners, and which emphasises justice, strengths-based advocacy, respect and empowerment, is another important factor in enabling women and children to move forward.”

So refuges with specialist and coordinated services are essential. Ad hoc solutions or solutions that try to make domestic violence disappear under the umbrella of homelessness are not the way to go.

But faced with this evidence what did the NSW government do?

The then-Minister for Community Services Pru Goward, who is now the Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, launched a program that was not based on community need or evaluation of long-established domestic violence services. In fact they ignored the well-established evidence, all the while claiming that the policy was “evidence-based”.

Decades of valuable work trashed

Until mid-last year, Kempsey and Taree, two substantial towns on the mid-north coast of NSW, both had strong community-based refuges.

But all that changed when the government announced the results of its Going Home Staying Home tender.

Kempsey is one of the poorest towns in NSW. It also has a strong Aboriginal community. Its 25-year-old refuge was purpose-built with a garden for women and children that was maintained by volunteers. The refuge had strong community partnerships and its staff were respected by local residents.

But as a result of last year's tender, the refuge was handed over to the Samaritans, a Newcastle charity that had no experience in running domestic violence refuges.

All the refuge workers were sacked, including the Darghutti Aboriginal worker. Forty-five years of combined experience was tossed aside.

This destructive decision appears irrational, but was not irrational. The decision flowed from a policy aimed at putting more homelessness and other services in the hands of big charities. So ideologically driven were political and government decision makers by their neoliberal model that I doubt they gave much thought to the damage they were doing.

Despite a protest rally in Kempsey, the refuge was taken over by the Samaritans. This same charity with no experience in running a refuge was also given the very strong refuge Lyn's Place in Taree, 120 kilometres away.

In the refuges that have survived, staff have been stretched across refuges. While many say that the need has increased, services have been savaged. The Samaritans, for example, now manage the Kempsey refuge from Taree.

Many refuges that previously catered for domestic violence victims now have to offer refuge to a much wider group of women, some of whom have drug and alcohol problems or are homeless because they have come out of prison. Domestic violence workers all say that merging homelessness with domestic violence will not work.

There is a domestic violence crisis but the failure of the NSW government's disastrous program is also a crisis. And we must remember that these events are happening in a context of an affordable-housing crisis in NSW and attacks on the incomes of single women with children by both Labor and Coalition governments.

Silence and fear

Fear and silence are also dangerous. Many refuge workers have been too frightened to speak publicly for fear of losing their jobs. Some were even threatened that they would get no redundancy pay if they complained or that their surviving services would be defunded.

There are also funded peak organisations that have remained silent or even put a gloss on the situation. While we may understand their apprehension, we need to find a way around the fear to make sure the public knows the truth. As feminists, we can't turn away from the loss of so many valuable services.

There have been successes in the fight against the Going Home Staying Home program. Inner Sydney refuges were initially cut, but funding was restored after an intensive lobbying campaign by Save Our Services, with support from the Greens and Labor and protests by Students for Women Only Services and the No Shelter collective.

But even in inner Sydney, not all was restored. In Newtown, funding for a one-day-a-week outreach domestic violence service disappeared. Many wonderful refuges, such as Elsie's, were taken away from feminist organisations and handed over to large Christian-based charities.

With the coalition back in power for another term, we face not only more years of the Going Home Staying Home program, but also the added risk that more specialist women's services will be lost. Public hospital and disability services will be put out to tender to the lowest bidder. More services could also be lost in future homelessness tenders.

We need strong campaigns to insist that domestic violence services are restored and strengthened. Refuges for women should be run by women in community-based organisations. Research has shown that the early vision that inspired the women of the 1970s is the most effective one, although the delivery of services can be strengthened as women gain more insight and empower each other. No amount of communication campaigns or technological fixes can substitute for essential support services.

We must be as public as possible. We must document the gaps and failures and celebrate what survives. In the words of an old feminist song: "Don't be too polite girls, don't be too polite. Show a little fight girls, show a little fight".

[This is an edited version of a speech Wendy Bacon made at a vigil organised by Students for Women's Only Services held at University of Technology Sydney on May 25. The vigil was organised to protest against the NSW government's cuts to women’s services and to call for an inquiry into the devastating effects of the Going Home Staying Home program. The full version of the speech is available here.]