Good bystander behaviour is essential to tackling violence, but particularly so when addressing intimate partner or family violence scenarios. Once violence is placed in a domestic context, it becomes all too easy to succumb to nerves or even fears of impropriety. What if people don’t want us poking our noses in where they’re not wanted?
But family and intimate partner violence is a serious problem, and we must all be part of the solution. According to the National Homicide Monitoring Program, of the 260 homicide incidents in 2007-08, the majority (52%) were classified as ‘domestic’ related. Intimate partner homicides formed 31% of incidents. It also significantly targets more women than men, with 55% of female homicide victims killed by an intimate partner as opposed to 11% of male victims. Most Australian homicides occur in a residential location, with 53% happening in the victim’s home. Consequently, the most dangerous place for a woman to be in in regards to violence and murder is in her own home and with her own intimate partner.
These are frightening statistics, and we all have a responsibility to change them.
The good news is that there are significant things we can all do to positively disrupt the cycle of family and intimate partner violence (FV and IPV). I spoke with Ada Conroy, a Family Violence Project Worker at Women’s Health In The North (WHIN) in Victoria, and she talked me through just five of the ways we can all be proactive in addressing FV and IPV.
1. Become familiar with the signs of FV and IPV, and refer victims on to appropriate services
It’s important to remember that the cycle of abuse is not straightforward, and simply demanding that someone leaves is not only unhelpful but also dangerous. Women are most at-risk of homicide in the period immediately post separation from a violent partner.
As tempting as it is to try to give advice and encouragement, the fact is that most people are not equipped to understand or deal with the complicated intricacies of FV and IPV. What we can do is provide unqualified support to victims by engaging them in gentle, direct questioning. Don’t be afraid to ask if she’s okay and if everything is okay at home. Even if she brushes you off, what you’ve succeeded in doing is opening the door and letting her know that she has support if and when she needs it. Many victims of violence don’t speak out because they’re afraid no one will believe them. By directly but gently addressing the situation with her, you’re letting her know that she can trust you not to question her truth.
Be proactive about contacting service providers and asking for advice - they work with these situations every day, and are the best placed to tell you what to do next. Conroy reminds us that, in Victoria at least, police services are well integrated with family violence services. Contacting the police will ultimately end up directing both perpetrator and victim to services which are better trained to deal with the issue than well meaning individuals.
There are also lots of excellent resources available that can help us to identify the signs of FV and IPV. The Domestic Violence Resource Centre in Victoria has a section devoted just to this, and includes things like being aware of an increase in anxiety, possibly in regards to pleasing a partner; noticing physical injuries; decreased availability for social events; decreased performance at work and possible absenteeism.
2. Make sure your workplace has a policy to support victims of FV and IPV
One of the signs of FV and IPV is decreased performance in the workplace and possible absenteeism. According to a KPMG report, the total cost to Australia for family violence is around $13.6 billion in associated private and public health services, damage to property, production related costs, child support services and more. That same report found that preventing the experience of family violence for just one woman can avoid costs of $20,766. FV and IPV isn’t just the leading contributing cause of death for women aged between 15 and 45 - it’s also a huge burden on the economy.
But financial insecurity is also what keeps many women involved in violent relationships. Having a workplace policy that supports victims and survivors sends a clear message that they will be protected financially despite their family situations. It also ends the cycle of punishment that accompanies violence; supporting women to stay in their jobs stops them from being further victimised by their circumstances. Ask your boss if you have an appropriate workplace policy to deal with FV and IPV and if you don’t, be proactive in instituting one.
3. Intervene when you’re witness to suspect verbal behaviour, even if it’s as ‘harmless’ as sexist jokes
As Conroy says, “When someone is sexist publicly and people laugh about it, they are essentially condoning a behaviour that promotes violence against women and allows it to happen.” This might seem a little excessive. After all, we’ve all laughed at a sexist joke here and there. It doesn’t mean we’re going to go out and murder someone!
“Of course not,” Conroy agrees. “But people see violence against women as specific, isolated incidents. They don’t see the myriad ways that small actions contribute to the perpetration of it.”
Violence occurs on a continuum. On the one end of it, we have thoughtless microaggressions like sexist jokes, dismissive quips and small acts of power. On the other end, we have things like rape and murder. While the two seem entirely unrelated, they’re actually connected because they both operate on the assumption that women are essentially inferior. This isn’t to say that every man who laughs at a sexist joke is consciously condoning violence or is at risk or perpetrating it; but what those things do succeed in doing is to help sustain the culture that allows for violence against women to continue.
So don’t be afraid to intervene when someone’s using language or ‘humour’ to disparage women. Chances are, you’re not the only one who feels uncomfortable - and the more people speak, the more that behaviour will become intolerable.
4. Understand how to support a woman in the aftermath of leaving a violent situation
Remember that post separation is the most dangerous time for women. Again, if someone you know is leaving a violent relationship, contact a family violence service and explore the resources on offer there.
Conroy advises that one of the ways we can help support survivors is to understand how difficult it can be to leave. It takes an average of seven attempts for a woman to successfully leave a violent partner. Don’t allow your frustration to contribute to her anxiety. Recognise that there are many contributing factors to violence and what seems clear to you might not be clear to her.
Let her lead the process, and withhold advice however helpful you might think it is. When actress Rachael Taylor spoke with the Australian Women’s Weekly recently, she said that being in a violent situation caused her to ‘lose her inner voice’. Understand that this is a common scenario for many survivors of violence. Her voice and autonomy needs to be respected and honoured, particularly when she’s exiting a relationship that will likely have, as Taylor says, silenced those things. Be patient and remember that this is her journey, not yours.
5. Understand that violence crosses all economic and cultural barriers - there is no typical victim so don’t stereotype
“I spoke to a woman when I was working at the crisis service,” Conroy told me. “She was very well educated and upper middle class. She said, ‘I can’t believe this has happened to me; I didn’t think I was the type.’ She couldn’t talk to her friends or her community because the violence in her sphere was much less visible.”
Victorian Police Commissioner Ken Lay reminds us, violence occurs in all walks of life ‘from Doveton to Toorak, and Hawthorn to Epping’. Never make the mistake of thinking that things like FV or IPV don’t happen to people you know - or are perpetrated by them. Violence still occurs in wealthy suburbs; it just happens behind higher fences. Trust women when they confide in you, believe them and offer them your unqualified support.
Take the pledge
This year, Daily Life would like its readers to pledge to be proactive in positively disrupting the cycle of violence against women. By adopting the above strategies, you can help make a significant difference in the numbers of women abused - and even murdered - every year in Australia. This is a national epidemic, and we all have a responsibility to be involved.
Join us on taking a stand against domestic violence by sharing this story on Facebook, tweeting #ShineALight or leaving a comment below.
Together, we can be the change we want to see.
For 24 hour help, call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732). Or see your state and territory helplines here.