Why I feel so strongly about family violence

I was just three when Elsie opened – it was the first refuge in Australia to provide urgent assistance to battered wives and children. That was in 1974. It was a time when it was finally being recognised that abused women and children didn’t need a break from the violence, they needed it to end.

A time when activists across the globe were fighting to change a community perception that was centred around shame – a perception that is best captured by the title of Erin Pizzey’s book Scream Quietly or the Neighbours Will Hear.

I do not have any memory of this time but for as long as I can remember my mother, Quentin Bryce, has fought to eliminate domestic violence from the community. It wasn’t a passing interest – it has been a lifetime commitment.

To this day her work continues with every one of the 140 recommendations of the Not Now. Not Ever Queensland Taskforce Report she chaired being accepted by the Palaszczuk government.

Whitlam government first to respond

Mum reminds me that it wasn’t until mid-1975 that domestic violence received political recognition under the Whitlam government in the form of Commonwealth government funding.  Government funding did more than attend to urgent needs, it also lifted the cloak of shame that had for too long kept women trapped in abusive homes.

It gave women a pathway out, a glimmer of hope and let them imagine a better life for themselves and their children.

Yet, it took another decade before Australian governments started formally inquiring into domestic violence which led to changes in policy and laws.  It’s hard to fathom why it took so long for the law to catch up with the lived experience of so many women.

Between 1974 and 1975 no less than 13,500 women and children had been sheltered in the eight women’s refuges that had opened their doors. And this figure of course did not reflect the true number of women experiencing violence at home.

Hardly a small problem by anyone’s measure.

Startling statistics demand a response

Still today, almost 2 million Australians have experienced partner violence since the age of 15, and just over 1 million have experienced physical or sexual violence from another family member.

I don’t want to imagine the number of lives affected if we were to include non-physical forms of domestic violence, like emotional, psychological and financial abuse.

I was in my teens by the time there was some understanding that domestic violence is gendered. That is, it is overwhelmingly men who perpetuate violence against their partners.

The biggest risk factor for being a victim of family violence is being a woman. I hadn’t reached the end of the second decade of my life but I had heard and read enough to know this had to end.

Today, 85 per cent (51,500) of partner assaults are against women. In 2012–13 Indigenous women were hospitalised for family violence-related assaults at 34 times the rate of non-Indigenous women.  Today, one woman is killed every week at the hands of a current or former partner and the number is escalating.

Men now taking action

In my lifetime, raising the crisis of domestic violence has been primarily left to and driven by women. I am pleased to see a refreshing glimpse of change.

Christine Nixon, the first female Chief Commissioner of the Victorian Police, led improved police responses to domestic violence. Ken Lay, holding the same position some years later, honoured that work by making it a personal priority of his own.

Ken met with Bill and I to talk about about the impact of domestic violence on families, especially children; the impact in the workplace; and the work the Victorian Police were doing to change attitudes.

I was particularly distressed by the number of children exposed to violence in the home and the long term psychological and physical impacts.  Ken explained that if there is domestic violence occurring there is likely to be child abuse occurring if children are home.

Worse still these children are likely to commit violent acts themselves. Early intervention means we have our best chance of disrupting the cycle of violence continuing from generation to generation.

Of course Rosie Batty has been inspirational in turning her unimaginable grief and heartache into such a positive movement which challenges us all to play our part in the eradication of violence against women, in all of its manifestations.

Every time a death as a result of domestic violence is reported I hope and pray that is the last, or at least the numbers will finally start to fall.  However, hopes and prayers will not make a difference on the ground.

I am enormously proud of my husband Bill who has led the call for national action and pledged to hold a national crisis summit on family violence if elected, within the first 100 days of office.

Bill has also committed a package of over $70 million in interim funding to help people experiencing family violence get the legal services they need, stay safe in their own homes and for us to better understand perpetrator activity.

I know Bill’s commitment to the eradication of violence against women, his commitment to the equal treatment of women is genuine because it is something we both care passionately about.

For our girls Clementine and Georgette, and for every young girl growing up to know that they can achieve anything they set their mind to and that they will be safe. And we want our boy Rupert to champion gender equality and its significant value to a society.

We must continue to empower those affected, improve national policy settings, and put a stop to ad-hoc measures and funding uncertainty faced by community, legal and homelessness services.

This must be a national priority, it must be on the national political agenda because changing the horror statistics requires a change in attitudes, by all of us in our community.

This requires leadership, it requires community engagement and it requires action, urgently.

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