For weeks now, we have been hearing of murders and bashings involving women cruelly treated by their partners or ex-partners. One occurred in Canberra while I was writing this essay. Politicians are promising to do something about it, and indeed are already doing something if they are in government. Are we in some kind of epidemic? Over the last little while I have been discussing this issue, and also that of child abuse in schools, with friends.
We are what are called the ‘elderly active’, and had our schooldays in the 1940s and 1950s. None of us can recall instances of ‘kiddy-fiddling’ at that time. One former Catholic schoolboy recalls a couple of priests at his school who were thought to be ‘gay’, although that word would not have been used then. For my part, I would not have known then exactly what ‘homosexual’ meant, and discovered its meaning only when I arrived at university. Even then, there was no one who had ‘come out’ publicly, homosexual acts between males then being a criminal matter.
Were we all blind? Was there just as much child sex abuse then as seems to have been the case later? As much homosexuality? I have no idea.
Women-bashing was similarly unknown. In my large extended family I know of no case, over three generations. One of my friends believes there was one instance in her similarly large family group. You didn’t mistreat women. It wasn’t done. I can recall an incident in primary school where one boy had pushed a girl hard, and she fell over, scraping her knees on the tar on the playground. He had to apologise, and his parents were summoned. We would all have been about 8 years old, I think. ‘You never, ever, hit a girl!’ was the judgment of the teacher.
Yet on the face of it, a lot of men now do. In what follows I rely on a paper produced in 2011 by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, ‘Trends and patterns in domestic violence assaults: 2001 to 2010’, by Katrina Grech and Melissa Burgess. It is a sobering read. In the broad picture, recent estimates suggest that close to 1.8 million Australians have been victims of domestic violence, and that about a quarter or all assaults are related to domestic situations. It is probably the case that about a half of all domestic assaults are not reported to police. The paper provides two kinds of statistics, those based on NSW police figures and those based on surveys carried out by the ABS that cover the whole country.
In 2008 the ABS carried out such a survey of a little more than 25,000 individuals, for whom 859 said that they had been assaulted in the past twelve months (3 per cent). Of those reporting assault, 214 described the perpetrator as a family member, which brings the proportion as victims of domestic assault down to below 1 per cent. The good news? Domestic assault seemed to be declining after 2006 in New South Wales, though not by much. But at least it was not increasing. There are no easy available figures from 2011 to the present.
The police figures are harder, since they represent actual cases that were reported in 2010. What is immediately striking is that while women were disproportionately the victims of domestic assault, the ratio was 69:31, not the 90:10 I rather expected. In the area of assault that was not related to a domestic situation, men were much more likely to be the victims — 71:29. Who were the perpetrators? In domestic assault, 82 per cent were men, and 18 per cent women. In non-domestic assault, the male:female ratio was 76:24.
And their relationship to the victims? For 68 per cent of the women involved in domestic violence, the offender was her male partner (ex-partner, boy-friend, as well as husband); for the smaller group of male victims, the female partner was responsible for 70 per cent of the assaults. ‘The next most common scenario,’ says the report, ‘consisted of male and female victims being assaulted by male non-partners (14.8 and 12.8% respectively)’.
The other really important statistic is the extraordinarily high proportion of domestic assaults endured by indigenous women. ‘The rate of domestic assault for Indigenous women (3,275 per 100,000) is more than six times higher than for non-Indigenous women (544 per 100,000). Indigenous males are also over-represented as victims when compared to non-Indigenous males, with a rate of 1,043 victims per 100,000 compared to a non-Indigenous male rate of 260 victims per 100,000.’ We are not talking about the Northern Territory here, but New South Wales.
Having said that, the local government areas with the highest incidence of domestic violence were those in Western New South Wales where the indigenous population is highest, like Bourke, 3,702 reported assaults per 100,000 people, and Walgett, 2,930 reported assaults per 100,000 people. And while the survey data are not large enough to allow us to be really confident, it seems that domestic violence is at its highest rate among the most disadvantaged, which is consistent with the data for indigenous people.
How safe are you, in terms of being a likely victim? The most at risk are young women from 18 to 24. The next three groups include women from 25 to 39. The highest male group at risk is men from 18 to 24. People my age have almost the lowest likelihood of domestic assault, which I would expect, since my age group produced only 1 per cent of the victims.
Back to the beginning. What can be done about it? Those interviewed on television have an almost helpless tendency to say that ‘something has to be done about this’, and to ‘hope that no other family has to go through what we have been through’. While I feel for them, that doesn’t help. In a couple of recent cases, the women would still be alive had they been provided with bodyguards. Expensive? I guess so. In 2013 more than 25,000 apprehended violence orders (AVOs) were issued in New South Wales, and those murdered women had taken out AVOs on their assailants. The fact that 25,000 AVOs had been issued in one year says something about the prevalence of domestic violence and the fear of it. But I don’t think even the most tender-hearted NSW administration in 2013 could have provided 25,000 bodyguards.
So, what is to be done, as Lenin famously asked. Lenin based his pamphlet of 1901 with that title on an earlier novel by Chernyshevsky, whose theme in part is the need to educate the masses. I don’t see any easy or early solution to domestic violence that is available or likely to be available. Yes, a woman (or a man) who is the target of domestic violence needs to seek help from everyone, not just the state. It seems that AVOs actually do help. And I recall that lesson in 1945 or thereabouts: ‘You never, ever, hit a girl!’ Maybe we need some mass education, as Chernyshevsky suggested.
But it is hard to read the stuff I have had to read to write this essay without feeling that our modern, wealthy, progressive and creative society has a great deal of work to do in this domain. Worse, that I too have no solution to offer in the short run.