Domestic violence and I

May 3, 2024
Woman's hand showing gesture STOP. Image: iStock/weta0077

If we don’t recognise and understand the history of the struggle to end violence against women it will undermine efforts to eliminate it.

On Anzac Day, April 25, the Australian media made sure we remembered the men who fought for Australia both recently, and a century ago in WW1. I am the daughter of an Anzac who died when I was seven from injuries incurred on Lone Pine. I know only too well the trauma inflicted on our soldiers, our men in war. I am not advocating these men should not be honoured.

However I am also a woman – and nothing shouts louder how much our government values the life of a man than the millions of dollars of money spent honouring our male warriors fighting on foreign soil compared to the attention our governments have given to the abuse and murder of women here on Australian soil.
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How differently we behave when it comes to remembering the multitude of women (plus a few men) who fought for the well-being of Australians by trying to end violence against its female citizens.

The article published in The Conversation on April 26 is typical. It was titled We’re all feeling the collective grief and trauma of violence against women – but this is the progress we have made so far.

Despite its promising title the article gives no acknowledgement whatever to just how long women have been working to have this problem addressed. And little indication of the truly significant changes that have been made as a result of these generational-long efforts.

Women began the fight to end this violence even before we were a nation.

It is not only a national disgrace that women are being killed and abused today at such a rate, it’s also a disgrace it has taken so long for our governments to take seriously their responsibilities to the female half of the population. Politicians can’t claim they didn’t know about the trauma women were experiencing – female activists have been shouting about this for more than a century.

Apart from few notable exceptions politicians have flicked the problem into the too hard basket or was it the not urgent pile.

In the 1880’s Louisa Lawson began writing about the problem of domestic violence in her magazine The Dawn, and the Suffragettes’ campaign made the case that women’s vote was needed “to protect women and their children” and to end the scourge of male violence.

For decades very little happened. But things began to change in the 1970’s and 80’s with the second wave of feminism. These women made ending violence against women, and providing support for its victims, a major issue.

Elsie, the first women’s refuge in Australia, opened in Sydney in 1973, providing a place where women could go with their children to escape violence at home. Elsie inspired other women to open refuges in other capital cities. That required hard work and great dedication because these places got by on voluntary work and charitable donations of money, food, clothes and furniture.

At the time, there was legislation and a federal program to fund shelters for the homeless; but none of that money was going to shelters to house women and kids who would literally be out on the street if a woman chose to leave an abusive home.

How well I remember the struggle in 1975 to get male bureaucrats in the Department of Social Security to even acknowledge that domestic violence existed.

Those men fought to prevent the funding of refuges, claiming there was little evidence that domestic violence existed. They declared that opening more women’s refuges would only encourage women to leave their husbands for frivolous reasons. They were convinced this would undermine the family and threaten the very stability of society.

A big hoorah for Gough Whitlam who, in June 1975, insisted that a national program to fund refugees be established

For years police were reluctant to attend “a domestic” maintaining it was not appropriate for them to get involved in an argument between a husband and wife.

Let’s not forget that until relatively recently a man had the legal right to have sex with his wife whenever he wished. What the woman wanted was irrelevant. She was his property.

In 1981, defying the opinion of his cabinet colleagues who thought his proposal was electoral suicide, NSW Premier, Neville Wran amended the state’s Criminal Code to include the crime of rape in marriage . For the first time an Australian wife gained the right to say “no” to her husband. That happened less than fifty years ago, and elements of these attitudes are still embedded in our culture.

In the same year,Wran appointed the first Australian Taskforce on Domestic Violence and its report shaped policy and programs addressing the problem for years.

We still have a long way to go to end violence against women by men who are, or have been, their partners. But there has been significant changes brought about by prior generations of feminists and women’s advocates. Surely these women (and the men who supported them) deserve to be remembered and honoured,

Thank God the problem is at long last getting the recognition it warrants by governments both Federal and State. Yet if we don’t understand the history of the struggle to end this violence (including its successes and its failures) efforts to eliminate it will be undermined.

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