‘Domestic violence’ refers to acts of violence, coercion or intimidation which occur in domestic settings between two people who are, or were, in an intimate relationship (Our Watch). However, ‘family violence’ is a broader term which, according to the Commonwealth Family Law Act 1975 is a “violent, threatening or other behavior by a person that coerces or controls a member of the person’s family, or causes the family member to be fearful” (ABC News 2016). According to Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria [DVRCV] (2016) domestic violence is the main cause of death, disability and illness in Australian women aged 15-44, and one woman is killed by a current or former partner almost every week. The combined health, administration and social welfare costs of violence against women is estimated by the Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria & Domestic Violence Victoria [DVRCV & DVV] (2016) at $21.7 billion a year in Australia. Furthermore, one in four women in Australia (2.2 million) have experienced at least one incident of violence by a male intimate partner [DVRCV & DVV] (2016). However, according to the Australian Parliament [AP] (2006), only 36% of victims of physical assault and 19% of sexual assault report it to the police. Despite the vast scope and deadly consequences of family violence, it has been ignored for a long time. When it was eventually addressed, law enforcement approaches were implemented, which failed to reduce family violence. However, the new prevention-based approach has proved to be effective in addressing family violence and its underlying factors. This article will delve into the approach shift throughout the last 50 years, from the early interventionist approaches to the influence of new theories on the development of preventive approaches such as the public health approach. It will later discuss the most relevant projects and campaigns in the preventive field, and analyze the available data from current statistics and surveys about family violence to assess their efficacy.
There has been a shift over the last 50 years in the understanding of and approach to domestic and family violence: Stubb states that domestic violence was considered inevitable and has been ignored for a long time by police and other agencies, as it was deemed to be a private matter and viewed as irrational or pathological, arising from “mental illness, personality disorders, or drug abuse” due to a focus on individualistic factors (2006, p. 175 and 182). It was not until the mid-1980s that increased attention was brought to the role of police [AP] (2011). Nonetheless, as a result of these conceptions, policy responses were not focused on prevention, but in intervention after the incident had occurred. This policy relied chiefly on criminal law, protection orders and the provision of emergency housing (2006, p. 173).
However, the development of feminist theories has brought a profound transformation to the way that violence against women is perceived (Walden & Wall 2014, p. 2). They focus on the hierarchies based on gender and social inequalities that make women more vulnerable to violence in the home (Stubb 2006, p. 183). Another theory which has influenced the shifts in the approach to family violence is the social-ecological model. According to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs [MWA] (2013, p. 23) this theory conceptualizes violence as the product of interactions between risk and protective factors at four different levels (individual, family/relationship, community and societal level) and aims to change behavior by targeting these factors (2014, p. 5). Building on these two theories, the public health approach (which had hitherto been used to tackle only health issues) was developed to address social problems too.
The public health approach defines violence against women as an “abuse of power that is facilitated by gender inequality” [MWA] (2013, p. 4) and directs policy and strategies towards prevention by changing the underlying causes and behaviors that lead to the perpetration of violence against women (Walden & Wall 2014, p. 3). Some underlying causes are gender inequality, rigid gender roles and identities, exposure to violence, violence-supportive social norms and practices, weak sanctions against violence, lack of access to resources and support systems and unequal distribution of material resources (2014, p. 4). Australia has taken a public health approach to preventing violence against women. This approach locates strategies at three temporal points, according to when they occur (2013, p. 5):
Primary level: When violence has not occurred yet. It can be either universal, aimed at the whole population regardless of the risk; or targeted, which is targeted at groups at heightened risk of becoming perpetrators or victims.
Secondary level: Crisis response immediately after violence has occurred. It can be either victim focused to prevent short-term effects and re-victimisation, or offender focused, in order to prevent repeat offending and escalation of violence.
Tertiary level: Long-term response after violence has occurred. It can be victim focused so as to reduce long-term negative effects, or offender focused to prevent repeat offending and escalation.
Historically, most primary prevention approaches targeted women, with a focus on increasing their self-protective behavior, mitigating the impacts of violence and preventing re-victimization. Conversely, contemporary approaches focus on prevention through the promotion of respectful relationships, non-violent social norms and access to resources and systems of support [MWA] (2013, p. 10). During the last decade several prevention-based campaigns have been launched by public and private agencies. The AP (2011) announced the Government’s initiative to invest $42 million in preventive programs through the establishment of a new national telephone and the online counselling service 1800 RESPECT, the implementation of Respectful Relationships programs in schools (to develop the skills of young people to treat their partners with respect), the development of The Line social marketing campaign, research on perpetrator treatment and harmonization of national, state and territory laws. The National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children 2010-2022 aims at implementing social marketing and awareness campaigns targeting young people’s attitudes to relationships; developing a media code of practice for reporting violence against women; and developing and implementing gender equality indicators (Walden & Wall 2014, p. 9). Further examples are Safe at Home, White Ribbon campaign, Stop the Violence, Freedom from Fear, It is not our game, ACT Family Violence Intervention Program (2011)… All the aforementioned initiatives had been nationally acclaimed for their success in improving community attitudes, but perpetrator programs are highly controversial. They aim to prevent re-offending by changing perpetrator’s attitudes through individual counselling, case management and group work. Despite significant reductions in reoffending rates and in the time to reoffend (2011), they remain highly controversial, because some people advocate for allocating the resources to victims rather than perpetrators. Finally, legislative and policy reforms can be implemented, such as the Code of Practice for the Investigation of Family Violence of 2004, which was introduced to improve police responses to family violence and encourage people to report offences to police (2011).
