20 minute read
Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Eleanor Roosevelt.
On 16 November 2011 Robert Bretherton was relaxing with a few beers while his wife Jodie Jurd made dinner. The couple was in the process of separating and things were tense. She asked what they would do with the proceeds of the sale of their house and:
…a huge argument started… I’ve walked into the bedroom – it’s back and forth – by this stage I was really fuming – she said something to me – I don’t know what she said – I came to – I got a knife and I was stabbing her – [I thought] what the fuck do I do – there was a big spurt of blood coming out of her stomach…
That’s Bretherton’s version of events. Jurd’s ability to tell her version disappeared the moment Bretherton killed her. But testimony at his trial suggests that if she could speak, she would start the story much earlier.
Sentencing him to a term of imprisonment of 21 years with a non-parole period of 15 years and 9 months, Justice Harrison noted “the offender’s intense jealousy of the deceased’s close relationship with her family” and the way he had “continually sought to limit the frequency” of Jurd’s contact with them, whether in person or by phone. Friends of Jurd testified that she’d told them Bretherton “had hit her, kicked her and slapped her, and that it was worse when he was drinking.”
Despite all this, Justice Harrison considered that, “Nothing in the evidence contained the slightest foreboding of what ultimately occurred.”
In Australia, a woman is killed by a former or current partner almost every week. So far in 2015, the figure appears to be closer to two a week, though only time and full investigation of these deaths will tell.
The crime of domestic homicide is “among the most preventable in our community,” according to a 2014 Queensland parliamentary inquiry on strategies to prevent and reduce criminal activity. This is because, the inquiry found, there is usually prior, non-lethal violence that is known to others outside of the abuser and his victim. Findings from the NSW Domestic Violence Death Review Team also show that a period of escalating violence precedes a third of intimate-partner homicides. And in every case “someone outside the relationship was aware of the violence being perpetrated by the domestic violence abuser”.
Death review teams and inquiries and reports, and policies and strategies and position papers. These abound when it comes to domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence. This is appropriate given the scope and scale of the problem. But it’s infuriating to read them all and learn how much knowledge exists about how to prevent or dramatically reduce the deaths, only to notice that during the time you’ve been reading another name has been added to the Counting Dead Women Australia Facebook page.
Two hours from Sydney Paula Mudd, “chairperson, manager, dogsbody, lifter, mover, you name it”, for the Hunter Domestic Violence Support and Advisory Services (HDVSAS), is in a house -turned-donation-storage-centre set way back in a paddock still water-logged after a recent two-day storm. She interrupts the sorting of pre-loved children’s clothes to talk about the refuge opened in honour of Jodie Jurd in late 2013.
“Jodie’s Place is the first women’s refuge in the Cessnock area and we really needed it,” says Mudd. “We’ve had 23 women in 16 months through there, 23 women and dozens of children. But we’ve turned away 50 women as well, because we were full. It’s a four-bedroom house. If we have four women and they all have children, well, we’ve got beds for them and a roof over their heads but it’s very crowded. We’re a bandaid, not a solution.”
Refuges may be a bandaid, but the shortage of these bandaids means women are dying. The first women’s refuge in Australia was started by women’s liberation activists in 1974. Forty years later, there were more than 100 run by women’s organisations in NSW alone. Even with this many in operation, close to half of those seeking shelter were being turned away. This situation is not unique to NSW; refuges across Australia report regularly having to turn women away.
Despite an already desperate situation, in 2013 the NSW government’s Going Home Staying Home reforms resulted in most of the state’s existing services being put out to tender. Today in NSW fewer than 20 remain as dedicated women’s – rather than general homeless – shelters.
While these reforms were underway, 26-year-old Sydney woman Leila Alavi tried and failed 12 times to get into a refuge. In January of this year she was stabbed to death with scissors, allegedly by the husband she had tried to escape.
This is horrifying but unsurprising. We know that women are the experts on their level of risk; their assessment of danger is usually accurate, so if they’re fleeing it’s with reason. We know that lack of social support and not having anywhere to go can reduce a woman’s ability to leave an abusive relationship. We know that the risk of violence is elevated right around the time she leaves. Imagine if the reforms in NSW had never happened and instead more funding was allocated to existing refuges? Maybe Leila Alavi could have found the help she needed.
While the short-term relief of a refuge is vital, it is only the first stop in what can be a long and very tough road for a woman leaving a domestic violence relationship. She may have spent years experiencing a continuum of physical, emotional, psychological, sexual and financial abuse. She needs much more than a place to lay her head at night.
