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Domestic Violence, Family Violence and Women's Safety


The World Health Organisation defines violence against women as 
Any act  which could result in physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty whether occurring in public or private life.“

Intimate partner violence refers to behaviour by an intimate partner or ex-partner that causes physical, sexual or psychological harm, including physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse and controlling behaviours.

Sexual violence is "any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, or other act directed against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting. It includes rape, defined as the physically forced or otherwise coerced penetration of the vulva or anus with a penis, other body part or object." 

 If America’s shame is the number of school children killed by gun violence, then Australia’s shame is the number of women who have been murdered or injured by a member of their family. So far this year 18 women have been murdered, most of them by a current or former partner, two by their children and only two as far as I can tell by strangers. According to NGO Our Watch which advocates for the prevention of violence against women and children, one woman is murdered by a current or former partner every nine days. 

In addition to this most extreme form of violence, 4,620 women were hospitalised in 2021 -22 due to domestic violence and around two out of five women (39%) over the age of 15 report having experienced violence. While women bear the brunt of domestic violence, men, children and members of the LGBTIQ community are also affected and even within the general category of women, Indigenous women, women with a disability, women of migrant or refugee background and gender diverse women experience  proportionately higher rates of violence than others.  

Domestic Violence is a Global Problem

Australia is not alone in this however. According to the UN some five women an hour die worldwide due to domestic violence and one in 3 women over 15 have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime. Over a quarter of women aged 15-49 who have been in a relationship report having been subjected to violence. The UN estimates that the incidence of domestic violence ranges from around 20% in the Western Pacific, 22% in high income countries including the EU,  25% in the Americas, 31% in the Mediterranean and 33% in South East Asia. According to the UN’s statistics 87,000 women were killed in 2017 of which 50,000 or 56%  were killed by an intimate partner. By contrast of the 464,000 men murdered in the same period, only 4% (20,000 men) were killed by a partner. Although Brazil currently has the highest reported incidence of femicide, it must be remembered that some countries do not record such incidents at all or simply class them as homicides.

Under reporting is common. Even in Australia, 50% of the women who have experienced some type of violence, sexual assault or harassment did not report it for fear of repercussions or not being believed,  so even the above numbers do not necessarily reflect the extent of the problem. The real question is, what can we do about it?

The Consequences

Domestic violence can exact a high physical, emotional and economic toll on women, their families and society. As far as women themselves go, it is the biggest contributor to death, ill health and disability in women aged 25 -44.

Apart from physical injuries and homicide, family violence can also result in a range of psychological problems including depression, anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress, eating disorders, low self -esteem, various forms of self -harm including suicide and addictions such as alcohol abuse.

With respect to sexual violence the UN notes that consequences may include unwanted pregnancies and abortions, gynaecological problems, sexually transmitted diseases and increased likelihood of stillbirths and miscarriages.

Violence in the home also affects the wellbeing of children. Children who experience or witness violence at home may suffer from a range of behavioural, developmental and emotional disturbances and may later become perpetrators themselves.

Based on 2015 analysis, violence against women costs the Australian economy $21.7 billion a year and is a major contributor to homelessness. It also affects workplaces through reduced staff retention, absenteeism and reduced productivity.

Causes and Remedies

Given the damage domestic violence can do we will now look at some of the reasons why it occurs and what can be done about it. The following information has been cobbled together from various sources such as the UN, Our Watch and Australia's New National Plan. Both national and international research points to unequal power relationships being at the heart of domestic violence. While there is no 'typical' offender, here are some of the risk factors as outlined by the UN.

·         Cultural and community norms which place a higher value on men than on women. These may be expressed in terms of rigid gender roles which give men more power over decision -making and resources. It can also can occur through having low levels of paid employment or through funnelling women into low paid work, both of which limit women’s independence in private and public life and give men more power and control

·         Attitudes which condone violence and overtly masculine behaviours. These may include emphasis on aggression, dominance and control such as telling men to “Man Up” or take the form of excusing, justifying and trivialising violence or shifting the blame to victims. This includes comments such as “Why was she wearing this or that?" Or "Why did she have a drink?”

