Eradicating domestic violence one home at a time

By Jane Fynes-Clinton
Courier-Mail
October 29, 2006
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THE United Kingdom this week rolled out one-stop shops to offer victims of domestic violence immediate and decisive divorce and child-custody action.

The UK also floated the idea of making relationships behaviour part of its national curriculum.

Domestic violence is a big and growing problem in Britain, with two women killed in an average week by a person they love, or loved, and police called to diffuse a domestic violence incident every minute. Governments and policy-makers there have decided drastic steps must be taken.

The figures on domestic violence in Australia are not quite as shocking, but they are growing despite campaigns and broad, vocal condemnation of high-profile examples. In short, more women are being whacked or abused by those they love.

While it is right to condemn acts of brutality on any other’s body and soul, domestic violence is also puzzling to those on the outside, with such questions as “Why doesn’t she just leave?”; “Why won’t she press charges?” and even “How could she be so weak?” perplex those outside of what looks like a relationship mess.

On the surface, decisions on responses to being abused seem linear to those who respect life, rights and others: no one should stand for it.

But domestic violence is a complex beast: few victims are more criticised, few perpetrators are more abhorred and few situations are more personal.

University of Melbourne Centre for Public Policy associate director Lauren Rosewarne says the hurt a woman feels when damaged by someone she shares an intimate relationship with is far greater than if she were to be biffed by a stranger. Domestic violence is cruelty with an extra, homemade sting.

Such emotional observations lie over a solid statistical frame.

Women’s Forum Australia director Lynne Pezzullo says the complexity and difficulty of dealing with domestic violence is highlighted in the figures. Women who eventually leave a domestic violence situation make attempts to go first – the average is seven times.

The statistics roll on: about 400,000 women in Australia are victims of domestic violence in any year; women are nine times more likely to be victims than men. About 180,000 children are witnesses to domestic violence each year.

Pezzullo, who was the prime author of a landmark Access Economics report a few years ago, says domestic violence poses the largest risk to the health of females aged 15 to 44, but that they often justify for their internal and external injuries. Rosewarne says abused women are good at compartmentalising their lives. They will see the abuse in their relationship as a bruise on an otherwise good apple. They will believe that this is the last time it will happen. They will tell themselves they have caused the violence and are responsible for their own injury.

All of these justifications prevent healthy changes from occurring, Rosewarne says.

Throw in love, a belief in giving even a destructive relationship your all, shared children and financial dependence, and leaving is not such a simple step. Rosewarne is concerned about the kind of education society is getting with domestic violence. Consciousness-raising campaigns have been successful at getting the issue on the radar, but with incidence of it increasing, she and others are wondering why that is not translating to falling statistics.

It is one thing to know it is wrong but another to know strategies to stop conflict escalating into violence, perhaps. Changing community habits and generations of behaviour cannot be done with a TV commercial.

But some actions that can be taken and help offered now.

Less superficial judgment on why battered women don’t leave the men who hurt them is a start. And ensuring support structures of all kinds are out there would give them one fewer reason to stay in a relationship that hurts too much.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare statistics from 2005 showed that one in two women who approached agencies were unable to obtain immediate accommodation on an average day because there was simply nowhere for them to stay. This year’s Federal Government paper Women, Domestic and Family Violence: A Synthesis Report identified this dreadful lack of support services, including accommodation, as one of the reasons women were paralysed into staying in a relationship that had featured violence.

Violence at home is as old as time itself. Sadly, if we are honest, it will probably always cast a shadow on our collective domestic doorstep.

But the day there stops being outrage about it, its victims, its causes and the lack of funding for intervention is the day it becomes an accepted visitor.

And as it is unacceptable to aim for anything less than eradicating this growing and insidious problem, the exhausting fight against the violence must go on, one household at a time.