Domestic and family abuse in Australia is an ongoing public health crisis. For far too long, domestic abuse has been characterised as a women's issue, both to endure and to solve. In most cases, it is a crisis of men inflicting violence on women and children. Domestic abuse takes an immense toll, and if we are going to resolve this crisis, men must take on more responsibility. Men, like myself, should challenge themselves to be informed and ask how they can make positive changes.
I am a straight, white, middle-class male, and I am not an expert in the causes of, impacts of or strategies to address domestic violence. A reasonable question anyone reading this might ask themselves is why would I write about domestic abuse? I struggled with this question myself, given there is a range of incredibly informed and knowledgeable people across the rest of the Illawarra Women's Health Centre staff, as well as other advocates for domestic abuse survivors.
I am writing this because the scale and pervasiveness of domestic violence is such that we can't leave its burden solely to the tireless (and often under resourced) victim survivors, experts, advocates, support workers and counsellors. The issue needs to be called out as one of primarily men committing violence, and people in my position who have benefitted from privilege, have a role in its resolution. For people like myself, deciding to do nothing is part of the problem.
The terrible extent of domestic violence in Australia is a source of national shame. One in six women have experienced physical or sexual violence by a current or former partner, while for men it is one in 16. On average, one woman every week is killed by a former or current male partner. Domestic and family violence is the leading cause of homelessness for women and their children. Over the course of 2020-21, as we stayed indoors to reduce the transmission of COVID-19, most domestic violence service providers reported increases in clients reporting abuse.
There were large increases in the number of women locked down with abusive partners suffering coercion, isolation, and reduced access to support. Advances in technology have also enabled offenders to commit domestic abuse in new ways. A survey by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2018 found almost one in three women and one in five men have been sexually harassed online or via some form of technology.
When I reflect on this reality, it makes me feel saddened and ashamed. It is devastating to read of endless stories of mothers, sisters and daughters being abused and killed in their homes, systems that re-traumatise those who attempt to seek help, and systems that seem to result in far too many abusers not facing justice.
I'm ashamed to think about how I have perpetuated the social norms that contribute to gender inequality, such as being dismissive of women's experiences of gender inequality. These are the same norms that have characterised domestic violence as a women's problem. I'm also ashamed to think about the times where I have become blind and desensitised to the issue, something all too easy for people in positions of privilege, like myself, to do.
Being uninformed leads to underestimating the costs and causes of domestic violence. While surveys show the general understanding of domestic violence and gender equality are improving, in some areas we are regressing. The 2017 National Community Attitudes Survey found growing numbers of young men believe domestic abuse is committed by women and men equally, contrary to decades of data, research and crime statistics which demonstrate it is overwhelmingly an issue of men's violence against women. Awareness of the gendered nature of domestic abuse is key to an informed response to address domestic abuse, both from policy makers and individuals.
There are incredible people doing incredible things to help raise awareness of domestic abuse, and support victims and survivors. Among them are Australians of the Year Rosie Batty and Grace Tame, who have both powerfully advocated for the survivors of domestic abuse. There are thousands of women working full time to help abuse victims alongside the work of organisations like Women's Community Shelters, the Lokahi Foundation and the network of Women's Health Centres across NSW.
There is a whole sector emerging and growing to prevent gendered violence including organisations like Our Watch and White Ribbon Australia. In the Illawarra, the Illawarra Women's Health Centre is working to improve wellbeing of women and girls, and currently campaigning for the establishment of a Women's Trauma Recovery Centre, that will provide an evidence-based wrap around service to support women recovering from the trauma of domestic and family violence.
The shame I feel as I learn about domestic abuse in Australia makes me want to find a way to make a positive change. In addition to supporting those fighting domestic abuse and gender inequality, there are steps most of us can take to shine a light on domestic violence in Australia. We should make a conscious effort to understand the prevalence of domestic violence, for which there is a wealth of information available online. We can also start talking about it with friends and family to understand their experiences, and start calling out misogynistic behaviours and jokes that add to the cultural malaise perpetuating a culture of violence against women.
It is hard to have confronting conversations with friends and colleagues, I'm terrible at it. But it helps us understand experiences of domestic abuse close to home, and it helps change what is accepted as "male behaviour", and what is abuse. I'm asking the men reading this to think about the women in their lives, and to think about what you do to help stop men's violence. If we stopped turning a blind eye and all started taking small steps, it will lead to sorely needed change.
If you need support or more information you can contact: No to Violence or 1800 RESPECT. For more information see: "What men can do to stop sexism and male violence" -What men can do to stop sexism and male violence | www.xyonline.net.
- Declan Kelly is a volunteer at the Illawarra Women's Health Centre.