Government and governance, Law, Social policy, Health, Arts, culture & society | Australia, The World

10 March 2020

Despite decades of activism for reform, victims of domestic violence are still not seeing their realities fully reflected in government policy, and some are losing hope. For change to happen, a continuous society-wide effort is required, Patricia Easteal writes.

In 1993, Killing the Beloved: Homicide Between Adult Sexual Intimates, my book on tackling partner homicide, was launched by then Attorney-General Michael Lavarch. This meant it was my turn to appear on A Current Affair and The 730 Report and act as an expert voice on partner homicides – cases where men killed their (ex) partners, sometimes their children, and sometimes themselves – and the less frequent instances when woman survivors kill their violent partners as an act of self-protection.

The statistics back then were scary, as they are now – a woman killed on average once a week. The response to the book though, was promising. It was described as ‘a call to action to those who seek safety and justice.’ Safety and justice for family violence victims seemed achievable in 1993. The spotlight was on these issues, and a sense of optimism was alive and well. Reform appeared afoot.

Then, in 1994, Carmen Lawrence, then Minister for Women, launched my book Voices of the Survivors. The experiences of many who had been silenced were now available. They awakened in some the knowledge that what had happened to them as children, as girlfriends, or as wives, was rape. The book showcased a common but less talked about manifestation of family violence – intimate partner sexual violence – and rape victims’ battle for justice.

Of course, there was anger. But this anger came with the passion of activism and a belief in achieving change.

More on this: A red flag for homicide

In 1996, more victims shared their stories in Shattered Dreams: Marital Violence Against Overseas-born Women in Australia.

Indelible images of the isolation and dis-empowerment suffered by those immigrant women made watchers aware of other forms of coercive control: extended family abuse, financial control, and threats of deportation.

With ample recommendations provided in the wake of this work, activists remained hopeful. Despite struggle, the glass seemed half-full.

That same optimism underpinned Balancing the Scales: Rape Law Reform and Australian Culture, which came in 1998. The book looked at rape law, and its limitations and reforms, with the belief that laws can both achieve justice and prevent victims from being re-traumatised on the witness stand.

Three years later, in 2001, Less Than Equal: Women and the Law in Australia examined the state of play for women who kill their violent partner. It explored how civil domestic violence legislation is limited in providing victims with safety, and how the persistence of a narrative that attempts to categorise ‘real’ rape affects the experiences of sexual assault survivors. The seemingly immutable myths underpinning that narrative were revealed again in 2006 with Real Rape, Real Pain, through survivors of intimate partner sexual violence.

Around this time, activists began to feel less hopeful. The glass appeared to be stuck halfway. Many victims remained unable or unwilling to report rape. If they did, the defendant’s right to a fair trial trumped the victim’s right to be heard. Victims who killed their abusers stood trial for murder or, if they were ‘lucky’, manslaughter. On top of it all, on average, statistics on murdered women remained the same.

More on this: Ending violence against women in Pakistan

These sad truths were shown again and again in the books that followed throughout the decade. This is why, after almost 30 years of research, all these books, like Shades of Grey and Rape Law in Context, over 150 academic journal articles, and many submissions to law reform commissions later, I am left wondering if anything is going to change. In 2020, I am beginning to feel despair.

The mismatch between victims’ reality and the criminal justice system identified in the early 1990s persists. Still, women who kill in self-defence are not adequately dealt with, victims of intimate partner sexual violence have their trauma re-triggered in court, and ultimately, a woman is still murdered about once a week in Australia, often alongside her children, as with the recent killing of Hannah Baxter.

Researchers, Royal Commissions, Taskforces, and Law Reform Commissions have listened to concerns and needs. Recommendations have been made, and laws and policies have been reformed. The policy landscape is by no means short on ideas. However, once these reforms are implemented, the realities of survivors’ struggles remain inaccurately reflected or understood. A gap between the theory of domestic violence reforms and their performance in the operational sphere continues.

This became even clearer to me recently through the voices of a number of survivors I spoke to, each one of which could have been a Hannah Baxter or Tara Costigan. In theory, each had a Domestic Violence Order in place to protect them, but some were not told when the offender was released from prison, whether they had been released already, or when the Order would lapse, showcasing serious holes in the system.

Some were dissuaded from including their children in the Order because of family law matters, while others felt their experiences of coercive control were not understood. Perpetrators often find ways to continue to exercise coercive control, even with an Order in place.

Murder is the tragic tip of the domestic violence iceberg. As a community, Australians do react to tragedies like that of Hannah Baxter’s death, and reform happens, but tackling the problem must be an on-going and urgent undertaking for all of society. To make this happen, continuous monitoring of the implementation of reform must be conducted by researchers with academic freedom. This is the way to challenge the status quo.

This effort could be a continuous model of evaluation designed to hear those with lived experience – both victims and workers – so that the research community can identify systemic gaps in services and laws and provide governments with answers right from the domestic violence coalface. Perhaps this demands a utopian model of accountability, but it could ensure findings are not buried in bureaucracy, but applied with a sense of urgency.

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