Within the previous fortnight, seven Australian women were murdered. Except for two friends, these victims did not know each other – they were from across Australia, from various ages with different socioeconomic backgrounds and relationship statuses. Yet, they share a thread that indirectly weaves their experiences together: all women met an untimely death, at the hands of someone who allegedly knew them. Each of the seven women was a victim of either family or domestic (current/former partner) violence.
It is disturbing that one in six Australian women will experience physical or domestic violence. Moreover, one in five women have experienced a varying degree of sexual violence, with one in four women reporting that they have experienced emotional abuse by their current or previous partner. These distressing statistics are indicative of international patterns of violence committed against women and girls (gender-based violence), a pandemic that affects one in three women in their lifetime. As defined by the World Bank, “one characteristic of gender-based violence is that it knows no social or economic boundaries and affects women and girls of all socio-economic backgrounds: this issue needs to be addressed in both developing and developed countries.” It is clear that violence against women is one of the most prevalent forms of human rights abuses. “It just goes to show it doesn’t matter what kind of woman you are, what kind of mother you are, whether you’re old or young, what kind of relationship you’re in,” Emily Maguire, CEO of the Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria, explained. The Australian advocate went on to assert that skewed media portrayals of female victims as vindictive ex-partners, aids the justification that it is permissible to devalue women. “The biggest risk is just that you’re a woman,” she stated.
However, this is not to say that men do not experience family violence by female perpetrators. In Australia, one in sixteen men have experienced violence by a current or previous partner, with one in six men describing emotional abuse as a common occurrence in their current/previous relationship. What is imperative in understanding is that women are disproportionately targets of male family, domestic and sexual violence. Furthermore, men are more likely to be victims of violence by other men, who are unknown to them. Dr Adele Murdolo described that five out of the seven Australian victims were “women of colour, [or] born overseas in non-English speaking countries, and…one of these women was trans.” The Executive Director of the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health reported that “migrant women and trans women are less likely to gain access to effective assistance for gender violence…and are more likely to experience escalating violence”. This is especially true, as a 2018 report found that among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, persons considered most vulnerable included young women, pregnant women, women with disabilities, women experiencing financial stress and women who had experienced or witnessed domestic violence as children. The same report found that many Australians still held archaic beliefs regarding women and gender-based violence. Some attitudes endorsed the victim-blaming mentality, maliciousness against (ex)partners, and argued that violence is a normal reaction to societal stress and family pressures.
These attitudes and beliefs are inexcusable. They work to delegitimize the trauma associated with sexual, domestic and family violence. Manifestations of violent actions and behaviours – whether they take the form of outward aggression, coercive manipulations or abuse in a sexual manner – have severe and debilitating effects. Despite there being an abundance of funding, pumped into Federal Government initiatives which campaign to “Stop it at the Start”, gender equality and the promotion of women’s safety are critical aspects which need addressing. There are demands from advocates to look to Scotland who accepted psychological and financial abuse in their definitions of what constitutes partner and family crime. In addition, the media plays an essential role in shaping the narratives around gender-based violence. By lessening the prevalence of the bystander effect, while promoting community awareness and action, educational resources and social engagement are required. This facilitates a much-needed change around the culture that supports strict, gender and social norms which downplay (sub)conscious acts of violence against women.
The recent deaths of the seven Australian women bring the total count of domestic femicide in 2019 to 44. Often invisible and insidious, violence against women is a social problem that is ultimately preventable.