Libby Lloyd. Coming to grips with our domestic war

Oct 1, 2015

For many reasons there is currently a much greater interest in the issue of domestic and family violence. This derives from increased media attention, the significant increase in intimate partner homicides (64 so far this year), the vastly improved police and legal response, constant revision and improvement of state and federal laws, as well as the appointment of Rosie Batty as Australian of the year. There has been a recent enquiry in Queensland and there is currently a Royal Commission in Victoria. We’ve had plenty of enquiries. How much more discussion on the topic do we need? We can already be quite confident we know enough about the causes of this violence and we also know what needs to be done. We just need to get on and do it.

Roughly speaking one in three Australian women report having experienced physical violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. One in four children has witnessed domestic or family violence and one in five women report sexual assault (frequently within their relationship).

Violence against women costs the Australian economy $13.6b a year! KPMG was commissioned in 2008 to cost violence against women and their calculations include: pain, suffering and premature mortality; costs for health (treating effects); protection related costs (eg absence from work); consumption related costs (damaged property, moving etc); second generation costs (ongoing costs related to the children); administrative costs (police, incarceration, courts, counselling, violence prevention); and transfer costs (payment of government benefits).

For many reasons it is a challenge to quantify domestic and family violence and sexual assault – mainly because we can never be certain of the number of non-reports and different jurisdictions record the data differently. But we do know that women are becoming increasingly confident to report and this may explain the increased number of reports – or perhaps the prevalence is increasing – or both.

The legal definition of domestic violence varies slightly within jurisdictions but by and large covers physical, sexual, emotional and psychological abuse. The term violence covers excessively controlling behaviours, such as stalking, refusing to allow external contacts, friendships or access to family, limiting access to money, denying liberty as well as physical violence. And we also know that women and children are overwhelmingly the victims of domestic violence, and men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of violence. We must also take account of the facts that men can be more physically violent and generally they are physically stronger.

Many factors contribute to domestic and family violence and sexual assault such as the abuse of alcohol, use of drugs, mental health issues, pregnancy and separation may all increase the risk of domestic violence. Financial stress, personal stress and lack of social support are also strong correlates of violence against women. We are yet to fully understand whether these factors are primarily causes or consequences of violence against women.

Many women in abusive relationships return to the perpetrator of the violence and try to reconcile, they just want the violence to stop. It is a major step for many women to extricate themselves from violent relationships – their children are linked to their local schools and community, there are emotional, financial and other inter-dependencies.


Australia has increasingly developed better responses to domestic violence much of it built on the work and advocacy of feminists in the 1970s. The first women’s refuge in Australia (Elsie) opened in NSW in 1974 with funding support from the Whitlam government in 1975. Successive governments have built on this response with increasingly effective preventive programs, support for victims/survivors and their families and law enforcement. Each jurisdiction in Australia has in place a variety of laws, programs and policies responding to, and attempting to prevent domestic violence.  Each jurisdiction funds its own programs and systems, and there are also some Australian Government funded programs operating in the states and territories, particularly supported accommodation and safe houses.

What is new and is a really important initiative is the 12 year National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children (2010-2022). The National Plan demonstrates that violence against women is a complex issue and needs a wide range of targeted and properly funded responses.

There has been a National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children (2010-2022) in place already for 5 years. This Plan is based on the 2009 report ‘Time for Action’ presented by the National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children which was established by Prime Minister Rudd in 2008. The National Action Plan clearly outlines a very broad range of actions that need to be undertaken. All States and territories have signed on to the Commonwealth’s National Action Plan and each has developed its own Action Plan that joins up with the Commonwealth’s Plan. This is landmark moment as now all States and Territories and the Commonwealth are working together in a coordinated long-term effort to address violence against women. Now we can keep building and improving on the initiatives that prove successful.