·         Low levels of education among both victims and perpetrators,

·         A history of exposure to mistreatment as perpetrator or victim

·         Excessive use of alcohol

·         Having multiple partners

Factors associated with sexual violence include:

·         Beliefs in Family Honour and Sexual Purity

·         Ideologies of Male Sexual Entitlement

·         Weak Legal Sanctions against Sexual Violence

Factors specific to relationships

·         Past history and exposure to violence

·         Antisocial personality disorders

·         Marital discord and dissatisfaction

·         Communication difficulties within the relationship

·         Male controlling behaviour towards partners

·         Unequal power within relationships

·         Additional stresses such as natural disasters and crises

Pathways to change

There are four broad ways to break the pattern:

  1. Prevention - including challenging existing norms and stereotypes
  2. Early Intervention
  3. Strengthening Law Enforcement and the Justice System
  4. Supporting both Victims and Offenders


Domestic Violence doesn’t occur in a vacuum. There is an interesting diagram in Theory of Change, 2022-2023, mentioned in The New National Action Plan for Australia, which shows how individual and interpersonal behaviour is nested within families, within communities and the broader society. It looked something like this. To some extent we are all products of our families, the communities and the society to which we belong and act according to shared conscious and unconscious beliefs.

We need to work on all four aspects to change underlying attitudes and behaviour. Cultural norms can and do change, albeit slowly. For example, until the 1970s and 80s domestic violence was not seen as a problem at all. What went on inside homes, families and relationships was considered a private matter between the parties involved.

Promoting Equality

Promoting gender equality in all aspects of life -in schools, workplaces, institutions and families is one of the most important things we can do. This means identifying and breaking down stereotypical gender roles and encouraging female independence and decision – making. 

Encouraging women to take on more Science and Maths oriented subjects enables them to obtain more highly paid employment and more respect, as does the provision of more social support including availability of childcare and parental leave. The latter also enables men to take a more active role in raising children and broadens their roles as well. Encouraging caring, respectful relationships in all spheres – at home, at work, in schools and sport or in public spaces is also important as are school programs which stress safety of women and the importance of consent.

Ending Discrimination

Fighting for broader social justice and ending discrimination towards specific groups and women in general should be encouraged at the community level through various institutions as well as by legislation. For example, legalising Same Sex Marriage (1975 - 1997) enabled more people to come forward as did giving equal rights and protections to couples in de facto relationships (1991). Criminalising violent behaviours such as Rape within Marriage (2009), rather than regarding sex as a male entitlement will help to protect women from various negative consequences such as those mentioned above. Forced Marriage became illegal in 2013 and the Workplace Gender Equality Amendment to close the Gender Pay Gap became effective in 2023.

More subtle forms of oppression such as coercive control – cutting people off from family and friends or keeping them in their home against their will, or financial abuse are beginning to receive attention as is the use of electronic media to harass, stalk, bully or blackmail another. Currently there are calls to ban various types of spyware which enable emails and messages to be read or to track victims without consent.

In the community we should not tolerate any form of violence, aggression and harassment and call out disrespectful behaviour in public, private or in the media. It is not helpful for example, when speaking of a man who murdered his wife as "A good bloke” or that his Dad was a great football player, as the press did recently. 

Most workplaces and many sporting clubs now have codes of conduct in place and mechanisms to report and minimise harassment. Making harassment at work illegal, prevents  employers and higher placed employees from exploiting those below them in the power structure. The inclusion of women in traditionally male occupations also helps to change the culture. 

In the 1980s, I was working for a mining company which started employing women to drive its big dump trucks because women were more patient and had fewer accidents. Once women began to work alongside men in what was previously an all -male domain, there were no more catcalls, comments on appearance and disparaging remarks when women came onto the site. Pictures of scantily clad women disappeared from lunch rooms and change rooms and the language became more respectful. There were also fewer lost time accidents and productivity improved.

