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AUSTRALIA: Plan to Tackle Domestic Violence Wins Support

MELBOURNE, May 13 2009 (IPS) - Kelly Johnson was just 28 when she was murdered by a former boyfriend at her Adelaide home last year. The mother of one was hit on the head with a frying pan and stabbed repeatedly with “startling ferocity”, according to Justice Trish Kelly, who handed down a mandatory life sentence to Johnson’s killer, Daniel Hall, in February.

But as horrific as Johnson’s murder was, it is just one example of domestic or family violence in Australian society.

Domestic violence is “absolutely rife within our community,” says Fiona McCormack, CEO of Domestic Violence Victoria, the south-eastern state’s peak body advocating for the right of women and children to live free from violence.

McCormack backs the federal government’s goal of introducing a national approach in early 2010 aimed at minimising the incidence and impact of violence in homes across the nation.

As part of that goal, the government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd appointed, in May last year, an 11-member National Council to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children. The Council has been tasked with leading a national conversation on the issue and developing a plan to reduce levels of domestic violence between now and 2021.

Its report ‘Time For Action’ was released publicly Apr.29 – the Rudd government was handed the completed report in March – and has been well- received by independent community groups and statutory bodies, including Amnesty International, the White Ribbon Foundation and the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The report “is really informed by a sound understanding of the causes of violence and it looks at a range of different interventions, particularly with a focus on prevention,” McCormack told IPS.

‘Time For Action’ says that a fragmented system of dealing with domestic violence, failures to invest in primary prevention, inadequate funding of services, and gaps between policy and practice are among the factors responsible for the failure of previous attempts to reduce family violence.

“Despite significant efforts and investments, the horrific numbers of women and their children affected by violence has not shifted over the decades,” the report says.

According to the Council, almost 20 percent of Australian women will suffer sexual violence at some point in their lives, while physical violence will affect one in three. Significantly, this violence often occurs at home at the hands of men who are known to the women. Frequently, this violence is repeated.

The report also acknowledges that women and children from any socio- economic or cultural background can be victims. However, indigenous women are 35 times more likely to suffer from family violence requiring hospitalisation, and are ten times more likely to be killed.

Furthermore, immigrant and refugee women are more likely than women born in Australia to be murdered as a result of domestic violence, while women with disabilities are particularly vulnerable.

The report also noted that close to a quarter of Australian children have witnessed violence towards their mother or stepmother.

In economic terms, the Council says that violence towards women and children – a major cause of homelessness – will cost the Australian economy an estimated 13.6 billion Australian dollars (10.4 billion dollars) in 2008-09 and 15.6 billion Australian dollars (12 billion dollars) by 2021-22 if the current rates of domestic violence continue.

In response to the ‘Time For Action’ report, the government has committed 12.5 million Australian dollars (9.5 million dollars) for a 24-hour, seven- days-a-week national telephone and online crisis service, as well as a further 26 million Australian dollars (20 million dollars) for primary prevention activities such as school programmes and public information campaigns to challenge prevailing attitudes, and for funding research in order to make laws pertaining to domestic violence consistent.

Jean Cameron is the CEO of the Women’s Domestic Violence Crisis Service, which currently operates a ’24/7′ emergency telephone service in Victoria in conjunction with outreach services and high-security refuges for women and their children.

She told IPS that the problem of domestic violence is “enormous”, and that she will support a new national telephone service on condition that it incorporates phone services already in place around the country, and that specialist family violence workers staff the phone lines.

“We would argue that the first call that a woman makes – whether it’s her or a member of her family or concerned friends – is that it’s absolutely critical that the information that they are provided at the outset is accurate and up- to-date,” says Cameron.

She adds that while changing attitudes towards domestic violence will take time – the Rudd government’s plan runs for 12 years – it is vital that it be undertaken.

“It is a longer-term piece of work but it’s absolutely important in terms of tackling the underlying issues which allow violence against women to flourish,” says Cameron.

McCormack argues that although domestic violence in Australia is common, the complexity of the issues involved has led to widespread ignorance.

“The messages that we get about what it is to be male and female are very subtle. You get it through TV, you get messages through men, through parents, through schools,” says McCormack. “People are often not even aware that’s what they are picking up.”

She says that it is imperative that the community accept that domestic violence is a gendered issue because “primarily, perpetrators are men and victims are women and children.

“Until we have the courage as a community to look at why some men choose to be violent, it will continue to go on unabated,” says McCormack.

Although men’s rights organisations say that focusing on women only as victims of domestic violence does not reveal the full picture, statistics indicate that mostly men are responsible.

McCormack is dismissive of the notion that singling out men as the main perpetrators of domestic violence amounts to ‘man-bashing’. “Most men don’t choose to be violent,” she says.

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