Violence against women in rural and regional Australia
Gender-based violence and violence against children are increasingly recognised as major social issues in Australia.
Over the past few decades, growing awareness of the prevalence of violence and the publicising of high-profile cases such as the murders of Vicki Cleary, Jai, Tyler and Bailey Farquharson, Jill Meagher and Luke Batty have caused huge community grief and anger.
This, along with increasing media coverage and tireless advocacy – notably from Vicki Cleary’s brother, Phil Cleary, and most recently from Luke Batty’s mother, Rosie Batty – the 2015 Australian of the Year – has forced governments, police and other authorities to radically revise their approaches to family violence and violence against women.
This article focuses on the problem of violence against women in rural and regional Australia, and how it is being addressed.
In 2012, an estimated 49 per cent of all Australian men aged 18 years and over and 41 per cent of all Australian women aged 18 years and over had experienced some form of violence since the age of 15 years.
Experience of violence by the genders differs markedly by perpetrator and type of violence. Men are more likely to be assaulted by a stranger (35.7 per cent) than a person known to them (25.6 per cent), and the violence is much more likely to be physical (48.1 per cent) than sexual (4.5 per cent).
In contrast, women are several times more likely to experience violence from someone they know (35.6 per cent) than a stranger (12.2 per cent). Women are more likely to experience physical assaults (34.4 per cent) than sexual violence (19.4 per cent), but sexual violence is a far more common experience among women than men.
The figures for Indigenous Australians are substantially worse. In New South Wales, domestic assaults on Indigenous women are reported to police at more than six times the rate of non-Indigenous women (for Indigenous men, the corresponding rate is more than four times higher than non-Indigenous men). In Victoria, nearly one in three Indigenous people were threatened with or experienced physical violence in 2002 (we have not been able to source more recent figures).1 Moreover, hospitalisation rates for injuries caused by assault are seven times higher for Indigenous men and 31 times higher for Indigenous women than for other Australian men and women.
The ‘known perpetrator’ of violence against women is often a male partner. In 2012, an estimated 17 per cent of Australian women aged 18 years and over had been the victim of partner violence since the age of 15 years. Women in regional, rural and remote areas are more likely than women in urban areas to experience family violence.
Rates of violence against women in rural and regional Australia.
Several studies confirm that Australian women living in regional, rural and remote areas are more likely to have experienced partner violence than their urban counterparts.
- The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Personal Safety Survey (2013) found that 21 per cent of women living outside capital cities had experienced violence from an intimate partner since the age of 15 years, versus 15 per cent of women living in a capital city.
- The Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health (2014) found that more women aged 18–23 years living in rural, regional and remote areas (15–16 per cent) had experienced partner violence than women living in capital cities (12 per cent).
- The population-based rate of reports to police of domestic and family violence in 2010 was 34 per cent higher in regional, rural and remote New South Wales than in Sydney.
Why is violence against women more common in rural and regional Australia?
In rural communities, masculinity is often conceived of and expressed in terms of traditional attributes of strength, courage and domination. Research conducted in Australian agricultural and mining communities suggests that erosion of these forms of rural manhood, as well as women’s increasing emancipation and assertions of equality, can provoke violent expressions of ‘hyper-masculinity’.
In addition, traditional patriarchal family structures have normalised male control and justified violence against women. This normalisation continues to deter women from speaking out or leaving violent partners, as does fear of the consequences of such actions for their families – thereby allowing more violence to occur.
Family violence is able to continue and remain hidden due to the high value placed on stoicism and self-reliance, and the belief that family problems should be kept private – notions characteristic of many rural communities.
Conversely, lack of privacy can be a problem for women experiencing violence: the intimacy of life in rural towns means that people quickly learn news of their friends and neighbours, and this can deter victims from seeking help. Similarly, in small communities, police, health professionals and others are likely to know both offenders and victims, and this complicates the reporting of violence.
Elevated rates of family violence in rural and remote areas are often explained as being due to high rates among Indigenous populations. However, the top 10 localities for domestic and family violence in New South Wales in 2010 included some predominately white, agricultural areas. Family violence in Indigenous communities needs to be understood in the context of colonisation, dispossession, child removal, racism and discrimination and the resulting intergenerational trauma.
National measures to reduce violence against women.
In May 2008, the Australian Government established the National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children (NCRVWC) to advise on measures to reduce the incidence and effects of violence against women and their children.
