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Wednesday, 16 June 2004
Page: 23997


Senator STOTT DESPOJA (7:27 PM) —I rise tonight to address the issue of domestic violence in Australia. I do so in light of the study that was released today by the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, VicHealth, which found that domestic violence is responsible for more ill health and premature death in women aged 15 to 45 than any other well-known risk factor, including high blood pressure, obesity and smoking. It found that women exposed to violence suffered depression, anxiety and phobias, suicide attempts, chronic pain symptoms, psychosomatic disorders, physical injury, gastrointestinal disorders, irritable bowel syndrome and a variety of adverse reproductive consequences. The study also reported that the economic cost of violence against women was at least $500 million per annum.

As indicated by the study, the impact of domestic violence cannot be overstated. At least one million Australian women have experienced some form of domestic violence. Half of these cases, according to statistics, were witnessed by children. Domestic violence is also a significant factor leading to lethal violence. It accounted for 27 per cent of all homicides in our country between 1989 and 1996. Despite this, however, the federal budget contained no forward estimates for expenditure under the important Partnerships Against Domestic Violence program, suggesting, if you read those budget papers, that the government may abolish this program after the 2004-05 financial year.

In the context of the budget, the government did announce an additional $5.1 million in 2003-04 and $1.6 million in 2004-05 for the national campaign for the elimination of violence against women. I am glad of that and I am glad that the media campaign in relation to domestic violence has finally been launched. I support the message of that campaign, which is that violence against women in our society is totally unacceptable. However, both the campaign itself and the way in which it was developed, postponed and changed call into question true commitment to the eradication of violence against women in our society and, in particular, the role for government.

I understand that one of the reasons that the campaign was postponed was to make it less anti-male. This misses an important point. It is an unfortunate one but a fact: violence against women is mostly perpetrated by men. It is unfortunate that the campaign was delayed, let alone that the reason for the delay was to water it down and potentially make it less controversial. Campaigns about violence should be controversial. They should be confronting. They should not be toned down to fit a government agenda.

It has been revealed that another change between the original ads and the ads now on television that were launched on 6 June was that the Coaching Boys into Men segment was dropped from the campaign. This was designed to encourage young men and boys to develop positive attitudes towards women and to show them that violence is unacceptable. I do not think anyone doubts the need for programs such as that. The recent spate of allegations against AFL and rugby players has highlighted this need. I highlight that as an example only, because I know that in all aspects of our society violence takes place. It is not just in the case of sportsmen.

Like many others, I spoke out publicly—albeit wary of the legal constraints, I acknowledge—in relation to the recent decision not to press charges against the Canterbury Bulldog players over allegations of raping a woman in Coffs Harbour. But I was worried, like many others, that this decision may prevent women from coming forward with allegations of rape and sexual assault because they are worried about the fact that these decisions will be made or that their complaint will not be taken seriously. I was and am still concerned that women may see decisions such as this as a reason not to pursue similar claims.

According to a 1996 ABS survey, 1.9 per cent of women aged 18 and over have experienced sexual violence by a man in the last 12 months. Yet respondents indicated that only 15 per cent of these assaults were reported to police. These are the most recent ABS figures available, as the government has not actually studied violence against women since 1996. Interestingly, however, support centres have noticed a sharp increase in the number of women reporting sexual assault since the most recent allegations involving those sportsmen. The Brisbane Rape and Incest Survivors Support Centre reports it has been inundated with calls from women who have been affected by sexual violence in recent months. Similarly, the New South Wales Rape Crisis Centre report a 13.5 per cent increase in calls in the past month. So perhaps in some way these allegations have had an impact. They have made it clear that women who have experienced sexual violence are not alone and hopefully, if there is any positive that comes out of this, it has given them the courage to come forward.

However, even when sexual assault is reported and the matter is taken to court, it is notoriously difficult to achieve a conviction, partly due to the high level of proof required. The Courier Mail newspaper recently reported the Queensland Director of Public Prosecutions, Leanne Clare, as saying:

... by its very nature rape remains one of the hardest offences to prosecute ... It is physically and emotionally invasive for the victim who feels ashamed and humiliated.

Obviously, it is important that women feel they can come forward and know that their claims will be dealt with seriously.

One of the most disturbing aspects of domestic violence is the extreme end—that is, domestic violence can lead to murder. On average, 77 homicides occur each year where the victim and the offender are current or former spouses. Three-quarters of these killings involve men killing their female spouses. These murders can often follow custody disputes or are the result of domestic violence. However, like many, I hope, in this place, I am sick and tired of people attempting to explain or justify such killings as being somehow caused by these disputes. There is never an excuse for this violence.

Often, of course, children become the victims of violence. According to the Institute of Criminology, around 25 children were killed by their parents each year between 1989 and 2002 and fathers were responsible for 63 per cent of these filicides. While any form of violence is abhorrent, in the minority of cases where a woman perpetrates violence against her partner or a mother against her child what I find fascinating is the media's portrayal of such violence and indeed the double standards that we still get in this day and age in the treatment of violence perpetrated by women. I was going to put this into words but I found a quote from the Age recently which summed it up brilliantly. The writer, Sue Leigh from Thornbury, said:

When there is a tragic killing of children by a father, the response is often one of sympathy for the perpetrator. It is said that the poor man was depressed because he was unable to cope with separation and divorce. Depressed women who kill their children, because they are overwhelmed by the pressures of coping with children on their own, are called monsters and demonised by the media.

I am not sure what this highlights in our society but I have a grave fear that it is a culture of misogyny that has not left us. It is misogyny that is evident in institutions throughout our society and I indicate the media in the context of those groups.

But we know that there are legal, police and other avenues theoretically available to women and children. Killings of any kind, but these killings in particular, highlight the need for an increased enforcement of protection orders and apprehended violence orders. It is often assumed that apprehended violence protection orders, AVOs, can keep women safe. But we know that is not the case. They do not always work. They are often violated and we know that enforcement is patchy. I am not suggesting that the judiciary, the legal services or indeed the police are not acknowledging that, but we are not doing enough to make sure that they are not patchy.

A man who has written well on this issue is Phil Cleary. I refer honourable senators to his book about the murder of his sister as an example of where we have perhaps not moved on over the last decades. It is clear that an advertising campaign may help, but it is not enough to combat violence. I will continue, as the Democrats and many others will, to pressure the government to increase funding to address this issue, but indefinitely postponing or shutting down campaigns and programs designed to assist victims of violence does not work. We need a combined approach that involves all of society's institutions—media, judiciary, police, health, support—plus law makers. But I suspect that at the heart of it all is a culture of misogyny that has to be stamped out, and I look forward to seeing it eradicated some time, I hope, in the near future.