Just because family and domestic violence is no longer so hidden, doesn’t mean that it’s completely out of the shadows just yet, writes Julie Houghton.
Reading a newspaper headline “Assaults put thousands in hospital” at breakfast certainly makes you pause while sipping coffee and crunching cornflakes.
Is this the latest crisis in Syria or Egypt? Another attack from ISIS?
No, not this time. It’s a home-grown headline that refers to the number of people in Australia who were hospitalised due to assault in 2013–14, according to a recent report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
The report highlights a horrifying fact—69% of assaults against women and girls took place at home, with more than half the female victims being assaulted by a spouse or domestic partner.
May is Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Month and The Salvation Army is at the coalface fighting the scourge of family and domestic violence (FDV). This is not only the main reason women experience homelessness, but is also the biggest contributor to ill health and premature death in Australian women aged between 15 and 44.
And it’s not just an issue of physical violence—The Salvation Army’s 2016 Economic and Social Impact Survey found that FDV was the reason that 64% of children had to change schools, that 75% of victims have to spend three-quarters of their income on housing and accommodation, and that 37% of those clients had to move within the previous three months. In addition, more than 6,400 Australians have been assisted by specialist Salvation Army FDV services.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, one in three Australian women experiences physical violence, and one in six women experiences physical or sexual violence from a current or former partner.
Combating FDV is an issue close to the heart of former Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Ken Lay, who, in 2015, was appointed Chair of the Council of Australian Government's Advisory Council on Family Violence in recognition of his contribution to raising awareness of family violence.
Mr Lay tells Warcry that he recalls his days as a young constable in the 1970s where he attended family violence incidents, but says that back then they didn’t call those incidents what they were—criminal assaults.
So what changed his mind?
“As I progressed through Victoria Police, I was exposed to wonderful women who challenged me, educated and supported me in finding ways to make a difference,” he recalls.
“When I became Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police I was given a chance that few people get. I had control over a huge number of resources as well as the power of the state—I felt I had an opportunity to make a difference,” he says.
Mr Lay says attitudes have changed enormously in the last decade, with FDV being talked about by politicians and school programs teaching respect as the cornerstone of relationships.
More resources for women who need help or a way to escape the violence are also being provided. He adds that the courts are taking a far stronger approach to perpetrators, and there are now programs to help them break the cycle of violence. He also credits the first ever Royal Commission into Family Violence as being a strong signal to the community that things are changing.
“We are on our way, but women are still dying, still being abused, still being controlled by bullies and thugs, and living in fear.”
Mr Lay is clear about the changes that need to happen.
“What will continue to drive change are the voices of powerful men. Men who are willing to call out the bad behaviours that drive sexist and controlling behaviours. Men who are willing to challenge the status quo, men who are determined to help young boys become respectful and considerate gentlemen. Men who will not meekly stand by and let behaviours words or attitudes go unchallenged.”
Someone else who sees the impact of FDV daily is senior lawyer Henrietta* at Women’s Legal Service Victoria. WLSV provides disadvantaged women with legal assistance in the jurisdictions of family violence, family law and child protection.
“Often where there is family violence, there are ongoing matters in the family court and sometimes the children’s court. Having multi legal matters running in different courts at once can be confusing and scary for anyone, let alone someone who is experiencing family violence,” Henrietta explained.
The legal costs make it impossible for women to settle matters such as shared debts or mortgages, access to superannuation or the ownership of a car or whitegoods, without the kind of free specialist legal advocacy that organisations like WLSV provide.
What will continue to drive change are the voices of powerful men. Men who will not meekly stand by and let behaviours, words or attitudes go unchallenged.
~ Ken Lay, former Victoria Police Chief Commissioner
“We run a duty lawyer service in three different courts assisting women who do not have a lawyer and we also represent clients in legally assisted family dispute resolution.
“Another key service is our LINK Program where we partner with 23 agencies to enable women who have experienced family violence to access legal advice via internet video conferencing. Then there is case work for a number of complex family law files and child protection cases,” she said.
As family violence is not simply a legal issue, WLSV collaborates with service agencies to provide women with access to housing, legal, alcohol and drug services, financial counselling and mental health services. Henrietta says that “funding uncertainty is a significant barrier”.
“Legal assistance empowers women to make safe decisions about whether and how to leave violent relationships by enabling them to understand complex legal and financial rights. In some cases, this can save lives.”
The Salvation Army believes that changes must occur in attitudes towards women. It says urgent changes are needed to promote independence and decision making, and that these are best achieved through prevention and early intervention programs.
It supports the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010–2022, which identifies strategies to promote gender equality and address the causes behind violence, and strengthen positive, equal and respectful relationships across the community.
The Salvos support more than 6,400 Australians fleeing FDV across the country. But personnel struggle to meet the increasing demand for services, particularly for housing support, and there is a chronic lack of affordable housing in many cities. Salvo personnel also respond to those who are at extreme risk of life-threatening violence, and provide crisis accommodation, counselling, material aid and support to access legal services.
Despite the challenges that must still be faced and overcome, Ken Lay is positive about a future where the whole of society takes responsibility for changing the story on family and domestic violence.
“No longer is it just a few women talking about family violence. We are seeing business, corporate, sporting and political leaders, all speaking about the need for change and most them are actually helping to facilitate that change.”
*First name only used by request.
If you are struggling and need support, please call Lifeline 13 11 14 or visit www.womenslegal.org.au.
Salvo solutions to FDV
• Increase the supply of safe housing and accommodation for women and their children escaping FDV, including rapid rehousing, crisis and long-term housing.
• Prioritise prevention, early intervention, advocacy campaigns to change community attitudes.
• Expand research-informed specialist men’s services that address perpetrator behaviour.