Many of those running shelters and refuges know this better than anyone. At HDVSAS Mudd and her tiny volunteer team work around the clock to help women access what they need. There are plenty of dedicated, desperately under-resourced services like this one operating throughout Australia. But whether you’ll find one in your area is another thing. The system is so ad-hoc it can’t really be called a system at all.
Many women also don’t know they can receive free legal advice – to help with apprehended violence orders, custody arrangements, financial problems and the like – from community legal centres. This kind of advice can make all the difference to a woman who needs to extricate herself from a relationship but is overwhelmed by the financial and legal barriers in her way.
But seeking legal help is also getting harder for women. In June the Federation of Community Legal Centres announced the Federal Government plans to force centres to means test clients. Like the NSW Going Home Staying Home reforms, this move will make an already difficult time even harder for many women. It is not unusual for someone leaving an abusive relationship to have no safe access to funds or assets that are, on paper, hers. A woman may fail the means test due to co-owning a home, for example, yet the presence of her abuser in that home, or his name on the paperwork, means she cannot live there or sell it to raise money for a lawyer.
All this amounts to a refrain depressingly familiar to domestic violence services: there are excellent services in place staffed by dedicated, skilled individuals but women in need aren’t always finding them because there is no system linking the various services together. A woman’s ability to access them might further depend on where she lives, or how far she can travel. Also, they’re underfunded. Also, demand is rising.
The National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service, the first point of call for many women dealing with relationship violence, answered 50,000 calls last year. Eighteen thousand went to an answering service. Demand has increased since then. In the 2015 federal budget, the only domestic violence measure announced was a $30 million national awareness campaign. If this were to create even a five per cent increase in demand – which it could easily do given that, at present, only about 20 per cent of victims seek help – then the phone line would be inundated.
“And it’s not just us. It’s all of the services,” says Karen Willis, Executive Officer at Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia. “And that includes police. All of us have much more demand than we can meet. And what we’re doing, if we have a 30 million dollar awareness campaign, is encouraging people to seek safety and then we’re not putting the services in place.”
According to Willis, what’s needed is a network of properly-funded assessment centres staffed by highly qualified, skilled practitioners. Women who have left an abusive relationship are the expert in what’s happened to them. And practitioners like Willis are the experts in trauma and the services that are available to help. “We can put those two together and come up with a partnership with the woman about what’s best for her and her kids,” says Willis.
It makes so much sense. A woman escaping violence could, in one place, have her safety, legal, housing and other needs assessed, and then make, and put into action, plans to meet them. Something like this would cost a lot of money, for sure, but violence against women and their children is estimated to cost the Australian economy $15.6 billion a year by 2021, so investing a stack in helping women escape sooner and recover faster and more completely would seem sensible.
So let’s dream big for a minute: say our leaders put up the money to ensure every woman in a violent relationship is able to access all she needs to leave and then recover and re-establish herself long-term. Problem solved?
Imagine a hijacked plane says Lorna McNamara, Director of the NSW Health Education Centre Against Violence. “All the passengers at the back of the plane get together, they meet, have support groups, counsel each other around anxiety and depression. It’s all fantastic. But the plane doesn’t stop getting hijacked unless you start working with the hijackers at the front of the plane, the people who are responsible for the violence.”
Have you ever wondered why we are not just in armed combat against you? It’s not because there’s a shortage of kitchen knives in this country. It is because we believe in your humanity, against all the evidence. Andrea Dworkin
More stuff we know: most perpetrators of domestic violence are male (this is true whether the victim is male or female) and most of the victims are women. The Australian Bureau of Statistics Personal Safety Survey found that 17 per cent of women and 5.3 per cent of men had experienced physical or sexual violence from a current or former partner. Emotional abuse rates were higher: 25 per cent for women and 14 per cent for men. When it comes to intimate partner homicide, 73 per cent of victims are female.
Of all the knowns, the gendered nature of domestic violence is perhaps the most denied, the most ignored, the most wished-away. It’s become an exhausted joke amongst feminists that every time it’s mentioned it’s immediately met by the defensive cry “Not All Men!”
Here’s the thing: it’s not all men. And it’s not the same number of men across time or cultures. If it were we might conclude that no matter what we do as a society, no matter what we teach our kids or how we construct our communities, a certain unchangeable number of men will hurt women. If that were true, as with floods and earthquakes, helping people escape, housing them afterwards and mourning the occasional dead is all we could do.
But domestic violence is not a natural disaster. It is choice – or a series of choices – to violate another person’s right to bodily autonomy, safety and liberty. And we have choices, too, as a society, in how we deal with men who use violence against women.
