Every week in Australia at least one woman is killed by a man. Typically he’s a current or former intimate partner. Such homicides are the leading cause of preventable deaths among Australian women aged between 15 and 44.
It’s a similar story in the UK, where in England and Wales two women are murdered each week by a current or former partner. In the US it’s worse still; three women a day die at the hands of a current or former partner –a rate that doubles that of Australia and the UK, even after factoring in its larger population.
Yet for decades, the threats and outcomes of family violence have been largely ignored or dismissed. Now, Monash University gender researchers Professor Jude McCulloch, Dr Kate Fitz-Gibbon and Professor JaneMaree Maher have seen the political tide take a dramatic turn.
“There are so many opportunities in the space at the moment,” says Dr Fitz-Gibbon, a senior lecturer in criminology. “Over the past two years we’ve had more media and political attention than ever before on family violence. People who have been working in the sector for decades have always known it, but there is now widespread recognition that there is a national problem.”
“More women lose their lives in family violence situations than people lose their lives in terrorism incidents ... so why don’t we take family violence as seriously as we take terrorism?” - Professor Jude McCulloch.
That problem is the focus of the groundbreaking Focus Research program, Gender and Family Violence: New Frameworks in Prevention. Since beginning last year, the research knitting together evidence and reforms aimed at enhancing women and children’s security has been awarded more than A$1 million in grants.
The team was appointed last year by the Victorian state government to conduct an in-depth review of its Family Violence Risk Assessment and Risk Management Framework, also known as Common Risk Assessment Framework (CRAF).
This appointment shows how far the national dialogue has come since the days when, Professor McCulloch says, “family violence was seen as ‘just a domestic’, and a matter for social workers rather than police”.
Used by practitioners across a range of fields to understand, identify and manage risk factors associated with family violence, the CRAF review responds to the 2015 Royal Commission into Family Violence. Of 227 recommendations tabled in Parliament in March 2016, the first called for a framework that reflects best practice and meets the needs of all victims.
The researchers’ ambit is broad, to say the least. Joined by UK professor Sandra Walklate, a leading expert in gender security and violence, the trio consulted peak bodies, experts in family violence, frontline users of CRAF, family violence service providers and survivors from diverse areas of the community. Findings of their review, completed late last year, are informing the redevelopment of Victoria’s approach to family-violence risk assessment and management.
“I’ve really been heartened to see how the story around family violence has changed,” criminologist Professor McCulloch says. “It’s taken very seriously at a political level, and senior police are no longer able to say it’s just someone going too far with the missus.”
Time to act
Seen as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to examine the family violence system from the ground up, the Victorian Royal Commission was in response to high-profile crimes such as the 2014 murder of 11-year-old Luke Batty by his father.
At the commission’s launch, then Victorian governor Alex Chernov cited statistics of family violence in Victoria, including 44 family violence–related deaths in 2013, and 65,000 reports to Victoria Police in 2013-14. Meanwhile, the estimated cost of family violence to the Victorian economy was A$3.4 billion in 2009.
It is, researchers agree, a vast problem with no simple solution. “We’re talking about a deeply ingrained social conditioning ... that drives family violence,” Professor McCulloch says.
But the gender research team points out the change in social attitudes to drink-driving and smoking. Although family violence is more complex than either of those issues, Professor McCulloch says “it shows that with a massive investment, things can change dramatically over a period of time”.
The momentum provided by the Royal Commission is giving the trio the opportunity to work together in a sustained way for the first time. Each member has brought an area of specialisation to the project. Dr Fitz-Gibbon, whose research was instrumental in law reform over the partial defence of provocation, is interested in the emerging and under-represented areas of family violence, including adolescent violence against the family.
“It’s how much we don’t know about family violence that we need to look at,” says Dr Fitz-Gibbon, who notes that 41 recommendations of the Royal Commission were related to the diverse victims of family violence.
“There is a really good evidence base around intimate partner violence, but once you extend beyond that we know very little about other areas of family violence, such as adolescents and the reasons why young people use violence in the home ... We’re only scratching the surface, because the majority of parents do not want to report their child. It holds a lot of shame and stigma, and it’s widely seen as a problem for the family to deal with privately.”
Professor Maher, who started the Centre for Women’s Studies and Gender Research in 1999, is leading research into women with disability, their specific risks and vulnerabilities, and the way they experience violence. “It’s recognition that there are multiple challenges for women who have care needs to seek out security and safety. There’s physical abuse, coercive and controlling behaviours and economic abuse, and the tactics survivors put in place to try to counter the violence because they don’t feel there is any support for them.”
The watershed in attitudes is heartening, but the team is cognisant of the fact that the system is still failing in many ways.
“More women lose their lives in family violence situations than people lose their lives in terrorism incidents,” says Professor McCulloch, whose previous research has focused on the intersection of national security and justice. “So why don’t we take family violence as seriously as we take terrorism? Why isn’t women’s security on the national security agenda, and why don’t we say, we’re going to have zero tolerance in the way we have zero tolerance for terrorism? And the really pertinent question is, why don’t we have the resources to tackle it?”
Intimate partner homicides are the most preventable of all homicides, she notes. Funded by the Australian Research Council, part of the program is looking at all such deaths over a 10-year period and examining them for clues to prevention.
The trio is also acutely aware that although the profile of family violence has reached a new prominence, it rests on the work done by people working in the area for decades. “We need to pay tribute to women who for so long in the past have done so much work with so little recognition.
People on the frontline of family violence have done it for many years on the smell of an oily rag,” Professor Maher says. “The current climate is positive, but we don’t want to relax and think we can easily achieve long-term prevention without a great deal of hard work ahead of us. We really don’t want to be having these conversations again in 20 years’ time.”