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Explainer

What is domestic and family violence, and where can you get help in Australia?

As SBS airs See What You Made Me Do - a landmark documentary series about domestic abuse - here is how different types of violence against women are categorised and the ways you or someone you know can find support.

Published Wednesday 5 May 2021
By Emma Brancatisano

Every week in Australia, one woman on average is murdered by her current or former partner

In recent weeks, Lordy Ramadan and Kelly Wilkinson have put faces to that troubling statistic. Both were allegedly murdered by their current and former partners respectively, at their own homes.

"We've seen some horrific examples in the recent past in Australia," said Jacqui Watt, CEO of No To Violence - an organisation that works to end men's family violence. "I think it's time we got family and domestic violence seen as a national emergency and something that is just not going to be tolerated any more." 

What is violence against women?

Violence against women can take many forms, according to national violence prevention agency Our Watch. These include relationship and family violence, dating violence, workplace sexual harassment, street harassment, online abuse and coercive control. 

They can also include intersections of racist and sexist violence experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, sexist and transphobic violence perpetrated against transgender women, and institutional violence faced by women with disability. 

Our Watch CEO Patty Kinnersly said it is a gendered issue overwhelmingly perpetrated by men against women. Australian women are nearly three times more likely than men to experience violence from an intimate partner, according to 2016 data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

Australian women are nearly three times more likely than men to experience violence from an intimate partner.

"It happens in homes, on the street, in workplaces, schools or online, and is usually perpetrated at the hands of a man known to the woman," she said, adding that a "broad understanding" of the issue is needed to prevent all forms of violence. 

"Applying  a gendered approach to  the prevention of  all forms of  violence  against  women and  addressing the many structural  inequalities  that affect women’s lives  are  key to  stopping it before it starts."

What is domestic and family violence?

Domestic and family violence takes place in the context of an intimate partner relationship, against a previous partner, or within a family or carer relationship.

Again, it can take many forms, including physical, verbal, emotional or sexual abuse, social isolation, stalking, financial or technological abuse and spiritual or cultural abuse. 

Pensive young woman traveling and holding smart phone
Source: Getty Images

One in three Australian women have experienced physical and/or sexual abuse perpetrated by a man since the age of 15, according to 2017 ABS data

Research from Our Watch also found one in two Australians find it difficult to recognise non-physical abuse in a relationship, with ABS data also finding one in four women has experienced non-physical abuse from a partner. 

One in four women have experienced non-physical abuse from a partner. 

Fiona Mort, head of 1800RESPECT, the national helpline for sexual assault, domestic and family violence, said it is the most important misnomer to address. 

"There's a strong understanding in some areas - not all - that it used to be thought of as just physical. But it can encompass any behaviours that seek to control another person."  

"That can involve acts or threats of physical and/or sexual violence, but it can also involve stopping somebody - usually a woman, because we know this is a gendered crime - from doing something that she wants to do." 

What is coercive control?

There is a growing push in Australia to recognise coercive control - a pattern of psychological and emotional abuse intended to exert fear, power and control over someone - in domestic and family violence contexts. 

Ms Mort said coercive control might involve stopping a woman from contacting family and friends or from taking part in religious or cultural activity, as well as tracking her whereabouts or making it difficult for her to keep a job. 

"No matter what kind of behaviour it is, there's always that psychological impact that lends itself to have control over another person's life," she said. 

It usually occurs as a pattern of behaviour and abuse. 

"It can be very subtle, and it can happen over a period of time, and people might not realise," Ms Watt said. 

"This is what we need to get better at across Australia - helping people realise the situation of risk and danger they're in and making sure the services respond to those signs and those red flags." 

What is Coercive Control?

What are the warning signs?

While domestic and family violence is experienced in different ways, there are some signs that could indicate someone is in an abusive relationship or facing controlling behaviours. Some are less visible and not always easy to identify. 

Ms Kinnersly said signs to help identify non-physical forms of abuse include a person monitoring their partner's online movements, checking their text messages, making verbal put-downs and controlling how they spend their money. 

"These kinds of behaviours are often condoned, excused or downplayed, however, these behaviours do not belong in an equal and respectful relationship."

These behaviours do not belong in an equal and respectful relationship.

Ms Watt said a woman experiencing abuse might identify it by questioning what happens when she exercises her independence. 

