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When it comes to family violence, young women are too often ignored

Recent evidence shows the scale of sexual violence against women and children in Australia has been severely underestimated. Family violence is a key driver.

Yet, young women are currently invisible in responses to such violence. Our research sought to understand why young women’s experiences are so overlooked. We found that young women have typically been sidelined in approaches to family violence, and need to be given specific regard in any strategies to address it.

Young women’s over-representation in statistics

Research from Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) found 51% of women in their 20s have experienced sexual violence.

Further, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimates 2.2 million Australians (12% of the population) have had experiences of sexual violence, threats and/or assault since the age of 15.

While physical assault rates for men have almost halved since 2008-09, the largest reported increase in physical assault is that experienced by young women aged 18 to 29. There are also increasing rates of sexual assault in Australia. Recent data show this rising for the tenth year in a row, from 83 to 121 victim-survivors per 100,000 since 2011.

Australian and global data show most violence against women is perpetrated by a family member or intimate partner (49%).

Despite experiencing unique and serious safety risks, young women are almost invisible in public debate on the issue.

Read more: Women who suffer domestic violence fare much worse financially after separating from their partner: new data

Young women’s absence from discussions

Our recently published research found young women lack voice and visibility in discussions about family violence in Australia, and particularly intimate partner violence.

This is a considerable problem, as young women are overrepresented in family violence and sexual assaults statistics. National police data show young women aged 15-19 are more likely than any other age group of women to experience sexual assault.

Although there are no national data specifically focused on recording the intimate partner violence experiences of young women, national secondary school health surveys show 61% of young women aged between 14 and 18 report unwanted sex due to partner pressure. Despite such concerning figures, young women’s voices are rarely heard.

The 2015 Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence highlighted that in the absence of youth-focused family violence supports, young people are generally relying on informal networks, such as friends, for family violence assistance. Seven years later, work is now being undertaken to raise awareness and develop a framework for youth intimate partner violence risk assessments.

We need a youth-focused national agenda

Across Australia, family violence work that is focused on young women generally involves primary prevention. This includes respectful relationships and consent education in schools, of which there is no current standardised national curriculum.

Unlike Canada and the United States, there are no dedicated Australian national agendas or plans that specifically address the issue of young people and intimate partner violence.

Nationally in Australia, there is currently no uniform definition of intimate partner violence in youth and adolescent relationships. Instead, the issue is known by a patchwork of terms: teen dating violence, adolescent intimate partner violence, youth family violence. This minimises the problem further.

Read more: Almost 9 in 10 young Australians who use family violence experienced child abuse: new research

Young people’s relationships are different from those of adults. Although there are some common ways in which power and control are exerted and experienced, young women have unique needs and risks when embarking on their first relationships. When these involve abuse, this can have a serious impact on a young woman’s health, safety, identity, and how they understand themselves and relationships.

Moreover, these harmful patterns can persist into adulthood. Their experiences of harm and isolation are further compounded by the lack of youth specific and friendly family violence supports and services.

Our findings highlight the importance of not only recognising the unique and diverse experiences of young women, but the need to ensure services and responses reflect the complexity of young women’s experiences.

There has been some recent notable work by the Victorian government.

However, unless we grapple with the underpinning issues at a national level, we risk continuing to overlook these young women and exacerbate their experiences of violence. It is essential that youth-specific intimate partner violence responses exist. They need to be designed and implemented in a way that is informed by and honours the diverse voices of young women in Australia.

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