• Alix Lee

You almost certainly know a victim of domestic violence

Trigger warning: the following article deals with domestic and family violence and contains the names and harrowing details of violence against women who have died.

9 January 2015: 23-year-old Nikita Chawla’s husband slashes her throat after accusing her of cheating. Moments later, he calls police to confess and asks them to collect her body.

8 September 2015: Tara Brown dies from horrific head injuries inflicted by her estranged partner after he tailgated her through the Gold Coast suburbs, forced her car off the road and attacked her while she was trapped in her upturned vehicle. Days earlier, Brown had requested help from police for ‘domestic violence-related issues’.

31 January 2017: Teresa Bradford’s estranged partner stabs her to death in their former home after being released on bail for assaulting her just two months earlier. Their 4 children, who were home at the time of the attack, ran to neighbouring homes to seek help.

25 April 2017: Ora Holt dies in a ‘domestic dispute’ when her partner of fourteen years, armed with a high-powered rifle, shoots her in the head before turning the gun on himself. The dispute escalated when the man chased the family from their house to their neighbours house – Ms Holt locked herself in a bedroom while the neighbours escaped with the children.

Tragically, it has taken the lives of Nikita Chawla, Tara Brown, Allison Baden-Clay, Teresa Bradford, Ora Holt, Victoria Comrie Cullen as well as the horrific deaths and lived experiences of countless other women victims to draw attention to Australia’s domestic violence epidemic.

Research shows that gender inequality and sexist attitudes play a huge role in facilitating our culture of domestic violence. One government survey found that ‘low levels of support for gender equality are the strongest predictors for holding violence-supporting attitudes’ when it comes to male-perpetrated violence against female partners.

It is important to note that men and women are both perpetrators and victims in cases of domestic violence.

Overwhelmingly, however, statistics demonstrate that men are primarily perpetrators while women are victims. The implication here is that domestic violence is inherently gendered. While there is also evidence to support a trend of domestic violence within same-sex relationships, little is known about the true extent or relationship dynamics that lead partners to abuse.

In heteronormative relationships, research suggests that domestic violence is committed by men who are driven by sexist views to control their partner. Escalating violence is a common punishment for women who attempt to defy their abusers.

A study published by the World Health Organisation finds that women are grossly over-represented as victims in incidents of domestic violence around the world:

  • Almost one third (30 percent) of all women who have been in a relationship experienced physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner;

  • Globally, as many as 38 percent of all female murders are committed by current or former intimate partners

If we accept that men are just more prone to violent outbursts or moments of aggression, we excuse their abusive behaviour as stereotypical and instead blame the women who stay.

On average in Australia, at least one woman is killed by her current or former partner per week. Rates of domestic violence among Indigenous Australian women are even higher, where there is an even more persistent culture of non-reporting.

Death is all too often the tragic culmination of a sustained campaign of domestic violence.

Belinda Cox, Community and Partnerships Program Manager at Micah Projects, says domestic violence is not just limited to violent outbursts:

“Domestic violence is an ongoing campaign of one person exerting their power and their control over another with the intent to cause fear, and to [control] that person. It’s not an incident, it’s not even a series of incidents, it’s a much more complex dynamic than that… We talk about types of domestic violence – physical, emotional, psychological – they’re not necessarily ‘types’ [of violence], they are strategies that an abuser will use in that whole arena of perpetrating power and control over another,” she explains.

In Queensland alone, 45 percent of homicide victims from 2006-13 died from domestic or family violence.

Of those victims, 79 percent were women.

Since 2015, there has been a spike in the number of domestic violence-related incidents being reported throughout the state. In the two and a half years since Tara Brown’s death, we know of five more Gold Coast women who have been killed by their current or former partners, and since 2014 there has been a fourteen-fold increase in the number of people seeking assistance for domestic violence at the Gold Coast Community Legal Centre alone.

The trauma of their experiences has led some victims to speak out and warn others of the all-too common nature of domestic violence in our communities. Former Australian of the Year, Rosie Batty works tirelessly to spread that message since the loss of her son, Luke, to domestic violence.

Luke was just 11 years old when was brutally killed by his father, Greg, on a community oval in 2014. Noting Greg’s mental decline and increasingly violent tendencies as Luke was growing up, Ms Batty took out multiple Intervention Orders (IVOs) to restrict his access to their child.

Despite being well known as a violent offender, information about Greg’s whereabouts and visitation restrictions was not properly communicated between local police officers and stations. Greg’s manipulation of the court system was another added complication that prevented the law from protecting Ms Batty and Luke.

Following Luke’s death, Ms Batty discovered that Greg was not even allowed to attend Luke’s cricket training at the oval where his murder took place.

The weakness of the legal system is also part of the reason Teresa Bradford was murdered. Her estranged partner was in blatant violation of his bail conditions when he stabbed her to death at their former home. Her family are now campaigning for a crackdown on enforcing court conditions handed down to perpetrators.

While there can be no doubt that the weakness of the legal system is overwhelmingly failing victims after incidents of domestic violence, what about the misogynistic beliefs and hypermasculine ego of perpetrators that lead them to abuse their partners?

What about the media’s preoccupation with victim culpability because ‘she stayed’ over holding perpetrators to account?

When it comes to domestic violence, our sexist cultural norms play a huge role in in preventing women from speaking out or seeking help for fear of being victim-blamed.

Rosie Batty agrees, arguing that if we accept that men are just more prone to violent outbursts or moments of aggression, we excuse their abusive behaviour as stereotypical and instead blame the women who ‘stay’.

