Domestic and family abuse in Australia – No ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T’
Since ‘Queen of Soul’ Aretha Franklin first sang ‘Respect’ in 1967 as a declaration for female empowerment (among other things), little seems to have changed in terms of unequal gendered power relations in patriarchal society despite second wave feminism, and women’s access to higher education and paid work. The ‘glass ceiling’ remains mostly intact, and women’s identity or gender role remains primarily one of providing labour as the main caregiver of children, performing unpaid household tasks, working in lower-paid jobs than men, often casually or part-time, and where ‘equal pay’ has not come to pass.
Male identity remains constructed around breadwinning, plus they are generally physically more powerful than women, which also feeds into situations of female disempowerment and dependency in the private sphere of the home, a ‘home’ which can all so easily turn into a prison.
While acknowledging that the above model is not a ‘one size fits all’ in modern family structures, that women do indeed kill and otherwise abuse men, and inequality exists in same-sex relationships, it remains by and large that the main perpetration of domestic and family abuse is by men against women, and children. Who could forget 4 year old Darcey Freeman being thrown from the West Gate Bridge in 2009.
The most recent heinous, horrific murder of Hannah Clarke and her three children on Wednesday 19 February 2020 in Brisbane, again highlights the massive social issue prevailing around domestic and family abuse in this country. A country where, on average, one woman is murdered by a current or former partner each week (and about one man each month). It is reported that a child is killed by a parent every two weeks.
This latest murder follows a long line of appalling domestic abuse killings, the more recent high profile ones being; Allison Baden-Clay murdered by her ‘husband’ in 2012, 11 year old Luke Batty being publicly killed by his father in 2014, Peter Miles’s mass killing of seven family members in Osmington, Western Australia in May 2018 and Anthony Harvey’s murder of his wife, mother-in-law and three daughters in September 2018.
So much for home being a safe place and a ‘haven in a heartless world’ since most homicides are committed by someone we know, usually a family member. How do we police the private sphere of the home, where often well-manicured lawns and gardens can hide a multitude of sins behind a facade of seeming suburban normality to the outside world? Whether the abuse is physical, sexual, emotional, verbal, psychological or financial, how do we make non-contact actions such as; snide putdowns, derogatory comments, endless criticism, belittling, ignoring, the silent treatment, isolation from family and friends, ridiculous rule following, bullying, brainwashing, threats, instilling fear, not listening, not allowing hobbies, gaslighting and other manipulations, playing the victim, being obsessive, possessive, projecting blame, and, control over and/or denial of telephone use and access to bank accounts, or even dictating the clothes one wears, a criminal offence?
At a state level we have laws regarding domestic violence, stalking and intimidation, various degrees of assault, manslaughter and murder enshrined in different Crimes Acts. Domestic violence orders in any state do not currently seem to be worth the paper they’re written on, despite Local Court Magistrates being overrun by a huge list to get through each week. It is a crime to breach the order, however by then it often too late, and consequences minimal. Lack of enforcement of these orders means people will continue to die.
It also doesn’t help when the Detective Inspector in charge of Hannah Clarke’s investigation makes outrageous, jaw-dropping statements:
“We need to look at every piece of information and, to put it bluntly, there are probably people out there in the community that are deciding which side, so to speak, to take in this investigation.
Is this an issue of a woman suffering significant domestic violence, and her and her children perishing at the hands of the husband?
Or is it an instance of a husband being driven too far by issues that he’s suffered by certain circumstances into committing acts of this form?”
What sides? Driven too far? Under NO circumstances is torching and burning your family alive justified. Full stop. Victim-blaming at its best, Detective Inspector Mark Thompson has since been removed from the investigation, and the community loses more faith in a criminal ‘justice’ system which does not appear to provide protection let alone justice to those who need it. We have a legal system where lawyers are often the only winners. State funding in the form of Legal Aid, prevention measures, various programs and refuges for worn down women fleeing domestic violence is not enough.
At a federal level, family court lists to sort out arrangements for parental contact with and care for children, and property settlements upon separation are a mile long, with waits for a hearing date often months away or longer. Let alone any child support arrangements which are an added minefield. In the meantime, lives are in limbo and on hold, frustration, anger, rage and conflict can escalate, and any resulting orders often contravened, again with minimal consequences. Plus, for those of us with the means, hiring lawyers and litigation is expensive, time-consuming, and stressful.
Consciousness-raising, advocacy groups, the #MeToo movement, women’s refuges, lawyers, legal centres and counselling all play a role when women leave their abusive partners, but are often a mere band-aid on the structural and individual reform necessary to deal with this issue. Plus, leaving can ‘amp up’ the ex-partner now the power dynamic has shifted, egos are bruised, rendering life even less safe for the person escaping their horror situation, and the leaver may also be facing homelessness. All this and an attempt to rebuild self-esteem and self-belief after a broken life in a broken system, that’s if they haven’t committed suicide first. Men too are dying from suicide and high-risk behaviours.
Clearly, power needs to be given back to victims in some way.
As a potential change to the system, maybe all domestic violence cases could undergo review by a psychologist as a means of assessing personalities and any risk of harm to partners. If people are found to be at high risk then ankle bracelets are to be worn, with GPS locators and alarms that go off to warn ex-partners that if they are within the range of harm, a call is made to the police which shows where they are and immediate action taken. Further, if there is some way to weed out vexatious, trivial and childish incidents used as tactical devices for obtaining a domestic violence orders in family law matters, this would free up the system to deal with more genuine cases where threats can be taken seriously.
To the women out there, men too, prevention is obviously better than cure so take care to choose your partner wisely and carefully. Take your time. Look for any ‘red flags’ that you might be potentially getting involved with an abusive control freak / narcissist / psychopath / sociopath or any other Cluster A, B or otherwise personality disordered or mentally unhealthy individual. Ask yourself – to what degree is this person controlling my life, as people who commit these horrific crimes are often narcissistic sociopaths.
Look past the emotional honeymoon period of ‘love-bombing’ to a possibly fake ‘Prince(ss) Charming.’ The removal of ‘reality’ television shows too would help, such as Married at First Sight as an example of a ‘textually-mediated discourse’ on finding Prince(ss) Charming, getting married, then presumably buying a house, having children and the fairytale ending, as this is ‘normal,’ isn’t it? In reality, it reinforces both bad behaviour to make for good television, and existing power relations within a male-dominated society. Instead, look for non-controlling and non-violent life partners, someone to respect and accept you for who you are, who allows you to grow, and to have a relationship based on openness, equality, healthy communication, including negotiation, mediation and mutual decision-making, rather than an imbalanced one of, at the extreme, ‘my way or the highway,’ where one party has no voice.
We can also take measures to prevent domestic violence by educating young people about how to treat people with kindness and respect, how to deal with emotions, especially conflict, in a healthy manner, and in particular, what to look for in a life partner and functional relationship; starting with a healthy relationship with the self. Better education will result in informed life choices and the creation of better boundaries around behaviour.
In any case, the system relating to family breakdown, violence and abuse needs a major review and restructure so one can only hope it will be finally undertaken after this latest tragedy so people can feel safe enough to leave abusive partners without perpetually living in fear, being killed or further re-traumatised by the legal system. This will be the legacy of Hannah Clarke’s courage.