The following data from current statistics and surveys proves the success of the prevention-based approach to family violence. The Australian Institute of Criminology‘s homicide data shows that domestic and family homicides declined between 2002 and 2012 (ABC News 2016). Furthermore, a comparison between the ABS Personal Safety Survey 2005 and the Women’s Safety Survey 1996 shows that there has been a reduction in the rates of violence experienced by women: 5.8% (443,800) experienced violence in 2005 compared to 7.1% (490,400) in 1996; 4.7% (363,000) experienced physical violence in 2005, compared with 5.9% (404,400) in 1996; and 3.1% (242,000) experienced physical assault in 2005, compared to 5.0% (346,900) in 1996 [AP] (2006). Another comparison between the findings from the National Community Attitudes to Violence against Women Survey from 2009 and the study conducted for the Office of the Status of Women in 1995 reveals that there is a greater recognition of the range of behaviors which constitute domestic violence. Additionally, it shows that there has been an increase in the number of people who consider domestic violence a crime (from 93% in 1995 to 98% in 2009), and most people (81%) report that they are willing to intervene in domestic violence situations [AP] (2011). Finally, there has been a 464% increase in the number of family violence matters handled by the Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP) from 1998–99 to 2005–06 (2011).
However, a comparison of the ABS 1996 Women’s Safety Survey and Personal Safety Survey 2005 reveals that more women are reporting incidents of violence to police now than a decade ago: 36% who experienced physical assault (70,400) and 19% who experienced sexual assault (19,100) by a male perpetrator reported it to the police in 2005 compared to 19% (54,400) and 15% (14,700) respectively in 1996 [AP] (2006). According to the Victoria Police, the number of reported incidents of domestic and family violence have more than doubled over the past decade (Walden & Wall 2014, pp. 9-10), and domestic assault reports in NSW have risen from a rate of 257 per 100,000 people in 1995 to 400 in 2014. And according to the Victorian crime statistics from 31 March 2016, there were 76,529 family incidents, rising by 10% compared with the previous year [DVRCV & DVV] (2016). However, this increase in the reports does not correspond with an actual increase in the number of domestic and family offences, but coincides with a greater social awareness of family violence as a result of the prevention campaigns.
Domestic and family violence cannot be eradicated solely through the resort to law enforcement approaches, rather it requires a deep social change. This can only be achieved through community education about social norms that perpetuate violence, promotion of positive behaviors and respectful relationships, and engaging with perpetrators. The budding projects and campaigns with a primary and preventive approach have proven to be effective so far. However, the prevention education field in Australia is fledgling, and evidence about what works in prevention is still emerging and is quite disparate, due to the diverse nature of programs and settings. Another difficulty is the long time required to obtain evidence of what works, which hinders the development of effective interventions in the short term (Walden & Wall 2014, p. 21). The NSW Ombudsman’s 2006 report, Domestic violence — improving police practice has highlighted the need for further reforms in three essential areas: bigger support for victims of domestic violence, greater cooperation between agencies and more effective frontline policing responses [AP] (2011). Even though punitive approaches can act as a deterrent against the commission of family and domestic offences, this problem will only be eradicated when deep-seated gender inequality norms (commonly referred to as ‘heteropatriarchy’) have completely disappeared, and primary intervention is essential to this effect.
Australian Parliament 2006, ‘Measuring domestic violence and sexual assault against women’, AP, retrieved 20 January 2016, <http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/Publications_Archive/archive/ViolenceAgainstWomen>.
— 2011, ‘Domestic violence in Australia—an overview of the issues’, AP, retrieved 20 January 2016, <http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Libra ry/pubs/BN/2011-2012/DVAustralia>.
Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria 2016, ‘Facts on Family Violence 2016. Living in fear’, DVRCV, retrieved 20 January 2016, <http://www.dvrcv.org.au/sites/default/files/DVRCV-Living-In-Fear-Infographic-2016.pdf>.
Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria & Domestic Violence Victoria 2016, ‘Fact sheet 7 – Family violence statistics’, DVRCV & DVV, retrieved 20 January 2016, <http://www.thelookout.org.au/fact-sheet-7-family-violence-statistics>.
ABC News 2016, ‘Fact file: Domestic violence in Australia’, ABC News, 15 April 2016, retrieved 20 January 2016, <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-04-06/fact-file-domestic-violence-statistics/7147938>.
Ministry of Women’s Affair 2013, ‘Current Thinking on Primary Prevention of Violence Against Women’, MWA, retrieved 20 January 2016, <http://women.govt.nz/sites/public_files/Final%20Current%20thinking%20on%20primary%20prevention.pdf>.
Our Watch, Understanding Violence: Facts and Figures, Our Watch, retrieved 20 January 2016, <https://www.ourwatch.org.au/Understanding-Violence/Facts-and-figures>.
Stubbs, J 2006, ‘Crime and the home’, in Lara Weeks, Crime and Justice, a guide to Criminology, Robert Wilson, Riverwood, NSW, pp. 171-189.
Walden, I & Wall, L 2014, Reflecting on primary prevention of violence against women: The public health approach, ACSSA, retrieved 20 January 2016, <https://aifs.gov.au/sites/default/files/publication-documents/i19.pdf>.