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Saturday, March 8, 2014
- Lynette Edwards (not her real name) grew up watching her mother being beaten by her partner each night. In high school, Edwards began associating with bullies, thinking this would protect her from being abused; but when she turned 16, two male acquaintances raped her.
At 21, her partner threw her through a glass window, which resulted in several lacerations including wounds on her head that needed stitches. Another time he slashed her lip, which still bears a scar.
“Violence was, and possibly still is, rife in the country towns of Victoria and one lived in fear of being killed as boys and men were armed,” Edwards, 57, told IPS.
“Subjected to repeated psychological torment and physical abuse, I had very low self-esteem,” she added.
Such tales of violence have become all too common — almost every single week, a woman in Australia dies at the hands of a male partner or former partner, often after a history of domestic violence, according to the Australian Institute of Criminology.
Almost one in five women have experienced sexual violence and one in three women have experienced physical violence after the age of 15. Of those women, 85 percent were assaulted by a current or former partner, family member, friend or other known male.
Three-quarters of such physical assaults occurred in the woman’s home, according to an Australian Bureau of Statistics survey.
The individual stories surrounding statistics of intimate partner violence offer an insight into how these crimes against women unfold.Bronwyn Jones (not her real name) had known her boyfriend for five years before she decided to move in with him. Within a week, she was told not to meet male friends, not to wear certain dresses because they “made her look attractive”, and not to visit her parents.
“He had total physical and mental control over me. Once our first child was born I gave up my job and then he had complete financial control as well. He cancelled my credit card, took my phone and totally isolated me from family and friends.
“I was constantly humiliated and sexually abused,” Jones, who put up with the abuse for seven years before moving out with her two infant children, told IPS.
For many women, leaving an abusive relationship, particularly if there are children involved, is very difficult. Most, like Jones, continue to live in constant fear of being attacked by their ex-partner long after they have moved out.
Australia Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick says the problem has reached enourmous proportions.
“We do know that currently there are 1.2 million women living in an intimate relationship characterised by physical violence or have previously done so,” she told IPS.
This number indicates only the “tip of the iceberg” of women’s suffering because, in Australia, “domestic and family violence is much wider than just physical violence, and includes psychological, emotional, spiritual, cultural and economic abuse — so the numbers would be more than that”, she added.
Experts cite gender inequality as the root cause of violence against women. Other contributing factors are alcoholism, unemployment, financial stress and lack of social support for victims.
A thick blanket of silence covers many women’s experiences of abuse and violence. Victims are afraid to speak out or give evidence for fear of reprisals, harassment, intimidation, homelessness and high legal costs.
For many women, even the workplace does not provide a haven from abuse. Nineteen percent of respondents to the 2011 National Domestic Violence and the Workplace Survey said that violence had continued in the workplace, including through abusive phone calls and emails and the perpetrator showing up at the victim’s workplace.
According to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2008 sexual harassment survey, 22 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 64 years have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in their lifetime.
Slow winds of change
According to Broderick, the last few years have seen a shift in attitudes and levels of tolerance towards violence.
Due to efforts in the last year, “a million workers are now entitled to Domestic Violence Leave outside their industrial agreements so that has been a real significant step forward”, she said.
The Australian Government also formulated a 12-year National Plan (2010-2022) to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children. Adopted in March 2011, the plan sets out government goals for “preventing violence by raising awareness and building respectful relationships in the next generation”.
Recently, a National Centre of Excellence was established under the plan, which will provide a central point for researchers, policy makers and practitioners in the fields of domestic, family and sexual violence to link up and provide evidence-based responses and solutions.
The Australian Human Rights Commission has argued that the plan could go further in order to account for diverse contexts and identities, including women with disabilities, migrant and refugee women, women of diverse sex, sexuality and/or gender, and older women.
Research shows that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are 45 times more likely to be victims of domestic and family violence and 35 times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of family violence-related assaults than non-Indigenous women.
Initiatives to address this grave social issue are urgently needed as domestic and family violence is the leading contributor to death, disability and illness in women aged 15 to 44 years, according to the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation.
“This is unacceptable and clearly as a society we need to look to the development of a more respectful culture towards women: one which says no to violence and recognises the shame on men when they perform acts of violence and abuse on women,” Cathy Humphreys, Alfred Felton chair of child and family social work at the University of Melbourne, told IPS.