This Mother’s Day, we must remember the Queensland mums we’ve failed.
Adelle Collins’ two kids should be making Mother’s Day cards. That’s what they’d be doing this week, if their mother hadn’t been stabbed to death in her Bribie Island home in February.
Renee Carter’s five-year-old son should be waking his mum with a cuddle in their Upper Coomera home this Sunday. Instead, on a tragic day in January, the child awoke to discover the bodies of his mother and her de facto partner. They had been killed in a frenzied stabbing attack.
This would have been a Mother’s Day filled with excitement and anticipation for Fabiana Palhares, as she looked forward to the birth of her first child. Instead, the Gold Coast mother-to-be was repeatedly bludgeoned in the head with a tomahawk in February. Her pregnancy was in its 10th week.
These are not isolated incidents; these are not random, senseless crimes that we can shake our heads at and swiftly forget about. These are symptoms of a national epidemic.
In this state alone, over 180 incidents of domestic and family violence are reported to Queensland police every day. In 2012-13, 17 homicides relating to domestic and family violence occurred in Queensland.
On average, Australia-wide, one in three Australian women experience physical, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse from their partners, and one woman is killed by her partner every week.
Those numbers are horrifying, and they’re only getting worse. In Queensland, the number of reported incidents rose from 58,000 in 2011-12 to 66,000 in 2013-14.
Dame Quentin Bryce, the former Governor-General, has been passionate about the struggle against domestic violence since the first women’s shelters were opened in Australia in the 1970s.
“We would never have imagined back then that in 2015, domestic violence would be increasing in gravity and incidence,” she says, her voice dripping with disdain and disbelief. “That’s really so disturbing and absolutely appalling. Every day in Queensland, there are 180 reports to police, and my police colleagues think that’s just the tip of the iceberg. So that’s deeply, deeply disturbing.”
Dame Quentin recently chaired the Special Taskforce on Domestic and Family Violence in Queensland, which produced the Not Now, Not Ever report on domestic and family violence for the Queensland Government. In compiling the report, she travelled throughout the state, listening to the stories of victims and people who work in shelters and domestic violence support services.
“We heard so often about the horrific instances of physical violence, the strangulations and stabbings,” she says. “I remember one man in a remote part of Queensland saying to me, ‘It’s not about punches here, love, it’s about knives and ropes’.
“Of course there’s also that very insidious control and coercion [that abusers exert] that doesn’t leave physical bruises that you can see, but it leaves deep mental anguish and fear and anxiety.”
What causes domestic violence?
Heather Nancarrow has been working to prevent violence against women for more than 30 years. She began working at one of Brisbane’s first women’s shelters in 1981, and now serves as the CEO of Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS). She was also a member of Dame Quentin’s Domestic Violence Taskforce.
She’s seen and heard it all, and she does see a commonality in many men who use violence.
“Certainly, the attitudes towards women tend to be similar,” she says. “There’s a sense of superiority, a sense that men have a right to be the dominant person in the family. They have a sense of entitlement over their partners and their children.
“Research from the US indicates that men who have a very rigid view of gender roles, of what the male role is in the family and what the female role is, feel that sense of entitlement to exert dominance and control over a female partner. They’re some of the characteristics that are common amongst perpetrators of domestic violence.”
Heather believes that a societal change is necessary to make a significant reduction in the rates of domestic violence.
“Ultimately, we have to change the broader societal structures that, in some way, give permission to that minority of men who perpetrate violence against their partners,” she says. “There is a level of cultural support for it, I suppose, if you think of culture in a very broad sense. We see messages every day that reinforce this idea that men are expected to be dominant and women are expected to be submissive. When you think about social structures, whereby all of our institutions and structures are male-dominated, and you think about representation in parliament, churches, management roles, the balance of men and women in boards… there’s a real inequity in terms of the positions of power that men and women have in society.
“That’s one of the factors that contributes, because it’s an overarching cultural context in which men at an individual level hold these attitudes towards women, and somehow they feel justified in that because of the messages they receive and the way they perceive the broader world, and the lack of equality for women more broadly. So those things are connected, but it’s not a straightforward cause and effect.
“People often ask what causes domestic violence, but it’s difficult, if not impossible, to say there’s one single cause. It’s a range of attitudes and behaviours that intersect, and part of that is the messages those individuals have been raised with; their family values and family cultures. It’s about the kind of community they live in, and whether the community as a whole reinforces those attitudes, and it’s about the broader social structures. So there’s a number of different levels at which an individual will read signals about what’s acceptable, what’s tolerated and what’s not.”
