The Guardian • Issue #1952

Domestic violence and its systemic perpetration

At least one child is killed by a parent every month; one woman is murdered every week by a partner or former partner; another hospitalised every three hours. Domestic violence can be physically brutal or more hidden in its various non-physical forms. It is usually inflicted on someone the perpetrator claims to love. The violence is essentially about exerting power over and controlling the victim. It is not gender-specified, but the overwhelming majority of perpetrators are men, and their victims are women.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS): “An estimated one in six Australian women (1.6mil or 17 per cent) aged 18 years and over experienced partner violence since the age of 15.” These are alarming statistics, yet the federal government still fails to take the crisis seriously. It took Rosie Batty, 2015 Australian of the Year, to bring attention to its seriousness and the urgent need for action.

Following the tragic loss of her son Luke, Battie’s advocacy played a role in the establishment in 2015 of the Royal Commission into Family Violence in Victoria. Since its report in 2016 the Victorian government has implemented many of its recommendations and others are a work in progress.


Annette Gillespie, the head of Victoria’s Safe Steps Family Violence Response Centre, said there are two key attributes for family or domestic violence to be present: “One of them is that one party is in fear of the other. The other is that the abuser uses a planned, systematic approach to remove a person’s confidence, support networks and independence in order to highlight their own power and control within the relationship.”

“Sociodemographic variables that were associated with higher rates of partner violence for women include single parenthood, financial stress, unemployment, disability or a long-term health condition, poor or fair self-reported health status, and low levels of life satisfaction,” Gillespie noted.

Domestic violence, family violence, or intimate violence, as it is sometimes called, affects people from all walks of life, regardless of ethnic background, religion, level of education, age, or relationship length.

Each year, in Australia, more than 20,000 women seek shelter in women’s refuges and take out protection orders. This figure understates the extent of the problem as most victims do not come forward, for reasons such as fear of retribution, feeling humiliated, or not knowing where to turn.

There tends to be a pattern of behaviour with the abuse increasing over time. [It can be emotional, sexual, physical or even the threat of violence to actual physical violence.] Alcohol and other drugs can be a factor in the escalation of abusive behaviour.

The longer a person remains in an abusive relationship, the higher the toll. It is not uncommon for the victim to experience depression, anxiety, self-doubt, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other impacts that can be lasting and require ongoing professional support. It can also have an impact on any children in the relationship.

Coercive control

In more recent years, and in particular, following the murder of Hannah Clarke and her three children, the campaign has grown for non-physical forms of domestic violence to be recognised.

Coercive control is a form of domestic violence or abuse in which a perpetrator uses an ongoing system of behaviours to dominate and control their victims. These might be social, financial, psychological, or threatening behaviour such as the use of tracking devices (e.g. on phone or car), controlling access to money, isolating them from their friends and family, dictating what they can wear, humiliating or insulting them.

This can have a devastating impact on the independence, well-being and safety of the victim. As a result, victims often report feeling trapped and helpless. Research has linked coercive behaviour as a lead-up to homicide of an intimate partner or former partner.

Impact of pandemic

A survey of 15,000 women by the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic found that almost 6 per cent (5.8 per cent) of women experienced coercive control and 11.6 per cent reported experiencing at least one form of emotionally abusive, harassing or controlling behaviour.

“Many women, particularly those experiencing more serious or complex forms of violence and abuse, reported safety concerns were a barrier to help-seeking,” the AIC reported.

“We conclude that the pandemic was associated with an increased risk of violence against women in current cohabiting relationships, most likely from a combination of economic stress and social isolation.”

Law failing women

The Hannah Clarke case is one of many examples where the law and failed. Domestic violence orders (DVOs) are easily breached by perpetrators obsessed with gaining access to children or harming (former) partners. All too often, it is too late when breaches are discovered or acted on.

The emotional issues are complex, making it difficult for a woman to extricate herself from a dangerous situation. It becomes even more so when children are involved, such as when a father seeks the right to have access to his children.

There has been a general failure by police to understand and recognise the seriousness of domestic violence towards women. This is reinforced by systemic sexism that still permeates much of society, including a number of politicians.

The trade union movement, on its part, has had considerable success in campaigning for and winning domestic violence leave from work. The Fair Work Commission has determined that all workers are now entitled to five days unpaid family and domestic violence leave each year. Some unions have won paid leave.

This was an important step in making it easier to find accommodation, consult legal, financial, counselling, and other services, or look for another school for children, etc.

Economic independence vital

Lack of economic independence is a critical factor in tying many women to their persecutors, especially when the shortage of refuges means no safe place to flee. Far too often finances are not separate, the perpetrator may control them, or it may just be too difficult to leave without an alternative source of income and accommodation.

In a tightly controlled relationship, it may be difficult to even source or access services that are available. This has been the situation during the pandemic.

Loss of Family Court

Parliament passed legislation on 17th February “merging” the Family Court with the Federal Circuit Court in a move that was strongly opposed by many women’s and legal organisations such as the Law Council of Australia and Women’s Legal Services Australia. In effect, the Family Court has been abolished. (Guardian #1951)

The outcome is that complex family matters will be handled by a court lacking the specialist and experienced staff with the necessary training to be able to respond in a sensitive manner. The outcome will be a huge setback for the women and children involved. Waiting times will increase due to under-staffing.

The cuts to funding, changes to lending laws, and the abolition of Family Court are all attacks on women. In line with other government policies, such as treatment of sole parents, the majority of victims are women.

But they are not just “any” women. These are women who “failed” in the eyes of the conservative “Christian” model of a woman to be the obedient wife and homemaker they should be and remain dutifully at the side of their husband. If he is violent towards her, it must be a result of her behaviour.

Thus, she is not seen as the victim but is to blame for the break-up of a marriage.

That is why the Coalition strongly opposed the Family Court with its introduction of no-fault divorces by the Whitlam government in 1975. Previous to that the system worked to the overall advantage of men.

Time for action

Policy should be focused on the prevention and early intervention with support for the victims. It must include extensive education programs starting at school, and the alleviation the many socio-economic stresses in life, changing cultural attitudes, even religious norms.

Policy should include:

  • Mandatory training of police, lawyers, judicial officers, frontline health workers, child protection workers, and other family service workers to be able to identify and handle appropriately instances of domestic violence
  • Provision of affordable public housing, jobs creation, a living wage, free child care, free access to legal and mental health services
  • Increasing the level of JobSeeker
  • Adequate funding and provision for crisis centres, refuges and ongoing accommodation, counselling, legal, family, and other services
  • Indigenous communities controlling programs, services and determining their needs
  • Restoration of the Family Court with improvements to its operation, adequate funding, and specialist staff
  • Restoration of responsible lending laws.

There is still too much violence, much of it unreported, lack of funding and lack of political will to address the situation. That must change. So must the system that engenders it.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or

In an emergency, call 000.

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