Speak Up About Partner Abuse

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A few weeks ago, I wrote a review of Chris Brown’s new record for my local streetpress magazine. The review somehow gained traction on the Internet — a stroke of keyboard luck and good timing. Since then I’ve received thousands of responses from people around the world regarding the review; some positive, some negative, some beautiful, some brutal. But those that were the most humbling, those that reaffirmed any doubts I had about writing the piece, were from men and women acknowledging the role of the review in putting partner abuse into the spotlight.

Partner abuse has become a disturbingly normalised aspect of everyday life in Australia and internationally. There’s no doubt that we’ve come a long way from the hush-hush ignorance of decades prior to the 50s and 60s, but it’s still something that we often choose to not discuss, to sweep under the rug. Many see it as a private family matter, as something that should be dealt with within the home and not talked about publicly. But if it is never discussed, never acknowledged, how can the cycle ever be broken?

I’ve read emails, messages, tweets, and comments from people in the medical professions who regularly see and treat victims of domestic violence, from women and men who have been victims of partner abuse, from advocates of its prevention, from people who witnessed abuse between their parents as children. Though I never set out to make a global statement — and assumed a few hundred people would read the review — I’m grateful that it did serve as a spark for debates worldwide about domestic violence.

A recent episode of ABC’s 4 Corners told the devastating story of Andrea Pickett, a WA woman who died at the hands of her ex-partner after being ignored by police, turned away from refuge accommodation, and essentially failed by the West Australian justice system. As outlined in the episode, around half of all homicides in Australia are connected to domestic violence — in 2008, 134 Australians died as victims of domestic abuse.

Just as Pickett and her family were turned away from emergency accommodation, there is a nationwide shortage of places for men, women and their families to go for refuge. In WA alone, one in two women are turned away from refuge homes. The justice system fails partner abuse victims further. Jail terms are often brief, and as in Pickett’s case, police often do not treat cases as seriously as they should — whether through ignorance or desensitisation.

The issues each need addressing; more accommodation and support services need to be implemented in each state. Harsher penalties must be considered, as must rehabilitation and education programs for those who do spend time in prison as abuse perpetrators. Governments need to sit up and take notice, and those few policemen or women who do choose to ignore or ridicule partner abuse cases need to be held accountable.

However, though each of these after-the-fact issues need attention, we tend to forget about attempting to prevent partner abuse before the fact — with education. Education about domestic abuse needs to begin at a basic level. It may seem like a tough topic to discuss with school-aged kids — but it’s not acceptable to ignore it.

Organisations like White Ribbon are already steps ahead with their Breaking the Silence in Schools program, currently run in Sydney, and focuses on educating school principals, staff and students to "create a culture of respect." Young people need to be taught that partner abuse is never okay, whether it be physical or mental, no matter what the gender of the perpetrator or victim.

According to a report from the Australian Institute of Criminology in 2001, up to one quarter of all young people (12-20 yrs) at that point, had witnessed an incident of domestic violence against their mother or stepmother. Though this does not include data regarding men as victims (stats show that one in three victims of family violence in Australia is male), nor same sex couples, this is a fair indicator that many young people will witness partner abuse — if not at home, then in the media, on the Internet, or at a friend’s house.

But if partner abuse hasn’t been discussed with a responsible figure at home, at school, or elsewhere, young people will struggle to form an appropriate response? This is not to say that teenagers cannot form their own opinions. But if young people aren’t given some healthy cues about how to interpret partner abuse, if they aren’t taught that it is never okay, young girls will continue to tweet things like: "I’d let Chris Brown hit me any day," and young boys will continue to idolise men like Brown as a "tough" hero who, and I quote, "put his woman in her place."

The bottom line is this: like anything else, we’re never going to make progress if we don’t have the conversation. We’ll never end the cycle of domestic violence if we don’t begin the cycle of prevention — which starts with talking about it.

Talking about it means that our governments may start to take notice, and put more support services and accommodation in place. Talking about it means that teenagers who are exposed to partner abuse will understand, will recognise the signs, and will not feel alone. Talking about it means that young people, like me, will be aware, and will be incensed. Talking about it means that men and women worldwide will not feel alone or ashamed, and will feel safe and comfortable in seeking help.

If I’ve learnt anything over the past few weeks, it’s that people are aching to say something about partner abuse. So, let’s talk about it.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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