One in six women in Australia are physically or sexually abused before they turn 15

A new report has shed light on statistics surrounding family, domestic and sexual violence - showing one in six women and one in nine men experienced physical or sexual abuse before the age of 15.

Cynthia Huynh

Cynthia Huynh was physically abused as a child. Source: SBS News

Sydney woman Cynthia Huynh was still at primary school when she first experienced violence.

“I spent my childhood immersed in abuse,” she told SBS News.

What started out as discipline, she said, ended up as an excuse for being hit. 

“The violence, the abuse, the controlling nature, the fear, it started getting a lot worse towards the later end of my primary school years, going into my high school years.”

By the age of 15, she had enrolled in her fourth high school and had been in and out of three women’s refuges. It was not until she was 20 that she was able to escape for good. 

Cynthia Huynh
Cynthia Huynh was physically abused as a child. Source: SBS News

Cynthia is not alone. A report released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare on Wednesday found one in six women and one in nine men experienced physical or sexual abuse before the age of 15.

The report covered family, domestic and sexual violence and harassment, and focused on children, women and other vulnerable groups. 

It brought together information from about 20 different sets of data, including population surveys and police statistics.

The institute’s spokeswoman Louise York said the findings were worrying.

“One in six women is effectively 2.5 million Australians who experienced child abuse before the age of 15 and that’s in the form of physical or sexual abuse.” 

“The perpetrators were usually family members or other people known to the children.”

One in six girls and one in six boys experienced physical or sexual violence as children. Source: AIHW

The report also found 2.2 million adults have been victims of physical and/or sexual violence by a partner since the age of 15. One in two women and one in four men have been sexually harassed, and one in six women and one in 16 men have experienced stalking.

Ms York said family, domestic and sexual violence can take many forms, including physical and sexual violence, emotional abuse, or attempts to control another person’s behaviour.

It affects people of all ages and from all backgrounds, but predominantly women and children, and can have life-long consequences and lead to poor mental and physical health later in life.

The report also found about 2.5 per cent of women with a disability had experienced partner violence in the previous 12 months, compared with just over 1.3 of women without a disability.

And Indigenous people were 32 times more likely to be hospitalised for family violence than non-Indigenous people in 2016–17.

'You are so scared'

Cynthia's abuse was reported to police but no charges or legal proceedings were laid. 

“In terms of a childhood ... I have never known anything else besides living in fear ... walking on eggshells constantly because on a day where everything goes right you know that something is bound to go wrong.”

“The worst part of it all is, despite that, you are being hit ... it’s even worse when you cannot do anything about it because you are so scared.”

“It becomes part of your normal life ... that’s all you know and that’s what you have grown up in.”

In 2017, police recorded 25,000 victims of sexual assault.

Ms York said while the rates of violence have been staying stable over time “more people seem to be seeking assistance from specialist services related to family violence or appearing at hospital, or being admitted to hospital for violence that was committed by a perpetrator within the family, either a partner or family member, and certainly more people are reporting sexual assault to police over-time”.

“So it’s either that the true prevalence of the violence is increasing or that people are becoming more aware of and are more willing to report and it’s unclear which of the two things is the main driver," she said.

The CEO of Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety Dr Heather Nancarrow said attitudes need to change.

“There is an unacceptable level of violence in our community, whether it’s family and domestic violence or sexual violence more broadly,” she said. 

“We know that attitudes influence behaviour and in order to see a change in the numbers that are being reported, we need to change the attitudes of Australians in some areas towards violence against women.”

A spokeswoman for Domestic Violence NSW Renata Field echoed that concern.

"Unfortunately it does not come as a surprise to us that so many people have experienced violence. It is an epidemic in our community that we all need to stand up and do something about. There are not enough supports, there are not enough services, and the funding is not there for the support that people need," she said.

Cynthia said the abuse she experienced is still with her.

“I don’t think there’s a day that it has not affected me, and I don’t think that I would speak out about it now if it did not affect me,” she said. 

But she encouraged those affected to come forward.

"There is absolutely no shame in reaching out to a friend. I know that there is a lot of stigma around it, but there is help out there."

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit . In an emergency, call 000.

Readers seeking support can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 and Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 (for young people aged 5 to 25). More information about mental health is available at .

5 min read
Published 5 June 2019 at 5:51am
By Dubravka Voloder