Another aspect of prevention involves engaging men and boys to develop positive ways of interacting with their peers and others which rely less on dominance and competition, but use their strengths in a positive way such as encouraging co -operation and the achievement of common goals. Men need alternative ways to express their masculinity. Back in the mists of time they could join for communal hunts, chivalrous deeds, heroic voyages or raising barns. What do they have now?

 It is also important to train more men to help other men who are going through difficulties, much as the women’s movement helped to empower women. One of the traditional cultural norms in the Australian context, is that men must remain strong and silent and never ask for help. Much tragedy could be avoided if this could be overcome.

Early Interventions

In Australia, health care professionals, teachers and others in positions of authority are obliged by law to report signs of injury to women and children. This should be treated as a public health matter rather than in an accusative way and action must be taken such as providing support or referral to victims as well as perpetrators. See more on this at the end of this post.

Law Enforcement and the Justice System

Legislation is only as good as monitoring and enforcement. While many traumatised victims have been fearful of going to police because of fear of escalating the violence or for fear of not being believed, others have gone to the police only to have their concerns trivialised.

At least one of the women who was murdered recently had repeatedly tried to obtain police protection and gone to several police stations, but officers dismissed her concerns by saying she was “Police Shopping.” Perhaps people used to dealing with hardened criminals, should not be the ones taking calls from distraught victims who in the first instance, need emotional support and a sympathetic ear. 

While Police intervention is devastating for all concerned and some people fear that women will make frivolous claims in order to gain some kind of advantage such as custody of children, the family home or revenge, such cases are rare and all reports should be taken seriously as violence generally escalates rather than diminishes without intervention.

Diversity in Law Enforcement

Policing is one of those professions which has been predominantly male. Prior to 1996 only 11% of officers were female. Although that number had increased to 23% by 2006, it has not increased substantially since.  Ideally, there should be as many females as males and diverse enough to reflect the make -up of society. If it’s hard enough for ordinary Australians to come forward, then how much more difficult is it when you have language difficulties or come from a cultural background where police and or uniforms hold an even more threatening position? This is also the position in which many of our First Nations people find themselves since they are disproportionately incarcerated and often on the receiving end of less than fair and equal treatment in the justice system.

Much the same applies to judges and other members of the legal profession. Australia’s first female judge was not appointed until 1965. Although the gender balance has greatly improved in recent years to around 43.3%, globally only around one third of judges are female, which suggests some room for improvement. 

Currently the median age of judges in Australia is 60. While age may be an asset when it comes to wisdom and experience, there is also the risk that judges may be very conservative and more inclined to hold traditional views about what is acceptable behaviour in a relationship, as has been demonstrated from time to time. For example it is not relevant in a rape trial whether a woman went out alone after dark, wore a short dress or had other relationships.

The Legal Process

Many Domestic Violence survivors have reported that the process of going to court itself and having to retell their stories or having to confront their abuser, retraumatises them. Much could be done to make this less harrowing, as for example, using video -taped testimony and not having to recount their often humiliating experiences countless times not only to police and the court, but also to welfare providers, housing authorities and others.


Both Police and other members of the justice system need to be well trained to respond sensitively to domestic violence. I was present in Tasmania in 1980, when Dr. Mary Kille presented the first training course for Police Officers. I do not know how far training has progressed in the meantime or how often it is done to keep officers abreast of the latest evidence – based methods of dealing with domestic violence. It should also be ‘trauma – informed” that is, listening to the experiences of survivors. Much the same should apply to other first responders, such as Ambulance Officers, Hospital staff and those in charge of various services.


Police can usually only intervene when a crime has already been committed. In addition, unless there is independent verification of harm, it is very difficult to prosecute offenders. This means providing documentary evidence of harm so that an Apprehended Violence Order (AVO) can be issued.This can consist of photographic evidence, detailed diaries, reports from medical professionals and witnesses. Though AVOs may have different names in other states and conditions vary, they usually require the subject to remain a specific distance from the complainant or be liable for arrest.