The NCRVWC identified scope for greater cooperation and collaboration between the federal government and the states and territories in developing a unified approach to this pressing social issue. The main challenges it identified were:
- existing systems to deal with family violence were fragmented
- gaps existed between policy development and implementation
- investment in primary prevention was lacking
- services were inadequately funded
- responses were not tailored and accessible
- evidence was lacking about what works in prevention, services, legal responses and early intervention
- monitoring and reporting were inadequate.
The NCRVWC’s Plan of Action proposed sweeping changes to be implemented between 2009 and 2021. The Australian Government’s response to the NCRVWC report in April 2009 included an immediate allocation of $42 million to address urgent recommendations. These were:
- establishment of a new national telephone and online counselling service (1800 RESPECT) for Australians who have experienced or are at risk of physical or sexual violence
- implementation of ‘Respectful Relationships’ programs in schools and other youth settings
- development of ‘The Line’, a social marketing campaign targeted at young people and parents
- research on perpetrator treatment
- greater harmonisation of national and state and territory laws.
The NCRVWC’s work led to the creation of a National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010–2022, involving state and federal governments. Over 12 years, the National Plan aims to achieve ‘a significant and sustained reduction’ in violence against women and children.
As part of the National Plan, a joint National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) was established. ANROWS’s first major task was to produce a National Research Agenda for development of a comprehensive evidence base to guide policy and practice.
The outcomes of the National Research Agenda will underpin an evaluation of the National Plan’s effectiveness in achieving its aims.
Action in Victoria.
Victoria followed national initiatives by developing its own Action Plan to Address Violence against Women & Children (2012–15), which included a strong law and order focus, a more integrated approach by government and other agencies, and new funding. In addition, introduction of the Victoria Police Code of Practice for responding to and investigating family violence and the Family Violence Protection Act 2008 facilitated better reporting of family violence.2
These measures and the rising profile of family violence resulted in an increase of 83 per cent in reports to Victoria Police between 2009–10 and 2014–15. While increased reporting was welcomed, it put considerable strain on police, courts, legal services and specialist family violence services.
In February 2015 the Victorian Government instituted a Royal Commission to examine how the State’s response to family violence could be improved. In response to Royal Commission recommendations, in April 2016 the government announced a $572-million Statewide funding boost over two years as the first step towards fixing the system and changing attitudes towards women.
- $152.5 million to build and redevelop family violence refuges and crisis accommodation, and up to 130 new social housing homes
- $122.0 million to expand a new program of intensive support for children in their own homes, increased family services and counselling, and child protection system reforms
- $103.9 million to enable specialist family violence services to cope with the demand
- $61.6 million in family violence prevention programs, including a Respectful Relationships program and Victoria’s first Gender Equality Strategy
- $25.7 million to work with Aboriginal communities – prevention and early intervention, new approaches to dispute resolution, and expanding programs for Aboriginal women
- $23.9 million to begin reforming the justice system so it protects victims and holds perpetrators to account. This includes expanding legal services for victims, more men’s behavioural change programs and developing ways to improve victims’ experience at court
This funding is being spread across metropolitan, regional and rural Victorian communities. To continue this work, the government is developing a comprehensive 10-year Victorian Family Violence Plan, to be delivered in late 2016.
The western region.
In 2014–15 the local government areas of Horsham and Ararat were among the eight regions with the highest rates of reported family violence in Victoria.
As noted in a previous article on rural health, councils in the western region are aware of this problem and are responding. For example, Horsham Rural City Council’s Health and Wellbeing Plan lists ‘prevention of violence against women’ as one of its seven priorities for action, enacted new provisions to support staff affected by family violence and supported training in the prevention of family violence in 2015–16.
Horsham and Ararat Rural City Councils are among the many councils and other organisations throughout the western region that actively support White Ribbon, a campaign to prevent men’s violence against women.
White Ribbon events such as community walks, football matches, breakfasts and dinners are being held throughout the western region to encourage men say no to violence against women. White Ribbon is the world’s largest movement of men and boys working to end men’s violence against women and girls, promote gender equality, healthy relationships and a new vision of masculinity.
Anyone who is experiencing family violence or sexual assault or knows someone who is can call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) or visit the 1800RESPECT website.
- Al-Yaman F, Van Doeland M, Wallis M (2006) Family violence among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
- Victorian Government (2012) Action Plan to Address Violence against Women & Children 2012-15. Melbourne: Victorian Government.