The Centre for Innovative Justice (CIJ) at RMIT University reports that most police forces across Australia have a “pro-arrest, pro-prosecution” approach, and there are clear positives to this. The arrest of her abuser can provide a victim with immediate relief and at least some period of guaranteed safety in which she can make plans for the future and seek support. Arrest of the perpetrator can also make women feel heard and supported, and reinforce the message to the man that his behaviour is criminal.
There’s a risk, however, that a victim who has fought back against her abuser will find herself under arrest when the police arrive. According to Michael Salter, senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Western Sydney, “taking domestic violence more seriously means the police are showing up, and where both the man and woman have injuries, they might arrest both of them.”
Similarly, while more and tougher jail sentences may seem an obvious way to deal with the plague of domestic violence offences, incarcerating more men has real downsides. A 2013 senate inquiry concluded that Australian prison populations “have reached an unacceptable level”, something attributed, in part, to increased reporting of crimes including domestic violence and “tougher” police and judiciary responses.
In the case of domestic violence, there is no evidence that prison is a deterrent or that time in jail reduces the risk of re-offending. What it does do is harm the mental and physical health of the offenders and impact negatively on their families and communities.
Salter points to the Safety Action Meeting approach being trialled in NSW as a possible better way forward than the current “broad spray police response”. Based on models used in South Australia and in the UK, the idea is for regular information-sharing meetings between police and front line domestic violence, child protection and social service workers to identify high-risk situations and come up with collaborative plans to address them, with a focus on protecting the victims. Arrest and prosecution may well be necessary in some cases but they are not the first resort, and are not used in isolation.
Of course arrest and prosecution only become options after an incident has occurred. For those who fear their abuser may harm them in the future, the most common legal remedy is the Protection Order. Usually called Apprehended Domestic Violence Orders (ADVO) or simply Apprehended Violence Orders (AVO), these were introduced in Australia in the 1980s and annual applications now number in the tens of thousands. The objective is to prevent violence by limiting the rights of the defendant to interact with the applicant. Evidence on their effectiveness is mixed.
Orders with exclusion provisions attached, which means the perpetrator is removed from the home while the victim remains, can be an effective means of supporting women and children. Able to remain in their homes, they can continue their daily routines in a familiar environment, rather than go through the ordeal of fleeing to a refuge or other emergency accommodation. And as with arrest, the issuing and enforcement of an ADVO can help women feel believed and supported, and reinforce to a perpetrator the seriousness of his behaviour.
Still though, the CIJ cites “statistics from several jurisdictions suggesting that at least a third” of protection orders are breached. Little wonder domestic violence professionals report being frequently asked, “How is a piece of paper going to stop a gun?”
It’s a fair question. Of the women killed by alleged domestic violence in Australia this year, at least five – Leila Alavi, Tara Costigan, Adele Collins, Fabiana Palhares and an unnamed Alice Springs woman – are reported to have had AVOs out at the time of their deaths.
Even when they work perfectly, protection orders are a tool to keep just one woman safe for the period of time that the order applies. Mudd, who worked as a domestic violence court advocate before moving to the HDVSAS, tells of being at court with women applying for orders:
I’ve got a woman in the safe room. He [the perpetrator] is out the front with the new woman in his life and I know I’m going to see that woman in this position [in the safe room] in another 6, 12 months time … If we’re going to stop domestic violence, let’s work with the perpetrator. Let’s stop it before another woman gets hurt.
“Violence is an obstacle to the kind of lives that men really want to lead. No man grows up thinking ‘I want to hit my wife, I want to abuse my kids, that’s the kind of future I want for myself’. Every man, every human being, grows up wanting to be a good person. So there’s always that opportunity for change.” Michael Salter
Men’s Behaviour Change Programs (MBCPs), sometimes called perpetrator programs, are increasingly considered a core element in preventing violence against women and children. Although there are no national standards governing MBCPs at present, the field is becoming more professionalised with NSW and Victoria both having minimum standards that programs must meet to receive government funding.
“There’s a really strong argument around, well, ‘why should this work receive the funds compared to some of the work going to directly support women to leave violence and abuse at home’”, says Clint Berry, project officer at the Men’s Behaviour Change Network. While agreeing that this is a valid concern, Berry – like others championing this work – points to the benefits of working directly with perpetrators. “It’s first and foremost about the safety of women and children. In many ways it’s about monitoring the men, having surveillance around what’s happening in the home. We’re asking them directly ‘have you used any violence and abuse over the last week’? In the groups, we’re always looking for red flags.”
