Partner Violence Is Not Personal


The outpouring of community emotion that followed the murder of Jill Meagher last year was remarkable. However, it left many of us who work in the area of domestic and family violence wondering why murders of women in their own homes rarely trigger the same community outcry and empathy for victims.

It’s almost as if, as a society, we somehow hold women in violent relationships to blame for being foolish enough to enter into a relationship with a person that would be capable of hurting them. Or might the distinction come because violence perpetrated in the home is seen as less serious than that which takes place in public or at the hands of a stranger?

Statistics attest the opposite is in fact the case, because murder victims in Australia are significantly more likely to be killed by a partner, family member, friend or acquaintance than by someone they don't know.

Violeta Politoff, writing in New Matilda, astutely identifies another problem: a “tendency to see stranger perpetrated crime as an issue of community concern, while violence in domestic environments is seen as a 'personal problem'.”

It was therefore disappointing that acting NSW Assistant Police Commissioner Arthur Katsogiannis, when giving comment on the murders of several women, including Kate Malonyay (pictured), during a recent spate of violence in Sydney, seemed to reinforce this distinction.

“While the tragic deaths were a concern, Mr Kastsogiannis was keen to point out that three of the deaths were 'domestic-related',” the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

Katsogiannis appears to diminish or dismiss family homicides as beyond the public or police's power. Or perhaps the acting Assistant Commissioner was merely trying to reassure members of the public that these incidents were not random, and therefore the rest of us ought not feel alarmed about personal safety. Unless of course, you happen to be a partnered woman. For we know that one in three Australian women will experience violence in an intimate partner relationship during their lifetime.

Last week also saw the timely release of the report from a parliamentary inquiry established in the wake of the high profile Chamanjot Singh case, where a man cut his wife’s throat with a box-cutter after she “provoked” him by saying she loved someone else and wanted to leave him. Singh got just six years jail when the partial defence of provocation allowed his crime to be downgraded from murder to manslaughter.

The inquiry's report recommended the defence of provocation be denied to persons who murder someone trying to end a relationship, or who claim a range of other provocations including infidelity or unwanted sexual advance. The inquiry recommends that the defence be retained in limited circumstances:

"[T]here are some defendants, particularly women who have been victims of long-term domestic abuse, for whom the partial defence of provocation may appropriately reflect their legal and moral responsibility in circumstances where self-defence would be difficult to establish."

Not all family violence leads to homicide. However, a history of violence can be a strong risk factor, as are relationship separation, threats of harm, alcohol misuse and the presence of mental illness. We know from systemic family violence death reviews, conducted by coroners in several Australian states since the late 2000s, that certain groups are also more vulnerable to be victimised: those who are socially or geographically isolated, have a disability, mental illness or are from a culturally and linguistically diverse background.

Significantly, key prevention measures recommended in coronial reports focus on community education, as well as building a responsive health and justice system able to identify risk and vulnerability and respond appropriately.

Sadly, the tragic events that took place in Sydney last week are not simply isolated incidents brought on by the “full moon”, as Katsogiannis also suggested.

Instead of dismissing these as one-off crimes, or as incidents of a personal and particular nature, might we not take these horrific incidents as a reminder about the dangers of ignoring or neglecting the slow burning crisis of family violence in many homes?

National statistics on domestic homicides are chilling. There were 185 domestic homicides recorded in Australia in a two-year period from July 2008 to June 2010. Of these, two thirds were perpetrated by an intimate partner. Although the overall number of homicides in this country has fallen since 2001-02 (including homicides that are non-domestic or family violence related), women remain over-represented as victims of domestic homicide.

Most victims are killed by a partner/ex-partner (36 per cent) or friend/acquaintance (37 per cent), with stranger homicides representing around one in 10 (13 per cent). Family violence has been described as “one of the least visible but most common forms of violence, and one of the most insidious violations of human rights”.

In fact, researchers in Victoria have identified male intimate partner violence as the leading cause of death, disability and illness for women aged 15 to 44 years. While startling, family violence is a preventable public health issue, given the right approach, community and political will.

Over the last three decades, changing values and community beliefs about gender roles and the acceptability of violence against women have begun to address the problem. Worldwide there has been a “profound transformation in public awareness” about the problem of domestic violence. Since the 1990s, due to the efforts of women’s organisations, experts and committed governments violence against women in the home is now recognised as serious human rights abuse, which is not beyond the reach of governments, nor the censure of communities.

Domestic violence is a social problem that requires action by multiple stakeholders – by governments, the judiciary and police, by community and religious leaders, by those working in education, employers, coaches and each of us as individuals in our own families and social circles.

Evidence increasingly points to key risk factors for domestic and family violence, including the gender-role attitudes and beliefs of male perpetrators, social norms supporting violence, and lack of access to resources and systems of support. Evidence is also emerging about effective strategies to prevent intimate partner and sexual violence. The World Health Organisation recommends special efforts be made to reach men, and to encourage those who are not violent to speak out against violence and challenge its acceptability.

Rather than brush certain murders aside as “domestic”, we need a public conversation that condones violence against intimate partners and family members for what it is — abhorrent, socially unacceptable and demanding of increased effort on a range of fronts. We cannot leave vulnerable individuals to work out their own survival strategy in the face of such brutality.

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.