We do not accept this abuse of power
Women are determined to confront family violence.
By Barry Gittins
Across Australia a shocking statistic is acknowledged by academics and social workers but largely unknown or ignored by the general community. One in four women in this country, throughout the span of their lives, will fall victim to family violence.The Australian Bureau of Statistics says 2.2 million women are currently ‘counted’ as family violence survivors (that figure does not include the many women who do not speak out against the people who abuse them.) The overarching statistic– one in four Australian women – canvasses a litany of (largely male) actions. Women and children are struck, whipped, beaten and punched. Hair is pulled, bodies are dragged, food is thrown, torsos are kicked.Survivors are sexually abused and shamed. Women have to beg for money to pay bills or purchase food. They are verbally mocked and ridiculed. Put down for being female. Women are denied education and opportunities. They’re spiritually abused by men who exert power over women.Words are as harsh as actions. Survivors are battered with inconsistent messages. They are informed that they are useless, or have only one purpose. They are weak, or too assertive. Pathetic, absent or apathetic. Too soppy. Stupid, or too clever for their own good. Unattractive, or too attractive. Unresponsive or promiscuous.The underlying, cruel message rings out to family violence survivors: you are not worthy. Last month The Salvation Army yet again joined with the United Nations, with governments, other churches, other faiths and NGOs to once again declare that the abuse of personal power by men against women and children is not acceptable and will not be tolerated.‘Today, we are celebrating the way we as women create opportunities and make a difference around the world.’ With those words, Commissioner Aylene Finger* welcomed a gathering of some 50 women to The Salvation Army Australia Southern Territory’s headquarters in Blackburn (Vic.) for the 100th International Women’s Day (IWD) on 8 March 2011.Taking the opportunity to note ‘100 years of economic, political and social achievements,’ the commissioner added that the day honoured ‘women past, present and future’. She duly introduced and thanked guest speakers policy expert Professor Cathy Humphries** and practitioner Gae Old.*** Both speakers are passionate about the issues.Professor Humphreys commenced by recognising and thanking the traditional owners and elders of the land before discussing her field of research, the instances and nature of family violence in the state of Victoria. She stated that this year’s theme for IWD emphasised ‘equal opportunity to education and access to productive employment’. This is vital, the professor explained, as two-thirds of Australian women living in abusive relationships are still faithfully turning up to work.‘There is only a tiny group of abused women who are accessing refuges,’ she explained. ‘Most abused women are all around us, in our workplaces.’She emphasised the importance of the workplace as ‘domestic violence becomes more chronic and violent once women lose their employment’.Professor Humphries is engaged in 13 different research projects into family violence. A common theme is the question, how do we educate women and men to respond appropriately to this social evil? In Victoria alone there were 32,750 reported family violence incidents in 2009/10. That is an increase of 5.4% from 2008/09. (In Victoria, comparatively ‘new’ 2008 legislation excludes the perpetrator from the family home.) While these statistics sound alarming, the professor explained that the rise in reports can be interpreted as an expression of confidence in policing rather than an actual increase in the annual amount of incidents. The complexities of intervention orders, however, are further muddied by ambiguity of recording the conviction and breaching rates (how often perpetrators are found guilty and/or incarcerated, and how often they flaunt the court orders and continue to access the family home and abuse those present).The professor noted that in 30% of Victorian cases (a conservative figure logically open to extrapolation across the country), children are present to witness the abuse of their mother/sister/spouse/sibling/friend. Asking how Australia can resource and deploy ‘its services to respond more effectively to the needs of children’ in these situations, she noted that mandatory reporting may not be the answer. In 2007/08 in New South Wales, for example, only 5,000 (6.5%) of 76,000 mandatorily-reported incidents were substantiated. ‘This overloads existing services’, she explained, swamping them with additional caseloads ‘without additional resources’.The larger policy imperative at the moment, she continued, is encouraging the judiciary to give teeth to the intervention order system; early research is indicating that a high percentage of intervention orders are breached by men who refuse to abide by the orders of the court. These offenders may do so up to 10 times before receiving a fine; the numbers of men breaching intervention orders who receive a custodial sentence are minimal.The arrogance of perpetrators is staggering; there is a ripple of anger and concern from the women gathered to listen and learn.Ms Old then addressed the gathering, saying that resources are finite but calls on services are expanding. While they are funded to work with family violence clients for up to 13 weeks, in practice they are still helping clients four years after the initial contact.‘Safety is our first priority,’ she explained, ‘and we provide and update a safety plan. We also go to court with women to support them in their application for an intervention order.‘Our role is to help women and their children through the practicalities of their situation, and our great emphasis is advocating for the children and ensuring they are well-protected,’ she added.As well as the ever-constant assessment of ‘risk’ and the need for more funding, the big obstacle Ms Old’s team faces is an age-old problem: how to broach the taboo subject of domestic violence.In our society as a whole, she said, ‘there is a lack of confidence in questioning women about family violence. There are processes to solve this conversational reticence; Ms Old explained the existing process where every female New Zealander who receives medical care is also taken through a verbal pro forma family violence survey. She then cited a promising new initiative with the territory’s social programme department, where clusters of medical general practitioners (GOPs) were receiving education at events designed to educate and share strategies.‘The outcomes for women and children can only get better if we all work better together,’ she said. ‘The more information we share, the more openly we discuss this crisis, the better outcomes we will see for women and children.’The messages shared at this event are positive, open, constructive and impassioned. They are well received. They deserve a broader hearing.Certainly, Salvation Army leadership is keen for the Army to do all it possibly can to support those who face the waking nightmare of family violence.‘There are many women who are living with fear,’ concluded Colonel Jennifer Walker at the event. ‘We need to be a voice on their behalf, to God… and to our community.’* Commissioner Finger is the territorial president of women’s organisations. Colonel Walker is the territorial secretary for women’s ministries.** Professor Humphreys holds the Alfred Felton Chair of Child and Family Welfare at the University of Melbourne (the position supports a collaborative partnership between the University of Melbourne and the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare).*** Ms Old is the manager of the Australia Southern Territory’s St Kilda-based family violence outreach program, an integral part of the Melbourne Central Division’s crisis services. The program, a domestic violence outreach program for women and children, has an eight-person team, helping up to 12 clients through a 13-week cycle. In addition, the program has two staff working with women in crisis situations as well as an Indigenous case worker.