Many programs also include a partner contact component, both to support the principle of accountability and to ensure partners (or former partners) who have experienced abuse are receiving whatever assistance they need. While many men enter the programs hoping to “keep” a partner who is contemplating leaving because of his violence (others may join on a court order or on legal advice), it’s sometimes his participation in the program that gives a woman the sense of relative safety in which she may feel finally able to leave the relationship. For the first time, she has someone calling her and checking in, seeing what services she needs; she also knows someone is keeping an eye on her partner, ready to intervene if he uses violence. And sometimes, as the CIJ reports a practitioner as saying, “a man’s failure to cease his violence despite participation in an MBCP is often the only thing that will convince a woman that her husband simply will not change.”
An important finding of the NSW Domestic Violence Death Review Team was that, “When a homicide occurs in a domestic violence context it can be characterised by a history of abusive behaviours that may have been identified by service providers, friends and family prior to the homicide.”
Reflect again on that chilling courtroom phrase as Robert Bretherton was sentenced for murdering Jodie Jurd: “Nothing in the evidence contained the slightest foreboding of what ultimately occurred.”
It is likely that any number of those working on the front line in domestic violence prevention would have recognised the red flags in Jodie Jurd’s case. Could they have prevented her murder? We can never know. But we do know the earlier we get abusive men and abused women in sight of those who know what to look for, the better chance we have of reducing the devastating toll.
“We can have the best service system in the universe. We can have the best integration, we can have the best police force around. We can have the best courts and the best laws. But by the time those systems kick in, it’s already too late. The violence is now already part of that person’s life story. We need to prevent it. ” Karen Willis
We. This word is important. There are things we do – all of us, as a community, a society, a nation – that work to nurture and support men who use violence. Study after review after inquiry has found that, as the Queensland Taskforce on Domestic and Family Violence put it, “there is a direct nexus between culture and community attitudes, and the continued prevalence and perpetration of domestic and family violence.”
The kind of “culture and community attitudes” supporting violence is another of those knowns that is too uncomfortable or challenging for many people to accept. But we must accept it, because there’s near global consensus: the foundational cause of violence against women is gender inequality and attitudes towards women and girls.
Both of these elements are important if we are to avoid what Michael Salter calls the “prevention paradox”. Reducing gender inequality by, say, increasing education levels, employment and economic independence in women is a protective factor against gendered violence. But if we do that without also changing attitudes about gender roles – that women should be subservient for example – women may be more at risk of being victimised.
Australia, contrary to popular belief, is neither a gender-equal paradise nor one free of sexist attitudes. The significant pay-gap and underrepresentation of women in positions of power are well documented. But a recent survey on Australians’ attitudes to violence against women also revealed some disturbing ideas about men, women and violence. More than half of respondents think women “often fabricate cases of domestic violence in order to improve their prospects in family law cases and nearly 2 in 5 believe that a lot of times women who say they were raped led the man on and later had regrets.” Twenty-eight per cent endorse “attitudes supportive of male dominance of decision-making in relationships, a dynamic identified as a risk factor for partner violence.”
This is not a case of waiting for the dinosaurs to die out. A third of 12-24 year olds “don’t think that exerting control over someone else is a form of violence”. A quarter “don’t think it’s serious if a guy, who’s normally gentle, sometimes slaps his girlfriend when he’s drunk and they’re arguing.” A quarter think it’s “pretty normal for guys to pressure girls into sex”.
Hope lies in organisations like Our Watch, established in July 2013 by the Commonwealth and Victorian governments, which is rolling out a series of programs designed to change the culture, behaviour and attitudes that lead to violence against women. Its approach acknowledges that while violence is a choice made by an individual, there are societal, institutional, cultural and structural factors creating the context in which that choice is made.
It’s early days for Our Watch and there are no other large-scale programs using this approach that we can look to for evidence of its efficacy. But the Strong Aboriginal Men (SAM) program does give us a glimpse.
The SAM program is run by the NSW Health Education Centre Against Violence (ECAV) and has been rolled out so far in 16 communities, including Yamba, Taree, Wilcannia and Mt Druitt. The program is not universally applicable; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are outliers in several ways when it comes to domestic violence.
For one thing, the statistics are higher than those for Australia as a whole. Indigenous women are five times more likely to be homicide victims than non-Indigenous women and 35 times more likely to be hospitalised due to family violence. Indigenous men also experience more hospitalisations from family violence than non-Indigenous men or women. Many Indigenous communities also deal with significant intergenerational disadvantage and ongoing trauma related to racism, dispossession, state-inflicted violence, forced child removals and economic exclusion.