"What happens if you say, 'I'm about to go and meet and friends?' Is he isolating you from them and your family? Is he trying to control all your moves? Is he pushing you to take responsibility when he loses his temper?"

Ms Mort agreed: "If you feel like you're having to question whether you can do something because of what it might mean for another person, then I think you're starting to get the sense that somebody else is controlling your life".  

But, she stressed, it's important to keep in mind that domestic and family violence encompasses a "broad sphere". 

"We name things, but just because your experience doesn't fit into what people might be naming or describing doesn't mean it's not domestic violence and that it wouldn't be helpful to reach out and have a chat with someone."

She also encouraged family and friends to be aware of changes in their friends and colleagues. 

"If a woman is outgoing and engaged with her social groups and then that changes, that could be an indication something is not right."  

Where can I get help?

First and foremost, if you feel unsafe, contact police on 000 or a crisis service in any state or territory. 

If you're unsure what to do, Ms Mort said calling 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 can help to connect you with local services to access the support you need. 

"That applies to not only the woman herself but also family, friends or work colleagues who can reach out to us to see what they can do," she said. 

"Let's trust our own instincts. What we would suggest is that even if you're unsure, reaching out to a service like 1800RESPECT to have a conversation is a really good step."

A range of services can also be found on the 1800RESPECT website, along with local government websites. 

If you need help with male behavioural and relationship concerns, Ms Watt encouraged calling the Men's Referral Line on 1300 766 491. This service from No To Violence also offers assistance, information and counselling to help men who use violence against women. 

"We want more men to pick up the phone more often because we see every conversation as a potential opportunity to change behaviour," she said. 

What is a protection order?

There are many tools those experiencing domestic or family violence can use to protect themselves against further abuse, including protection orders.

Protection orders have different names across each of Australia's state and territories and the process for getting one also depends on where you're based. 

Jacoba Brasch, president of the Law Council of Australia, said there are two main avenues to start the process. 

"The usual way: either the police will be called, or you might call the police, and they will assess the situation. They can take an AVO (Apprehended Violence Order) or a DVO (Domestic Violence Order) out on your behalf.

"Or, you can go to the court yourself, fill out a form [or a lot of it can be done electronically] and you can make a private application." 

Those working in this area encourage those concerned to seek advice from a support service before making a private application to ensure it's the safest course of action. 

Thomas Sphor, a trial advocate at Legal Aid NSW, said every intervention order will include conditions on how the defendant should behave.

He said changes in 2017 mean most domestic violence protection orders are recognised and enforceable across all states and territories. If a perpetrator is proven to breach the conditions of an order, they can be fined or imprisoned. 

What if I'm from a culturally and linguistically diverse background?

Women from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds - including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, refugees, migrants, asylum seekers and international students - can face further disadvantage and discrimination, along with additional barriers, which can make it harder to seek help and support. 

Ms Mort said it can sometimes come down to whether English is their first language, how long someone has been in the country, or how familiar they are with the available services.

"We have experiences from new arrivals in Australia who may have experienced a particular type of violence in their country of origin, and therefore understanding that what they're going through is domestic violence can be a journey for them, and something we need to work through."

"They may not know where to go, and they may be fearful of government services taking on a different role. We need to connect with them through leaders in their communities to promote our services, and [the message] that domestic violence is not acceptable." 

She said most domestic and family violence services have access to translation support services. 

Ms Kinnersly added that specialist services are available across the country, including: 

  • InTouch, Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence - a state-wide service that works with women from migrant and refugee backgrounds in Victoria (03 9413 6500). 
  • Immigrant Women's Speakout - a community-based organisation that provides domestic violence support, advocacy, information, referral and research for immigrant and refugee women in NSW (02 9635 8022 or women@speakout.org.au)
  • Dijarra - a place where culture is shared and celebrated, and where practical support is available to all Aboriginal women and particularly to Aboriginal people who are currently experiencing family violence or have in the past (1800 105 303 or infor@djirra.org.au)
  • Wirringa Baiya Aboriginal Women’s Legal Centre - a state-wide legal centre for Aboriginal women, children and youth in NSW

For more services, visit the Department of Social Services' Family Safety Pack for men and women coming to Australia. 

See What You Made Me Do premieres at 8:30pm on Wednesday 5 May on SBS and SBS On Demand. Find out more at sbs.com.au/see

If this article or the documentary raise issues for you, contact 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au


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