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family terrorism: government policy vs social issues

Image: Concha García Hernández

Image: Concha García Hernández

Trigger Warning: Domestic Violence / Violence Against Women

A recent poll has shown that three-quarters of Australians believe that domestic violence poses as much, or more, of a threat than terrorism. Just under half of those polled said domestic violence is a greater threat than terrorism.

The Essential Research poll of 1,000 people follows the suggestion that domestic violence should be referred to as “family terrorism” by Australian of the Year and vocal campaigner against domestic violence, Rosie Batty. ‘Let’s put this into context, this is terrorism in Australia,’ Batty told the ACT Law Society in May. ‘If we look at that money that we spend on terrorism overseas, for the slight risk that it poses to our society, it is disproportionate completely.’

The statistics on domestic violence are overwhelmingly bad. At the time of writing, 48 women have already died this year from domestic violence. Domestic violence is the leading preventable contributor to death, disability and illness for women aged between 15 and 44. Australian police deal with a domestic violence matter every two minutes.

For women in minority or marginalised groups the risk of violence is higher and there is less access to help. Despite regularly citing violence against women and children as a justification for the Northern Territory Intervention and the closure of Indigenous communities, women’s services and refuges in remote areas are chronically underfunded. Queer women are often faced with services that cannot fathom violence outside of a heteronormative framework, while transgender women are often refused access to women’s refuges and services.

And yet, despite much public hand wringing and statements of concern from the federal government this year’s budget included only one new measure to address domestic violence. The government announced $30 million for an awareness campaign, to which it would only provide half the money with the rest to be matched by the states and territories.

The government also announced a two-year extension of funding for the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness, as well as community and Indigenous legal services, totalling around $250 million. However, these are only continuances of existing programs and offer no guarantee for continued funding once the two years are up.

The current funding is clearly not enough. Last year, 18,631 calls to the cause’s national hotline 1800RESPECT went unanswered. In the preceding year, 423 people were turned away from homelessness agencies every single night, while 150,000 people were unable to receive legal help through community legal centres.

While an awareness campaign is a crucial part of combating domestic violence, it cannot work alone. As awareness grows, who will answer the increasing number of calls? Who will house the growing number of women and children fleeing violent homes? Awareness is only useful if there are services to match it.

In comparison, last year’s allocation of $630 million to fight terrorism was increased by a further $450 million in this year’s budget. Tony Abbott continues to spout irrational and inflammatory rhetoric about the risk of terrorism.

The communal chest-beating over Zaky Mallah’s appearance on the ABCs Q and A, the Allegiance to Australia Bill and the various national security laws designed to curtail investigative journalism are all part of this government’s paranoid attitude towards terrorism and its aversion with transparency.

Terrorism is, of course, a genuine problem and it has devastated lives here and overseas. To suggest that the threat of terrorism should be ignored is both ignorant and deeply insensitive. However, it is possible to respond to the threat in a rational and measured manner. This seems to be beyond our current government and much of the media.

There are clear and necessary policy and funding changes that can meaningfully improve services for women and children who are victims of domestic violence. But these are always going to be the responses to the later stages – after the violence and trauma has been enacted. A meaningful change to the earlier stages – where men feel threatened by any loss of control over the women in their lives and respond with physical and verbal violence – cannot be made through increased funding to refuges, hotlines and community legal centres.

While the results of the recent poll indicate that Australians do not see domestic violence as acceptable, there is a disjunct between hearing the statistics and translating that to a real-world understanding of its prevalence.

Much discussion of domestic violence understands it as something that happens to “certain types” of women who form relationships with “certain types” of men. Questions such as “we didn’t she just leave?” or “how could she think it was okay to expose her kids to violence?” attest to this understanding. These questions imply fault – weakness or selfishness – on the woman’s part. These questions deny the prevalence of domestic violence (unless those “certain types” of women represent a third of all women in Australia). They ignore the immense risks women must weigh up when deciding to leave an abusive partner and that when women leave is when the violence is most likely to escalate.

Men who abuse women have often been exposed to abuse themselves, have lacked education about abuse, and may have mental health issues. These factors have enabled much of their behaviour.

But these men do not live in bubbles, untouched by mass media and entertainment. These men witness a systemic rape culture that continues to ask, “what was she wearing?” after a sexual assault. These men witness the victim blaming that sees a major television network ask ‘what’s it going to take for women to get the message about taking and sending nude photos?’ These men watch the mainstream movies, the music videos, the advertising, and the pornography that continues to objectify and degrade women.

Understanding the problem of domestic violence cannot be done exclusively through case studies of the individuals who perpetrate it. While these men are often products of personal disadvantage, they also represent a national culture that continues to excuse violence against women.

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