Nevertheless, the work ECAV has done in these communities is instructive. SAM programs begin with a period of community consultation, after which a team of trained, Aboriginal educators conduct three workshops of two or three days each, over a period of a month or so. Participation is voluntary, so positive word-of-mouth from other communities, as well as the support of elders and other community leaders in encouraging men to attend, is essential.
The first workshop explores the participant’s personal, family and community experiences of violence and abuse. The second focuses on domestic violence and child sexual abuse, and the third encourages men to articulate anti-violent, anti-misogynist, protective behaviours to use in their own lives and model in their community. There is an option at the end of the program for men to enter ECAV’s educational pathway and gain qualifications in Aboriginal health, trauma counselling and social work.
Key to the program is its integration with the Strong Aboriginal Women’s program (SAW). The facilitators of each program within a community hold regular joint meetings so that any violence disclosed by the women can be addressed in the men’s groups. “If the program is not anchored with women, it won’t work,” says ECAV’s Director, Lorna McNamara.
It is also vital that the facilitators hold violent behaviour accountable. If a man in one of the SAM groups discloses that he has been violent towards a partner or child, “We work with that,” says McNamara. “And the other men hold them accountable as well. That group process is very effective in Aboriginal communities.”
ECAV’s Joanne Campbell points out that when discussing family violence and child sexual abuse with a group of men from the same community, some men will identify as both victim and perpetrator. “What these guys have to straddle is really talking about it from both perspectives, because men in the room may have histories of both.” There may also be complicated dynamics within the group. “You can have, say, a man whose daughter has been in a domestic violence relationship sitting next to the man who was responsible for this violence. This is a complex dynamic to deal with which is why we need skilled facilitators to work on the SAM program.”
As complicated and difficult as it can be, it’s the sense of community that makes the program work. “Some men from the groups have taken on the task of warning other men about using violence,” says Campbell. “Pointing out ‘this is not a good idea, mate’, just stepping in and talking about what’s the alternative way of dealing with this, other than violence. And that’s very effective. It’s the basis for the entire SAM program.”
A University of Western Sydney analysis of the program concluded that there were “significant increases” in the number of men who admitted having been violent, and in the number who disclosed they had been victims of violence. The number of those seeking help in dealing with violence also increased and most communities where the program ran went on to establish or develop their own initiatives to respond to violence.
Acknowledgement of the intersecting oppressions or disadvantage of a given demographic; support services for those experiencing violence; accountability and behaviour change programs for perpetrators; support and guidance for community-driven change. It’s what all the evidence leads to. It could just work.
National change brought about community by community.
When women die at the hands of an intimate partner, it is not some isolated tragedy.
This discussion includes a lot of statistics and studies and evidence. Necessarily so: we must know the size and scope of the problem and be cool-headed and clear-eyed about how to reduce it. But such a focus also makes it easy to forget what it is we’re trying to prevent.
This is not cancer or Ebola, not some vicious but impersonal disease. It is deeply personal and precisely targeted. It is a phenomenon in which men destroy the flesh and spirits and lives of women they know, have loved, claim still to love. The hands used to shape the mince into rissoles for dinner are the same ones that slam her head into the wall they painted together just last year. The strength he uses to nurse a crying baby for hours, to carry all the shopping in at once, is used to drive a knife into her chest, to squeeze her throat, to punch her until the face looking up at him no longer resembles the one he’s so often kissed.
When women die at the hands of an intimate partner, it is not some isolated tragedy. It’s part of a pattern whose whorls and weaves we know well enough to predict and disrupt and destroy. So let’s be clear: domestic violence is not a women’s issue, though it is mostly women who are being harmed and killed. It’s not a men’s issue although it is mostly men who are harming and killing. This is a human rights issue and the Australian government has a duty to address it.
Ask any of our political leaders if they care about violence against women and they’ll tell you they do. They’ll use a lot of words, some of them true and powerful. They’ll appoint incredible warriors like Rosie Batty as Australian of the Year and make speeches and shake hands in front of the COAG sign and pin white ribbons to their suits. But while the only funding put forward is for an awareness campaign, which will likely increase demand for already overstretched services, we can’t believe them.
The people mentioned in this essay and hundreds of others around the country – front line workers, academics, health and social policy experts, and law-enforcement professionals – know what to do. Many of them are doing it the best they can within criminally limited means. Independent advocacy group Fair Agenda have put together an itemised call for more funding of front line services. The amounts needed are – given the scale of the problem – modest, and it is inexcusable that our governments, state and federal, are not doing all they can to fund these crucial services.
Because we know – we have much more than the slightest foreboding – that so long as our leaders delay putting money where their insincere mouths are more women will become homeless, injured, traumatised, dead.
Let’s make sure they know that we’ll hold them accountable.