International Women’s Day: Celebrating the Achievements…and a Call to Action on Domestic Violence

International Women’s Day: Celebrating the Achievements…and a Call to Action on Domestic Violence

On 8 March, we will celebrate the 100th year of International Women’s Day. It is an important occasion for celebrating and acknowledging the considerable achievements of women and men in advancing gender equality in Australia. And there is much to celebrate.

Over the last 100 years women have gained the right to vote, the women’s movement has transformed power relations between men and women, the majority of university graduates are female, a national paid parental leave scheme has been introduced, the ASX Governance Council has required all publicly listed companies to set targets for gender equality, women are represented in all areas of public life, we have a female Prime Minister leading the country, and the list goes on. Indeed, the world that young women and men are entering today is a far more equal world than that of their parents and grandparents.

But amidst the celebrations we cannot forget that gender equality is unfinished business. There are areas where there has been insufficient progress. Violence against women, and more specifically domestic violence, is one such area. This International Women’s Day, as Sex Discrimination Commissioner, I will be making a call for action on domestic violence.

Domestic violence is one of the gravest examples of gender inequality in Australia today. The United Nation’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has asserted that gender-based violence seriously inhibits women’s ability to enjoy rights and freedoms on an equal basis with men.

As I travel around Australia, I often ask people to name countries where they consider violence against women to be a problem. More often than not they reel off a list of other countries but fail to recognise the prevalence rates right here in Australia. The reality is you can point to anywhere on the map of Australia, and you will find people dealing with domestic violence or sexual assault.

While, men are also the victims of violence, the experience of violence against women is significantly different. Most violence against men occurs in a public place, and in 65% of incidents, the perpetrator is a stranger.

In contrast, one in three Australian women have experienced physical violence since the age of 15, and 85% of those women were assaulted by a current or former partner, family, friend or other known male. Three quarters of these assaults occurred in their home. Further, nearly one in five Australian women have experienced sexual assault since the age of 15. The vast majority of those women were sexually assaulted by a current or former partner, family, friend, or other known male.

Domestic violence is witnessed by 180,000 children annually. Economically and socially, it has an effect on every one of us and remains a significant barrier to achieving substantive gender equality.

Victorian research has found that domestic violence is the leading contributor to death, disability and illness in women aged 15-44 years, a greater contributor than high blood pressure, smoking and obesity.

And we know that women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander women, migrant and refugee women and women with disabilities have even higher prevalence rates.

Domestic violence can affect any woman. These fundamental breaches of trust do not discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, socio-economic standing, geography and demography.

Yet, domestic violence continues to be perceived as a private concern by many in the population. TheNational Community Attitudes to Violence against Women Survey 2009 shows that a sizeable proportion of a general population sample still believes domestic and sexual violence can be excused in some circumstances. This is in line with comments that are often made, such as ‘What did she do to egg him on?’ or ‘She must be a real nag’.

Even more commonly, the question ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’ is posed. This is reflected in the 55% of men and 45% of women from a general population sample who believed that most women could leave a violent relationship if they really wanted to. This shows a deep seated misunderstanding about the central element of domestic violence – an ongoing pattern aimed at controlling one’s partner through fear. It is asking the wrong question. The question we need to ask is why doesn’t the perpetrator stop the violence?

If we are to move forward with addressing domestic violence and, more broadly, gender equality in Australia, we need to challenge these deeply held attitudes and work to ensure that a belief in the equality of all men and women is part of our Australian belief system. After all, while living free from violence is everyone’s right – reducing violence must be everyone’s responsibility.

Domestic violence does not just affect a woman and her children in the family home. One of the most significant side effects of domestic violence is its impact on women’s participation in the labour force. But in many businesses domestic violence is the issue that dare not speak its name, where shame hangs heavily.

The statistics tell a different story.

Almost one in three women who experience family violence is in the workforce. US research shows that between 50% and 74% of employed women experiencing domestic violence are harassed by their partners while at work. Violent partners may control a woman’s participation in paid work, or force a woman to leave the workforce because of threats. Absenteeism from work due to violence may also place her employment at risk.

Better work place responses to domestic violence, such as those recently adopted by the New South Wales Government, must be developed to ensure women who experience domestic violence maintain attachment to the workforce. The NSW Government scheme provides employment support initiatives to NSW Public Service employees who have experienced domestic violence by providing access to certain leave entitlements and where those entitlements are exhausted the employee shall be granted special leave.

The benefits of making violence against women a business issue will be two fold. Firstly, there is good evidence that employers will decrease their staff turnover and absenteeism, and secondly, they will increase productivity. It has been estimated that productivity losses due to domestic violence cost between $484 million and $500 million in 2002 – 03. This figure is predicted to rise to $609 million by 2021 – 22, with employers currently bearing $235 million of these costs. Promoting continued attachment to the workforce also allows women to increase their capacity to gain employment in the future and allows greater financial independence, both at the time and in later life.

Finally, there needs to be greater awareness among the general public not just of the prevalence of domestic violence but also the substantial economic burden. The vast economic costs should speak to everyone – in 2009, it was estimated that domestic violence costs Australia $13.6 billion a year. Recent research also shows that estimated costs of $20,766 could be avoided for every woman whose experience of violence could be prevented.

But there is some good news. On 15 February 2011 the federal government launched the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children. The plan has been endorsed by all state, territory and federal governments. The Plan aims to promote safer communities by changing community attitudes towards domestic violence, strengthening the services available to victims of violence, ensuring that perpetrators are held accountable for their actions, and formulating early intervention guidelines. Such actions are vital in addressing violence against women and gender equality in Australia.

I congratulate all Australian Governments on the introduction of the National Plan and call on them to ensure its effective implementation. A plan of this size and significance must also be rigorously and independently monitored and evaluated.

In closing, I urge you to reflect on the following questions:

  • When we’ve achieved so much in the last century, how is it that in 2011 on the 100th anniversary of IWD, we still have over 300,000 women that experience domestic violence each year?
  • How is it that in 2011 on the 100th anniversary of IWD, 180,000 children every year witness the violence perpetrated on their mothers and sometimes also directed at them?
  • How is it that in 2011 on the 100th anniversary of IWD, we still haven’t found an effective answer to this shameful scourge?
  • Is our failure to reduce the incidence of domestic violence due to the complexity of the problem? Have we become so numb to the statistics that we forget that behind each number is a human tragedy? Have we stopped to think that this could be our mother, our sister, our aunt, our daughter or us?

On International Women’s day I will call on all men and women to speak out about violence against women including demeaning attitudes, sexual harassment, domestic and family violence and sexual assault.

I ask all of us to put an end to violence in our homes, schools, workplaces and our communities.

With education, awareness and advocacy, we will create an Australia where all women can live free from violence, and Australia can move towards a world where women and men have equal rights and opportunities and where the principles of gender equality and women’s empowerment are well embedded.

Elizabeth Broderick is Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination