Domestic violence is no respecter of sex, culture, profession, age, class, or type of relationship. Overwhelmingly, however, it is perpetrated by men against women. It is part of a much larger problem of violence against women. In 2013, Michelle Bachelet, then-Executive Director of the organisation UN Women, said that up to 70% of women globally experienced some form of violence.
Highlighting the social impact of this violence, Ms Bachelet added that it strikes millions, “fractures families and communities”, impedes development, and costs billions in healthcare costs and lost productivity.
The violence against women takes many forms, a complexity compounded by the different social contexts in which it occurs. As regards domestic violence in particular, its gender-specific character was underlined by a 2004 Access Economics study which found that in Australia, 87% of domestic violence victims were women and 98% of the perpetrators men.
The gender-specificity of domestic violence however, does not tell the full story. Women in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, for instance, experience domestic violence at a much greater rate than women in non-Indigenous communities. It has been found that Indigenous women are 40 times (45 times in rural and remote areas) more likely to suffer domestic violence than non-Indigenous women.
In accounting for the higher incidence of domestic violence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, part of the explanation locates the cause in the profoundly disruptive impact of colonisation on Indigenous society. This would seem to say something about the broader social causes of domestic violence. It is not that the historical imbalance of power between men and women is not a factor, but rather how it is understood.
In Australia, the criminal law response to domestic violence has been strengthened in recent years. Police powers of entry in domestic violence cases have been expanded. In Victoria, under s 157 of the Family Violence Protection Act 2008 (Vic), police can enter premises without a warrant – and use reasonable force if necessary – where they reasonably believe a person has assaulted or threatened to assault a family member. In the Australian Capital Territory, under ss 190 – 191 of the Crimes Act 1900 (ACT), police can even enter cars to search/seize firearms or ammunition in enforcing domestic violence protection orders. Section 116 of the Domestic and Family Violence Protection Act 2012 (Qld) authorises Queensland police to arrest a person they reasonably suspect of having committed domestic violence and another person is in danger of personal injury by the person arrested.
Strengthened criminal law measures are an appropriate response to domestic violence crimes. Better still would be if they were complemented by legislation and mechanisms that addressed the social nature of violence against women. In updated Chapters 1 to 3 of The Laws of Australia Subtitle 17.5 “Domestic Violence” by Dr Renata Alexander, reference is made to the gender-based character of domestic violence reflecting “the historical, legal, societal, journalistic and other institutional traditions and structures which create an imbalance of power”.
The implementation of social policies aimed at outcomes such as equal pay and secure employment for women, protection of women’s reproductive rights, the social provision of childcare, and adequate and maintained women’s health and welfare services, would go some way towards redressing the material conditions underlying violence against women and remedying the corruption of social attitudes that enables some men to perpetrate it.
Identifying the basic social common-denominator that will explain men’s violence against women and its disproportionate occurrence across different communities would be a worthwhile starting point in the process of fundamentally eliminating this scourge from society.