Australia

'How deep does control go?': Religious groups debate the need to criminalise coercive control

On the third day of the NSW parliamentary inquiry into coercive control, religious leaders said the issue of what is considered a 'normal' relationship across different religions must be explored.

This article contains references to domestic violence.

Religious values can be "misused" to justify abuse, an advisor for Anglicare Sydney has told a state parliamentary inquiry into coercive control. 

Ms Lynda Dunstan, Family and Domestic Violence Advisor of Anglicare Sydney, appeared at the third day of the NSW Parliament's Committee on Wednesday as part of an inquiry into whether coercive control should be made a criminal offence. 

Ms Dunstan said Anglicare, a not-for-profit organisation of the Anglican Church, supports criminalisation as a way of recognising "this insidious pattern of behaviours and the devastating impact it has on its victims". 

She noted the specific challenges and impacts for predominantly women from different religious and cultural backgrounds. 

"We have specific expertise in the area of supporting women from conservative Christian backgrounds who experience coercive control and in educating our religious community to better recognise and respond, and to look at how religious values can be misused to justify abuse," Ms Dunstan said. 

The state government’s discussion paper defines coercive control in domestic and family violence contexts as “patterns of abusive behaviour designed to exercise domination and control over the other party in a relationship”. That can include physical, psychological, emotional or financial behaviours.

“It is often a process that happens slowly over time and can be nuanced in nature, making it difficult to identify,” it says. “The cumulative effect over time robs victim-survivors of their autonomy and independence as an individual.” 

On average, one woman is killed by a current or former partner every nine days in Australia, according to the paper. The same figure applies to one man every 29 days. 

Also appearing on Wednesday where representatives from the St Vincent de Paul Society, Catholic Women's League Australia and the Australian Brotherhood of Fathers. 

Ms Kelsie Hedge, from St Vincent de Paul Society, supported criminalisation but said indicators of coercive control are needed, along with tools to measure its "presence" in relationships. 

"We are supportive of the efforts to strengthen the legal system’s capacity to recognise and respond to coercive control," she said.

Miss Ann Pereira, President of the Catholic Women's League Australia, questioned at what point coercion "becomes an offence". 

"There is a need for clear guidelines, as in a multicultural society, many customs and religions hold disparate values, some of which may be seen as coercion," she told the inquiry.  

In its submission, the Catholic Women's League NSW recognised the destructive effects of coercive control on many women victim-survivors. But it believes existing domestic and family violence offences are sufficient in addressing some elements of this pattern of abuse. 

"We support being able to recognise that pattern of behaviour and understanding that as a broader issue," Ms Hedge responded. 

Ms Dunstan agreed, saying Anglicare would like to see better avenues for victims-survivors to disclose their "bigger picture". 

"We are aware the individual behaviours themselves might feel small and insignificant, but it’s only when you get the full picture of the pattern of the behaviours and the ongoing impact of fear and intimidation that you can really understand the nature of what is happening," she said. 

When asked about the difference between a "normal" relationship and one marred by coercive control, both Anglicare and St Vincent de Paul agreed there was a clear line. 

"I think the key elements are fear, intimidation and lack of capacity for autonomous decision making. I certainly don’t feel that that is justified in our religious context by any religious teaching or understanding," she said. 

"It really is that pattern of behaviour, not those one-offs," Ms Hedge added. 

But Miss Pereira repeated some religions or cultures "may have a certain level of normal behaviour" considered "outside" one's own.  

"These things need to be considered when looking at how deep control goes." 

'A pattern of entrapment'

Investigative journalist and author Jess Hill opened the hearing on Wednesday labelling the criminalisation of coercive control "the massive paradigm shift we are seeking in this country". 

She told the inquiry while society has successfully broadened its understanding of domestic violence to include non-physical forms of abuse, we are yet to communicate the stark and predictable reality of this "pattern of entrapment". 

domestic violence
A parliamentary committee into coercive control in domestic relationships is underway in NSW.
In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

"Victim-survivors of abuse often say that when the hear these behaviours listed, it’s like this lightbulb moment - especially for those who don’t recognise what they’re experiencing is abuse, or those who are rarely or never physically assaulted," Ms Hill said. 

"Nothing else captures this typical plot line.

"This is the massive paradigm shift that we are seeking in this country, in law enforcement and throughout our systems, that would see the community stop asking, 'why didn’t she just leave?', and start asking, 'why did he hold her hostage', and 'how on earth did she manage to leave and survive?'"  

After three days of hearings, Committee Chair, The Hon Natalie Ward MLC, announced on Wednesday that two further hearings would be held on 29 and 30 March. A subsequent visit to regional NSW will be announced at a later date. 

The Committee will report its findings to the Parliament by 30 June next year. 

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

Women from migrant and refugee backgrounds who are experiencing family or domestic violence can contact inTouch, the Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence on 1800 755 988 or visit intouch.org.au.

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