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Out of the shadows: the rise of domestic violence in Australia

Gerard Baden-Clay’s murder of his wife Allison has helped put the spectre of domestic violence firmly back in the national spotlight. How prevalent is it? AAP/Dan Peled

Once a hidden crime, domestic violence has in recent years emerged as a mainstream criminal justice issue in Australia. Cases such as Queensland man Gerard Baden-Clay’s murder of his wife Allison and the death of Luke Batty in Victoria at the hands of his father have attracted unprecedented media attention and put the spectre of domestic violence firmly back in the spotlight.

But how prevalent is domestic violence and what is the cost to Australian society?

The evolution of ‘domestic violence’

Since its recognition in Australia in the 1980s, the concept of domestic violence and its associated harms has evolved into a complex criminal justice issue. From its basic origin of being physical violence between married couples, the definition of relationships covered is now wide and varied.

In Queensland, for example, domestic violence legislation covers intimate personal relationships. This includes couples of the opposite or same gender, people who are engaged, in a de facto relationship, are married, and any who were in the type of relationships noted above.

Domestic violence also extends to family relationships between two people and also informal care relationships, characterised by one person being dependent on another for help with essential daily tasks.

The types of harm identified as being caused by domestic violence have also developed into more mature impacts. Physical violence, sexual, social, verbal and spiritual abuse, in addition to psychological and economic harms, are now recognised.

In the aftermath of the Baden-Clay case, much has been made in the media of the non-violent abuse that Gerard inflicted on his wife Allison. The traditional view that physical violence must be present in cases of domestic violence is clearly inaccurate. Harms can be inflicted by much more subtle, non-violent, coercive behaviour.

Prevalence of domestic violence in Australia

In New South Wales, the domestic assault rate has increased 1.5% over the last five years, with 28,291 cases reported in 2013.

Victoria recorded a 72.8% increase in reporting to police of family violence incidents between 2004-05 and 2011-12. For the same period, the number of intervention orders increased by 82.2%.

A 2004 federal government study estimated victims of domestic violence numbered some 408,100 in Australia, of which 87% were women. It also highlighted the numbers of children exposed to domestic violence: 181,200 had witnessed domestic violence in 2002–03.

In Victoria, children form the single largest category of protected persons in domestic violence matters. There has been a 295.4% increase in children being named in matters between 2004-05 and 2011-12.

In Victoria, children are the single largest category of protected persons in domestic violence matters. shutterstock

In recognition of this growing class of victims, Queensland, for one, has made it mandatory for police attending a domestic violence incident to submit a report outlining emotional abuse of the child for follow-up by an experienced child protection investigator.

The 2012 Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Personal Safety Australia survey found that one in six women in Australia (or 16.9%) suffered some form of physical or sexual violence from a current or former partner since the age of 15. About one in four women had experienced some form of emotional abuse in the same circumstances.

While it is recognised that men also suffer from domestic violence, it is far less prevalent, as indicated by a variety of statistics.

There are other costs in addition to the physical and psychological harm inflicted on the victims and witnesses. A report estimated the economic cost of domestic violence in Australia in 2013 to be US$14.7 billion. This equates to roughly 1.1% of Australia’s GDP.

Risk factors

While there is no stereotypical perpetrator of domestic violence, some common risk factors include perpetrators who use violence and emotional abuse to control their families.

Perpetrators believe they have the right to behave in whatever way they choose in their own home. The perpetrator believes they have an entitlement to sex and try to minimise, blame others or justify their violence through claims of provocation. The perpetrator may lose control with family members and resort to violence but won’t do so in other social or work settings.

One ACT study showed that 83% of perpetrators of domestic violence were males; 70% of the offenders were aged between 20 and 44.

The World Health Organisation states that risk factors for the perpetrator include low education, exposure to child maltreatment or witnessing violence in the family, harmful use of alcohol, attitudes accepting of violence, and gender inequality.

Future challenges

Under-reporting of domestic violence remains high and often sits above 50%. One recent New South Wales study found that only half of the victims interviewed had reported the matter.

There is still room for improvement to the (commendable) legal and social service responses to the challenges of domestic violence in Australia.

The ABS identified six areas that can be used as an evidence base to improve service delivery. These are the context of the incident, the risks involved, how victims experience violence, responses, impacts, and research and evaluation.

These important pieces of information will provide valuable insight and allow further development of policies to reduce violence against women and children.

The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.

Read the other articles in The Conversation’s Domestic Violence in Australia series here.

Editor’s note: On December 8, 2015, Gerard Baden-Clay’s murder conviction was set aside and substituted for manslaughter.

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