We need a culturally-inclusive approach to domestic violence

By Zoya Patel

The past month has shone the light on domestic violence in Canberra. There have been two deaths of women allegedly at the hands of their current or former partner in three weeks and the community has been shaken by the surge in violence in an otherwise quiet city. When reading about the cases, I couldn’t help but notice the difference in response and coverage of the two deaths.

Tara Costigan was a 28-year-old mother of three, who was allegedly murdered by her ex-partner on 28 February. The community was outraged at her death, which sparked renewed action against domestic violence. On 22 March, an estimated 5,000 people attended a walk in honour of Tara, just one example of the huge display of community grief at her death.

The second murder was that of Sabah Al-Mdwali, also 28-years-old, also a mother, and also allegedly a violent death at the hands of her husband. But the response to this death has been less outspoken, and the coverage has been meagre too.

This really struck me when I started looking into Sabah’s murder and saw only three tweets mentioning her by name last week and two articles in our local paper, The Canberra Times – one of which was an updated news report that didn’t even use her name in parts, despite her name being reported elsewhere in the paper.

I was really upset by this. The thought that the community could respond differently to Sabah’s death, presumably because of her ethnicity, was horrific to me. I wrote a letter to the chief of staff at The Canberra Times and asked why the reporting of her story had been less involved than that of Tara Costigan. He replied at length and explained that it was largely because Sabah’s family did not want to speak to the media, and she had very few connections outside of her immediate family that they could locate – there just wasn’t much to construct a narrative around.

That’s a reasonable response, and I understand the difficulty for the media in reporting on a case with no new information. But it speaks to a much bigger issue in our response to domestic violence, which is the social isolation of culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) women, and the accessibility of existing services. We know that CALD women are particularly vulnerable when victims of domestic violence. Support services are not tailored to be culturally inclusive, and at times are ignorant to the needs of CALD women.

An example of this is the recently released Daisy app, which was funded under the Second Action Plan of the National Plan to Eliminate Violence Against Women and their Children. The app “connects women who are experiencing or have experienced sexual assault, domestic and family violence to services in their state and local area”. This is quite clearly a service that is tailored to middle-class women who have a high level of English literacy, access to technology, and the ability to navigate the app’s system.

This comes at the same time as the threatened axing of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s around-the-clock Translating and Interpreting Service, which is relied on by domestic violence services to help support CALD women.

When I think of Sabah, and the way her murder has largely flown under the radar, and then I think of the social isolation faced by so many victims of domestic violence, which is only further compounded by lower English-speaking skills, it makes me incredibly anxious about the service provision for CALD victims of domestic violence.

There needs to be a considered, culturally-inclusive approach to service provision that is created in consultation with multicultural communities, and that relies on the expertise of existing service providers – not more apps or websites that don’t address real needs in the community.

Zoya Patel is a writer, editor, founder of Feminartsy, and a Right Now columnist. She tweets @zoyajpatel

Feature image: Nishanth Jois/Flickr.

This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.