It is a long-term Plan (4 sub-plans each of 3 years) each building on the previous plan(s). It is bi-partisan and was agreed by COAG in 2009 by the Prime-Minister and all First Ministers and it has continued strong support despite changes of governments. It has a strong focus on prevention. For the first time sexual assault is joined up with domestic and family violence. It aligns and joins up with other initiatives among which are: the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children (2009-2020); the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness; the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing; the National Disability Strategy and more.

What is different about this Plan is that it contemplates and identifies a wide range of interventions that need to be addressed

  1. Communities are safe
  2. Relationships are respectful
  3. indigenous communities are strengthened
  4. Services meet the needs
  5. Justice responses are effective
  6. Perpetrators stop their violence and are held to account

The National Council also featured a major outcome to be ‘systems must work effectively together’. This remains one of the greatest challenges and one that is constantly mentioned.

The Rudd Government response In 2009 was to immediately allocate funding to a number of Council recommended initiatives: establish a national helpline (1800 RESPECT); establish ‘Respectful Relationships’ programs in schools; set up ‘The Line’ social marketing campaign targeted at young people and parents; fund research into perpetrator treatment; establish an Australian National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS); allocate Community Action Grants; fund a new National Community Attitudes Survey and continue funding the Personal Safety Survey; provide additional support for front-line workers and services and establish a national AVO register. Additionally the Foundation for Prevention of Violence against Women and their Children has been established (Our WATCh) by the Commonwealth and the Victorian, NT and South Australian governments. Its role is to drive nation-wide change in the culture, behaviours and attitudes that lead to violence against women and children.

The Abbott/Turnbull governments have continued with strong support for the National Plan and are working closely with all states and territories. The Turnbull government this week announced $100m additional funding for innovative technology including phones to keep women safe: increased support for the Safe at Home program where the perpetrator moves out and the victim and her children stay in the family home; increased funding for the national helpline 1800 RESPECT; increased support for police in indigenous communities; improved support and services for women including increased training for frontline staff and trials of integrated service models. They also provided funding for longer-term measure to change the attitudes of young people to violence. It is exciting that the national curriculum will now include Respectful Relationships education for all children.

Work to establish the most effective responses to change men’s violent behaviour is well underway. Services are gaining a stronger voice and strong efforts are underway to join up services (wrap around services). Courts are constantly improving their responses. The media is becoming more interested to work to assist a solution. Schools are becoming more active and more engaged. Civil society is becoming involved and taking a role and responsibility to find solutions. Our responses and responsibilities to violence against women are increasingly widening.

Until recently violence against women has been considered a ‘women’s issue. Excitingly this recent announcement by Prime Minister Turnbull was signed off by the Ministers for Women and Minister for Employment, the Attorney General, the Minister for Health, the Minister for Social Services, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, the Minister for Communications and the Minister for Education. This is a remarkable shift to recognise that all these ministries (and more) have a major part to play in combating and preventing violence against women.

Now an increasingly wider response and significant support is being given to the issue of prevention of violence (and sexual assault) by sporting organisations (AFL and NRL as leading examples), faith-based organisations and by community based men-led organisations such as the White Ribbon Foundation. Schools and business, the private sector and the broad community understand that we all must play a part in stopping this violence. Violence against women is everyone’s issue; it is no longer ‘a private matter’ nor ‘just a domestic’. It can not be just a headline of horror in a newspaper, or 2 extreme minutes on the TV news.

We must all come to understand that this is a complex issue that can not be solved quickly or easily. We know that we have made a good start in tackling it, but it will be a long slow road. We must raise our children to understand the importance of their relationships – they must be respectful – boys to girls, girls to boys and all to each other. We must parent our children carefully and responsibly. We must call out violence when we see it. We need to respond to violence as individuals as a family and as a community. It can’t be solved just by governments – we all have a part to play. It will take great effort but most of all it will take all of us to play a part to resolve it.


Libby Lloyd AM was chair of the National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, Chair of the Violence against Women Advisory Group and a co-founder of the White Ribbon Foundation.

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