Dame Quentin agrees with Heather’s assessment of the societal forces that shape the culture of domestic violence.
“Absolutely, it’s about sexism,” she says. “It’s about stereotyping. That’s spot on. And it’s so out of date, it’s so old fashioned, and it’s so filled with prejudice. Respect is the key word. Respectful relationships are what we need, and what every person deserves.
“We’re a long way from solving the problem of gender inequality in this country. If we had an equal society, a society where men and women were equal and had equal power in their lives and in our community, we wouldn’t have domestic violence. Essentially, it is about the denigration of women, and attitudes to women. So there’s a lot to be done there, by all of us. That’s a very hard thing to do, but we mustn’t shy away from it.”
Of course, men are not the only perpetrators of domestic violence, and women and children are not the only victims. But the idea, often perpetuated by men’s rights activists, that women are equally as guilty of domestic violence as men is a myth. In 2012, 87 per cent of domestic violence victims in Australia were women. In four out of five intimate partner homicides, men kill women. When a woman does kill a man, it is often the case that the woman has previously been subjected to domestic violence by the man.
The numbers support the Domestic Violence Taskforce’s assertion that the denigration of women is at the core of the problem.
What can we do about it?
The Domestic Violence Taskforce’s report, handed to the State Government at the end of February, made 140 recommendations. To the surprise of many, creating a specific statutory offence of domestic violence was not one of them.
In an open letter to the Premier, Queensland Police Union President Ian Leavers criticised the omission. “The QPU does not understand why the taskforce did not adopt our common sense recommendation to create a statutory offence of committing domestic and family violence,” he wrote.
Instead, the Taskforce took the view that there is already a “suite of offences” in the Criminal Code — assault, grievous bodily harm, rape, murder — for police to draw on in domestic violence cases, and chose to focus many of their recommendations on the rules of evidence and sentencing laws. For example, the report recommends tougher sentences for all criminal offences committed in the context of domestic and family violence.
The report also pushes for the establishment of specialist domestic violence courts, to make the system easier for victims to navigate.
“I think it’s about having specialised personnel,” Dame Quentin says. “We need magistrates and duty lawyers and court support workers with expertise and experience in domestic violence. That’s because domestic violence is such a complex issue. We need to bring the legal processes together to be more straightforward for women who are victims of domestic and family violence.
“Many women have spoken about law and justice being so complex, so complicated, that they feel abused by the system, by what they have to go through, from one service, agency and court proceeding to another. We need better coordinated responses.”
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s newly formed Communities, Disability Services and Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Committee will examine the report and advise Women’s Minister Shannon Fentiman and Disability Services Minister Coralee O’Rourke on the legislation that needs to be introduced into parliament.
“When I handed the report to the Premier, she very firmly indicated a commitment to reform, to taking action,” Dame Quentin says. “We have a responsibility to ensure that does happen. We must all be advocates. We owe that to our community, to the women who came forward to tell their stories, to the women whose voices are heard all through the report. So often, they said they came forward because they wanted to ensure that what happened to them never happened to another woman.”
Despite the disheartening statistics, Heather Nancarrow believes it is possible to end the scourge of domestic and family violence.
“It is hard to imagine it would happen before my life is over,” she concedes, “but we have to aim for that. A lot has changed since the early 1980s, and one of those shifts is the recognition that we need to have broad-based cultural change. It’s not about any particular ethnic culture, it’s about Australian culture. We have to reject violence against women in every aspect of our lives, and reject attitudes that contribute to violence against women.”
Dame Quentin is similarly optimistic. She believes that change is possible if the community comes together to take action.
“I have to believe that,” she says. “I must be optimistic. Across my life, I have seen very significant change in our long march to equality for women. I am optimistic, I am determined, and so are my fellow members of the Taskforce. This is such a key time for us to ensure that we say, ‘Not now, not ever’. I know that by working together, we can bring about change. It’s hard, but every conversation we have, every time we raise this, we are taking action.
“It’s hard to change attitudes, but that’s what makes our world a better place to live in, and that’s what human rights advocacy is all about. It’s about having the courage to speak out, to stand up and take action for change.”
If you or someone you know is impacted by domestic or family violence, call Queensland’s DVConnect on 1800 811 811 or the national counselling service 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732. For a comprehensive list of support services, visit www.qlddomesticviolencelink.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.
A Candle Lighting Ceremony for victims of domestic and family violence will be held in the South Bank Forecourt this Wednesday 6 May from 5:30pm. Visit the Facebook event page for more information.