While AVOs have been effective in reducing violence towards women, others say that "They aren't worth the paper they are written on." According to one unconfirmed report, two thirds of the 39 women murdered in 2017, had AVOs in place. Some respondents have suggested the issuing of ankle monitors, so that police are immediately notified in the event of breaches. There are now calls for a register of offenders so that people have prior warning before entering into a relationship.

Record Keeping and Data Sharing

Achieving consistency across jurisdictions and other departments is essential if we are to show improvements and to see which efforts at prevention are working. At present there are discrepancies and delays between police data and those maintained by women’s groups, as well as those between anonymous reports and those obtained by face-to -face surveys. Data sharing is not  fully embraced so that a person may offend in one state but have no record in another. Furthermore, past episodes of violence including those unrelated to domestic violence are often not raised in court, which makes conviction less likely.  

Supporting Victims and Perpetrators

Supporting victims and their families includes providing material and psychological support for anyone who has experienced violence and ensuring that the responsible institutions are supportive and operate across departments and disciplines to act in an integrated way. This is especially important in the case of children for reasons already mentioned and should also include help and counselling for perpetrators. Most state governments also offer integrated services of various kinds. See for example Victoria's Orange Door Program below.

Helplines and Other Services

Australia has a number Helplines staffed by professionals to deal with all aspects of Domestic Violence. 

Help for anyone experiencing or at risk of violence

Perhaps the most prominent of these is 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) This is a 24/7 government -funded telephone service staffed by trained professionals and is available to anyone experiencing or at risk of family and domestic violence or sexual assault.

Help for women

Several women’s groups also have helplines and a range of support services such as providing emergency housing and legal assistance or self -help groups for the survivors of violence or rape. Specialist services are available for people with Disabilities, those who identify as LGBTQI and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People. The latter are to provide sensitive and culturally appropriate services  as well as being part of a broader push to create greater equality and self - determination for First Nations People. Free Interpreting and Translation and sometimes culturally tailored services are also available for refugees and migrants.

Older Persons

As the population ages, elderly people are increasingly at risk of abuse, not just from partners, but in other settings such as home and institutional care. Two of the women  killed this year died at the hands of their children. Financial abuse is also becoming increasingly common. 1800 ELDERHelp provides advice, referral and support.

Help for Men

There are two Helplines for Men. One offers 24/7 support for men having relationship difficulties. The other is for men using or at risk of using violent or coercive behaviour.

Help for Children

Children also have two helplines. The first offers telephone or online counselling for general issues. The second is specifically for children affected by abuse. Both are available around the clock.

Helping Couples

Relationships Australia counsels couples who are having relationship difficulties and also individuals in relationship who are abusive or have been abused.

How Families, Friends, Co -workers and Others can Help

If you notice that a family member, a friend or co -worker is having difficulty, urge them to seek help. This will mean breaking a long -standing Australian/ British taboo about not getting involved in other people’s private life, but when lives are potentially at risk, then that is a rule worth breaking. A more subtle way of doing so would be to simply give them the number of the appropriate Helpline or if things do not seem urgent, perhaps placing the number on a noticeboard or in a restroom.

Bystanders and neighbours should also intervene, though not by risking their own safety. If you see violence or aggression, call the police and if you are able to do so discreetly, record it with your phone. This also goes against a long -established Australian tradition, about "Not Dobbing in a Mate" – in other words, not being a snitch or a tattle -tale. Trust me on this. It’s far better to lose a friend than to blame yourself forever for ignoring the small signals that all is not well. In the end you would be doing your friend, family member or co -worker a favour, though s/he may never thank you.

To finish on a brighter note, here’s a nice little story - not sure if it's true, about a barista's creative response when she noticed that a young customer appeared to be getting unwanted attention from another patron. It's all about looking out for one another and keeping people safe.

Next time we'll talk a bit more about what the Australian Government is doing about Domestic Violence and what other countries are doing about it.