Family violence isn't something that happens to 'unsuitable women'

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Celeste Liddle

Aboriginal activist Celeste Liddle.

Aboriginal activist Celeste Liddle.

If there is one thing I have learnt from years of reading conservative commentary, it's that there is no such thing as too much irony. The socially vulnerable may be portrayed as 'playing the victim' by such commentators, but it's the rich and powerful they ultimately paint as the 'real victims'. How else to describe the thankless task of policing disadvantaged folks' behaviour?

While this mentality is mostly laughable, it is also undeniably dangerous. This is because it levels the blame squarely on the shoulders of many domestic violence victims, rendering their experience completely invalid.

This was precisely what I took away from Miranda Devine's column on Sunday, titled 'Demonising men won't stop domestic violence'. In it, Devine deftly moves from criticising Prime Minister Turnbull's assertion that gender inequality is causing domestic violence, to blaming the current crisis to the welfare state and all it entails (high Indigenous populations, drug problems, mental illness).

Her offensive suggestion of ending the "welfare incentive for unsuitable women to keep having children to a string of feckless men" prompted immediate social media backlash, causing the hashtag #UnsuitableWomen to trend. It implies, as most victim-blaming refrain does, that survivors of violence are somehow at fault for choosing potentially abusive partners.

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If Devine were to examine intersectional feminism theory, she would find feminists identifying social disadvantage as an exacerbating factor - not the cause - of additionally oppressed women experiencing violence at a much higher rate. And the true common factor between all DV cases is that it's a gendered issue in which most of the victims are women and most of the perpetrators are men.

In other words, to state plainly that poverty is the cause of domestic violence ignores the gendered power which lies at its root.

While addressing issues of poverty may lessen the consistency of domestic violence, it will not remove it. Wealthy women are not free from domestic violence. The shocking rates of domestic violence in Sydney's affluent Eastern suburbs were reported just last week. Of the eight women police refer each day in this area for the Safer Pathways support services, two are thought to be at immediate risk of being killed. Rates of violence may be higher in rural and impoverished areas but they clearly do not negate the fact that fourteen women per week are running for their lives in the midst of leafy privilege.

In this sense, using the high rates of domestic violence experienced by impoverished Aboriginal women as a way to dismiss the far-reaching nature of the crime is reprehensible. I additionally resent the insinuation that remote Aboriginal women, being more likely to be impoverished, are perhaps the most "unsuitable women" of all, particularly in light of how often bureaucracies have attempted to control the reproductive capacity of Aboriginal women over the years.

Aboriginal women are currently making up about 18 percent of the murder victims due to violence against women this year, or six times what a population parity rate would be. Real services which save lives have been under threat of loss of funding. Perhaps with the alleviation of poverty, Aboriginal women would not be so horrendously statistically overrepresented. But until issues of racism and gender inequality are addressed in society, the best we can hope for is that the numbers drop to a proportion consistent with the wider population.

Finally, if the act of highlighting the gendered nature of domestic violence is equated to "disrespecting men", then I believe Devine is reading it wrong. I am privileged to know many men who see the gendered nature of violence as being the truth of the matter and who work additionally hard to try and change it.

In 2010, hundreds of Aboriginal men marched in Alice Springs under the banner "Stop the Violence". These men were very much claiming self-respect, rather than feeling disrespected due to the message. I see this on a smaller scale every day, from the number of men's groups around the country who work with perpetrators to try and change attitudes to male peers who spread the message and challenge their own privilege. Men don't suddenly become victims if they are challenged on gendered power disparities. Some rise to the challenge and take other men with them.

We cannot ignore the exacerbating factors which contribute to the higher rates of domestic violence in some communities, for to do so would be to leave the most vulnerable behind. But to focus on these exacerbating factors rather than addressing the root cause will do nothing except ensure that the tallies keep ticking over.