Illustration: John Spooner.
Kelly Thompson, Luke Batty, Fiona Warzywoda, Indiana and Savannah – these are names that have dominated the news in recent weeks and months. They are the names of just some of those whose lives have been violently cut short in circumstances we struggle to comprehend.
The confronting nature of their deaths has generated outrage and highlighted the prevalence and severity of violence against women and their children.
These incidents have triggered an outcry and what the chief executive of Domestic Violence Victoria, Fiona McCormack, has described as “fury” among those working in the sector.
These cases represent the tip of the iceberg.
A woman is killed nearly every week in Australia by a male partner or ex-partner – often while she is trying to leave the relationship. Most of these murders are the ultimate act in a longer history of domestic violence.
The “retaliatory” murders of children – where the intention is to cause maximum possible pain and harm to the other parent – again usually occur in the context of a history of domestic violence, and are most often perpetrated by fathers or stepfathers.
Most men are not violent. But the vast majority of acts of domestic violence are perpetrated by men against women. Men have to take responsibility.
Figures from the 2012 Australian Bureau of Statistics show that women are more than three times more likely than men to have experienced violence by an intimate partner since 15 years of age.
The same research highlights that there is significant under-reporting of violence against women, with an estimated 67 per cent of women not contacting police after recent incidents of physical assault by a male.
Other research has shown that more than a third of women who experienced violence by a previous partner said their children had witnessed the violence.
We need to ask what it is – in the messages our society sends to men about masculinity, relationships, and how they should treat women – that makes some feel they can not only be violent towards women and their children, but kill them. Men, above all, need to ask these questions.
These are uncomfortable questions – we do not want to think that in 2014 our society continues to treat women and men differently. But the research tells us that it is attitudes toward gender roles, and power differentials between men and women, that are the most significant factors determining levels of violence against women and their children.
This sickening violence has to stop. But where to start? Or start again, since women have been wrestling with these problems forever, and most particularly since the shelter movement of the end of the last century.
In recent weeks we have seen first the victims blamed, then police, the legal system and governments. Perpetrators, and an examination of what drives their behaviour, are surprisingly absent from the debate.
Violence against women and their children will not stop if we cannot move people beyond the current understanding about what it is and why it happens. We know it exists but often it is thought about as something that happens to other people, in poorer areas or people from other countries.
Jill Meagher’s widowed husband Tom recently published an essay which acknowledged the difficulty in mobilising community outrage in a sustained way.
However, there are many things we can do in addition to the powerful 30,000 plus strong walk along a main street of a capital city.
These include daily acts of courage in addressing the culture that allows violence to occur, and confronting and naming the attitudes, beliefs and distorted values that justify, excuse, minimise or hide violence against women and their children.
We must recognise the links between the views, beliefs and attitudes, which demean, degrade and diminish women, and the existence of violence against women and their children.
We can talk to the woman at work who seems to be distressed by the constant calls and text messages from her husband or boyfriend.
We can quietly tell the teenager at the barbecue that the way he talks about girls is inappropriate and disrespectful.
We can refuse to be silent, even at the risk of being considered, or called, “soft”, “man-hating”, “wrong”, (the kind of comments directed at me recently online), a “wowser”, someone who “cannot take a joke”, “politically correct” or “no fun to be around”.
We can speak out against ill-thought campaigns that ignore the suffering and devastation of domestic violence, such as the one launched by Avalon Airport in Victoria last month, which said “Fly domestic without having one”.
We must question magazines and fashion designers that choose to use violence against women to sell. The April edition of Italian Vogue features bashed and bloodied models in couture thus, glamorising injured and even dead women.
Recently, the New Zealand Immigration department barred rap collective Odd Future from entry based on evidence of incitement to violence against a young Australian woman activist.
At a concert in Sydney last year, Tyler the Creator of Odd Future unleashed a tirade of verbal abuse against 24-year-old Talitha Stone, an activist with grassroots organisation Collective Shout which targets corporations, advertisers, marketers and media that objectify women and sexualise girls to sell products and services.
And what message do songs like Break A Bitch ‘Til I Die, Can You Control Yo Hoe? and Kim (“Don’t you get it bitch, no one can hear you? Now shut the f— up and get what’s comin to you”), which condone and even celebrate violence against women in a way that is deeply disturbing, send to impressionable boys and girls?
We should consider our own behaviours and attitudes, and be strong role models for our children, families and friends. Especially our boy children.
We are all responsible for shifting the social norms that blame, excuse, minimise and justify violence against women and their children.
It is early days for the organisation I chair, the Foundation to Prevent Violence against Women and their Children. We have been established to spur on the community, businesses, and governments in the area of primary prevention: preventing violence before it occurs.
Across our nation, we need to have a mature and assured conversation about men and women, our roles, rights and responsibilities if we are going to make a real and lasting difference in reducing the experience and impact of violence against women and their children in our country.
Natasha Stott Despoja is the Chair of the Foundation to Prevent Violence against Women and their Children.