I don’t often think about the time my father held my head and bashed it against a wall when I was a teenager. It was a long time ago now and my father has since died. But like phantom sensations where a limb has been amputated, the imprints of past violence, whether physical or verbal, can loiter for a lifetime.
On that night I ran far from home, ended up in a nightclub, went home with a sympathetic man I vaguely knew, and spent the night trying to avoid having sex with him. When I returned home two days later, nothing was said. After a few days of silence, life returned to “normal” and all was forgotten – until the next time.
When violence erupts intermittently in the home it can seem dissociated from the usual, kinder, character of the offender, and episodes are often excused as passing aberrations. If alcohol or drugs, or in some cases mental illness, are thrown into the mix, the bigger picture can be even harder to grasp.
But too much understanding when it comes to a partner’s violence can lead to paralysis. And while our focus should be on preventing the violence of perpetrators, women must also step back and untangle some of the threads that bind them to a violent partner. Remaining at the centre and in control of their own lives should always be the priority.
Financial or emotional dependency, loyalty, fear, love (or the kind of attachment we think of as love), can be powerful and often underestimated forces in relationships – for children as well as partners. And each of us must deal with the unique detail and context of our lives. But the longer the abuse and controlling behaviours continue, the more entrenched the feelings of powerlessness and isolation in victims can become - and the greater the potential for long term damage.
My father never admitted to his violence, except for many years later when he told me I deserved it. His “conflict” with my mother, he claimed, was her fault. My mother didn’t talk much about her life to anyone, but as far as I am aware, my father’s violence was never confronted. When my father remarried after my mother’s sudden death, his second wife left when he tried to hit her. She came back after promises it wouldn’t happen again, and the physical violence never did. But this wasn’t the man she thought she had married, and fourteen years later - her mental health had long been fragile – she took her own life.
The committee for the recent NSW parliamentary report Domestic violence trends and issues in NSW notes that males and females can be either victims or perpetrators and that prevention and response systems must be effective for all parties, regardless of gender. But the committee also concurred with the overwhelming view of inquiry participants - supported by state, national and international data, and “rightly recognised in policy and legislation” - that “domestic violence is an inherently gendered crime”.
When I was growing up in the late 60s and 70s, Australian culture was quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) accepting of men giving their wives and kids a good whack if they stepped out of line. Women rarely had the means or support to leave relationships and the behaviour of violent men was seldom challenged. But if our culture has shifted and domestic violence is less acceptable in 2012, it is not reflected in current statistics.
Police Commissioner Ken Lay has made domestic violence a priority in Victoria and the growing number of reported cases gives us greater insight into the extent of the problem. In 2011/2012 Victorian police submitted 50,382 family incident reports - 23.4% higher than in 2010/2011. Charges were laid in 17,528 cases - a 45.1% increase from the previous year. Assaults made up 45.1% of offences arising from family incidents.
In Western Australia police responded to more than 42,000 call outs for domestic violence in the last financial year and deaths from domestic violence in WA have more than doubled over the past year. In Queensland between 2006 and 2011, 47% of homicide victims died as a result of domestic or family violence.
In NSW, 26,808 domestic violence related assaults were recorded in 2011, and each year NSW police respond to more than 120,000 incidents involving domestic and family violence. Reporting in NSW has remained stable over the past decade, but research shows that most cases around Australia are not reported.
As a society we ramp up political pressure on governments to address public violence but often we ignore abuse that doesn’t directly impact our own safety. Without further increases in awareness, support and prevention strategies, and changes in community attitudes, many more children and adults will continue to be harmed, and most of the time we won’t even know about it.
It is never easy to talk publicly about personal violence or violation, for many reasons – in some cases lives may be threatened. Understanding can be lacking and the ability to see victims as separate from the violence they have experienced is often absent. And who wants to be viewed through the lens of experiences many would prefer were left unspoken, and in my case, happened long ago. For me there is a also a feeling of betraying a father who put food on the table, often did the best he could, and was not just the sum of his drinking and violence.
But children are not responsible for their parents’ failings, victims are never the cause of a perpetrator’s violence, and criminal acts of violence are not private family affairs. Silence is just not an option if change is to occur.
It is up to our governments to ensure that help is available for victims and perpetrators – as reports increase so must the availability of support. Services for women and children who leave relationships remain chronically under-funded and without adequate housing many are forced to remain in violent relationships, or sleep in cars or on the street. Homelessness, mental illness and disability are just some of the wide-ranging consequences women face from domestic violence each year.
Within our communities and as individuals we must also step up and view the prevention of violence as a shared responsibility. White Ribbon is an organisation led by males, aiming to stop male violence against women. This Sunday is White Ribbon Day, a time for all of us to make clear that as a society and as individuals we will not tolerate cowardly acts of violence. To participate in or support White Ribbon Day events or the White Ribbon organisation visit their website www.whiteribbon.org.au
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, the National Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Helpline 1800 200 526 is available 24 hours a day. In an emergency call 000.
Susan Metcalfe is a freelance writer.