In an article published by The Monthly, former AFL player Luke Ablett observes how seemingly harmless banter from a young age skews our understanding of gender roles and reasonable behaviour in adult relationships:

“I clearly remember being in Grade 6, and I had this girlfriend – you don’t even talk to each other, but somehow she’s your girlfriend,” he says. “She was talking to this other guy, and all my mates were like ‘Oh, you’ve gotta go do something about that.’… Later, when the girlfriend is real, and you want to spend Friday night with her instead of your mates, you get ‘You’re pussy-whipped’ and ‘Who wears the pants in your relationship?’ …You think they’re harmless comments as a 12-year-old, but they can really teach you about how you should behave in a relationship.”

The Guardian reported that Nikita Chawla’s husband murdered Ms Chawla in a ‘jealous rage’ after finding messages to a male colleague on her phone. After calling police to confess, he told them he murdered his wife because he believed Ms Chawla was cheating on him.

When media organisations use this kind of emotive language to describe such incidents, they romanticize these extreme acts of violence as ‘crimes of passion’.

Other news stories seek to place a level of blame on victims for failing to keep themselves safe. The Courier Mail ran a story that Teresa Bradford ‘turned down an offer of safe housing’ in favour of longer-term housing, implying that she exposed herself to danger.

Ms Cox agrees that victim blaming is not only unhelpful, but also sorely misplaced: “people just see domestic violence as these separate ‘incidents’, they don’t understand what happens in between. They don’t understand the manipulation and the gaslighting and the coercive control. They also don’t realise that the most dangerous time for a woman is when she is leaving or has left. That is most commonly when domestic violence homicides occur. Sometimes actually returning to a relationship or remaining in one is actually safer for a woman and her children [than leaving],” she says.

In an address at a Business Chicks breakfast event, Ms Batty also expressed concern that victims are ever implicated for their ‘role’ in domestic violence, again pointing out that “leaving can often be the catalyst for the escalation of violence”.

Of the women homicide victims in Queensland between 2006-2013, 43 percent died ‘during a period of actual or intended separation’.

Unsurprisingly, the controlling and violent behaviours used to make and keep women victims vulnerable and associated hardships or trauma (a lack of support and access to money or accommodation, dependent children and pets, eroded self-esteem) are the primary reasons many stay – and we now know that they’re at an increased risk of danger if they attempt to leave.

One concerning article published by The Australian attempts to discredit widely cited domestic violence statistics to prove the issue is not about gender.

The article references the Personal Safety Survey (PSS) conducted by the ABS, which found that one in three victims of domestic violence are men who are abused by women. What the survey fails to distinguish, however, is the context of the violence.

In an interview with Hack, Dr Michael Salter, a senior lecturer in criminology at Western Sydney University, argues that women are most likely commit violence against men in self-defence. Like Ms Cox, Dr Salter also agrees that domestic violence is less about one-off incidents and more about a sustained campaign of violence intended to humiliate and gain control of a victim. The PSS does not make this distinction.

In November 2017, One Nation announced a domestic violence policy that champions visitation rights for abusive fathers to minimize the impact of marriage breakdowns on children, even after a court awards an emergency protection order.

The only way to stop visitation is to ‘prove’ abuse in the form of ‘injuries, medical files or through a partner’s criminal past’. Not only does this policy reward abusive behaviour and dismiss the impact of emotional abuse, it also places victims and their families at an increased risk of experiencing physical violence. It also raises questions, like:

  • What constitutes an injury?

  • How much ‘violent criminal behaviour’ is enough to restrict visitation rights?

  • Why is the onus on victims to re-prove their partner’s abusive behaviours even after legal intervention?

In response to Luke's death and Ms Batty's advocacy, the Victorian government launched a Royal Commission into domestic violence in 2016, offering a total of 227 recommendations for implementation.

A year on from the commission, the Victorian government announced an historic 1.9 billion-dollar budget dedicated to improving services for victims - including the creation of 5 specialist family violence courts. Other state governments have also followed suit, with state budgets dedicating more funds than ever to create and maintain family violence courts, shelters in high-demand areas and improving existing services already available to victims.

So far, however, all this extra money for the cause has not caused a cultural shift. When our society still attributes blame to victims and the rates of women being abused are as high as ever, it is clear drastic change is still needed.

When a politician complains that our 'politically correct' standards restrict her right to free speech but advocates a policy to further endanger domestic violence victims, it is clear she prioritises her political agenda above the safety of Australian women.

When a national sporting team renews the contract of a man guilty of abusing his partner and violently assaulting another family in New York, it is clear that society's ethical standards are badly skewed.

When a former Labor leader claims that men only commit domestic violence to cope with low self-esteem and the 'crap they have [going on] in their lives', it is clear we need stop excusing violent behaviour as a masculine coping mechanism.

When a vulnerable woman who has already sought protection from police is violently killed by her former partner, it is clear we need to do more to protect victims.

Our ignorance to warning signs and lack of adequate support has already cost the lives of so many. Our continued judgement of victims and their responses to abuse has created a culture of victim-blaming and non-reporting, and our laws have often done more to protect the rights of perpetrators than the safety of victims.

We need media organisations to address the culture of sexism and misogyny that teaches boys to 'wear the pants' in relationships and leads some men to use violence to control their partners. We need the legal system to implement more stringent laws that see victims' rights and safety protected at all costs.

In doing so, we may stop endangering vulnerable women's lives.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, you can seek help by calling 1800-Respect on 1800 737 732 if you feel safe to do so.

In Brisbane, you can contact Micah Projects on (07) 3217 2544.

If in immediate danger, please call 000.