Thursday, 25 September 2014

Family and sexual violence is the biggest threat to our collective wellbeing

We need to rid society of domestic violence: Rob Hulls.

Rob Hulls is the Director, Centre for Innovative Justice, RMIT University
Article originally published in The Age.

Violence against women has featured in the media a lot lately – and about time. After decades of hard, often invisible, slog by a dedicated community sector; and after quiet growth in understanding at a policy level; governments have started treating men's violence against women with the gravity it deserves. Leaders at all levels have committed to a 12-year national plan, resources have been allocated to an evidence base and, as Victoria's Chief Commissioner of Police has observed, gendered violence is finally on political agendas. 

To varying degrees all around Australia, progress is being made. Laws have acknowledged the different forms that violence can take; reporting of both sexual and family violence has increased exponentially, particularly in Victoria, with courts striving to support victims and hold perpetrators to account as best they can. Cross-agency teams are pooling information and assessing risk; and police are responding more quickly at the frontline. Meanwhile, devastating, inexplicable, homicides – on cricket pitches, in laneways and in car parks, as well as suburban homes – have forced a once reluctant media to grapple not only with the extremes of violence against women and their children, but our apparent inability to prevent its escalation. 
In other words, public understanding is beginning to catch up with what the community and legal sectors have known for a long time – that family and sexual violence is the biggest threat to our collective wellbeing. It is also beginning to appreciate that tackling it – reducing it and, ultimately, eliminating it – is a complex task, one requiring substantial and scalable investment; an integrated system and intergenerational change. 

I believe it is a challenge that we can, we will, we must meet. We will struggle to do so sustainably, however, unless we address the kind of attitudes revealed in the VicHealth survey released on Wednesday. While understanding of the forms that violence can take has improved, the remainder of the findings are truly grim. Nearly 80 per cent of respondents found it hard to understand why women stayed in violent relationships, with around 50 per cent agreeing that women could "leave if they really wanted to". Meanwhile, an alarming number believed that women were partially responsible for rape if they were intoxicated; and that rape and family violence can be blamed on men's inability to control their desire for sex and their anger respectively. 

How does this match with our apparent growing concern about the prevalence of family violence? How do we reconcile these attitudes when the evidence clearly states that often the greatest risk to women and their children comes precisely when they do leave, when they challenge the perpetrator's sense of control? How do we balance the misconception that family violence is a result of anger (which apparently is implicitly excused in our construction of masculinity) when so many perpetrators are perfectly able to control their anger in every other context and in front of witnesses, often for years? How can we "tut tut" on the one hand about the numbers of intervention order applications clogging our courts, yet let these attitudes endure?

The simple and irrefutable reality with which we must come to terms with is – men are responsible for their violence against women. Men are responsible when they rape, men are responsible when they hurt their children, men are responsible when they have exerted such fear and control over their partners that they feel unable to leave – because they will be shunned by family and friends, because they will descend into poverty and homelessness or because they know that the violence will likely escalate, often to lethal effect.

Yet our entire response to this violence is still founded on the expectation that women should take responsibility – not only for the violence, but for making it stop. 

We only have to look at the murder of Luke Batty, for example, to see how hard his mother Rosie worked at every step along the way – taking out an intervention order as soon as the violence started, reporting every breach, demanding that Luke's father be held accountable for his pattern of behaviour. Our shameful collective failure to see this occur has set in stark relief how much better we need to get at sharing information and taking action. 

The question remains, however, is how effective this will be while our underlying attitudes about gender endure. To its credit – and in substantial part because of VicHealth's groundbreaking work – Victoria is leading the way with prevention programs that challenge the sense of male entitlement and gendered attitudes which international evidence confirms are the single biggest contributor to violence against women. 

In addition, however, I also believe that we need to get better at conveying that violence against women and their children is not something that happens "out there" or to "other people". We need only scan through the headlines, almost on a daily basis, to begin to understand the real extent. A "tragic death", a "lover's quarrel" – so often the gender-neutral nature of these bylines mask the uglier undertones at play. In other words, we haven't quite grasped it yet and, though by now we're familiar with many statistics – one Australian woman killed by her current or former partner every week; the biggest contributor to death and disability to women aged 15- 44 – until we recognise that this relates to real lives, that this statistic represents the greatest risk to our own daughters in their lifetimes, for example, we will only get so far. 

In other words, we have to start recognising that, while gendered violence may not be the rule, nor is it the tragic exception. Its effects are encountered on a daily basis by healthcare professionals, by homelessness services, and by the justice system alike. Behind a huge number of criminal cases before our courts, for example, lies an almost incidental history of intervention order applications. Meanwhile many of the women in our prison system are not only victims of sexual or family violence, but have an acquired brain injury as a result, this in turn converging with other risk factors to increase their contact with the courts. 

It is therefore not enough just to raise awareness, to see that this violence 'is a problem at the moment', one to which we must momentarily turn our gaze. Instead, we must adjust our lens and see violence against women and their children for what it is – the single biggest challenge to public policy; the core business of our local courts; the cause as well as the consequence of so many social ills; the 'dark', hidden dynamic revealed in so many interactions with the law. 

With a problem so pervasive, we will not get very far by treating it as an afterthought. Nor will we make real inroads while our legal system remains perpetually on the back foot – putting the onus on victims to instigate the next step; sending perpetrators away from the scrutiny of the court because we are overwhelmed by their numbers; gearing up once it's already too late. 

As many in the field have been saying for years, we need more resources; a fully integrated system; improved communication across the board. What we also need, however, is to readjust our lens – to perceive family and sexual violence not as theatres which we can ultimately vacate but where our greatest energies should be invested – being proactive, rather than reactive; dismantling damaging attitudes; and sheeting home responsibility where it should truly lie. 

Rob Hulls is director, Centre for Innovative Justice, RMIT University

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