If you put six Australian women in a room, statistics show that at least one of them will have been a victim of domestic - physical or sexual - violence since the age of 15. For men, it’s one in 20.
Damning statistics like these reveal the widespread incidence of domestic violence in Australia, which on average takes the life of one woman a week in Australia. In April 2017, 17 women had been killed in family violence incidents, according to a tally kept by the Counting Dead Women Australia researchers of Destroy the Joint. By mid-June, the figure had already risen to 21. In 2016, 73 women were killed in total.
Homicide is one terrible consequence of family violence. Another debilitating effect is homelessness. A study by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that between 2011 and 2014, 36 per cent of the people – mostly women and children – who accessed homelessness services in Australia did so due to family violence.
Homelessness caused by domestic violence is closely tied to a victim’s financial independence. In Australia, women are usually economically worse off than men: they are more likely to take time out of the workforce to take on caring roles and to work part-time, and are paid less than their male counterparts for the same work.
Homelessness caused by domestic violence is closely tied to a victim’s financial independence.
Some groups of women are higher risk than others. Both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and women with disabilities are more likely than the average population to be the victims of domestic violence - between 34 and 80 times and 40 per cent more respectively. In many cases, economic and social disadvantage also threaten their access to housing.
Women from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds, often financially dependent on their spouses or unable to work due to visa restrictions, are also particularly vulnerable. Social isolation plus language and cultural barriers can restrict women from CALD communities from accessing support and legal services.
When a victim decides to leave a violent relationship, it often means leaving the family home. Her options are usually limited: an abusive partner may control finances and her capacity to work may have been diminished by the abuse. If she is leaving with children, she needs to find a safe place for them to stay too.
When she does, she might find herself accessing a service like Carrie's Place Domestic Violence and Homelessness Services in Maitland, where Wendy Atkinson is coordinator of the outreach support team.
Both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and women with disabilities are more likely than the average population to be the victims of domestic violence.
There is a huge demand for the service, says Atkinson, who has been with the organisation for seven years. When a victim contacts the organisation, her case is assessed and “triaged” by the intake team. A rapid response worker is on hand to help those “who might be in temporary accommodation for a couple of nights, but then they're got nowhere to go. Or they might be couch surfing or sleeping in their car or rough sleeping. They might have severe mental illness or kids with disabilities, or are sleeping in a tent or they're sleeping under the grandstand,” says Atkinson.
From there, social housing is one option, but it is in short supply. “We work very closely with real estates for private rentals as well.”
Carrie’s Place offers refuge accommodation to clients, “but we've rarely got vacancies,” says Atkinson. “If they're willing to go anywhere else, we might refer them to another refuge, but usually refuge places are very hard to come by. People don't usually want to rip their kids out of their schools either.”
The difficulties in finding accommodation contribute to the cyclic nature of domestic violence. “People say, ‘Why don't they just leave?’ But it's very difficult for a woman with children to uproot her kids, become financially challenged or put herself into poverty,” observes Atkinson. In many cases women “do escape the DV, and they go to get temporary accommodation and get help, but then end up back with the perpetrator because it's just all too hard. I don't say that in a sarcastic way at all, because it is too hard.”
The difficulties in finding accommodation contribute to the cyclic nature of domestic violence.
Insufficient resources are one of the challenges faced by the sector. “We've got a waiting list. We don't call it a waiting list, we call it an intake list, but we have a lot of people waiting for our services and we're not big enough. We haven't got enough case managers,” says Atkinson.
Domestic violence funding received a much-needed boost when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the $100 million Women’s Safety Package in 2015. Yet the sector remains critically underfunded. According to Homelessness Australia, 423 people are turned away from homelessness services every day.
“This $100 million will go a long way in supporting women, and services, in escaping violence and rebuilding their lives,” CEO of Homelessness Australia Glenda Stevens said in a statement at the time. “But it is concerning that none of this funding will address the immediate crisis domestic violence victims face – safe, crisis accommodation – what about tonight?”
The situation has improved in Victoria, where the state government allocated $1.9 billion over four years to family violence prevention in its 2017 budget. The package will fund the 227 recommendations put forward by the 2015 Family Violence Royal Commission.
Back in Maitland, Atkinson would like to see more money invested in frontline services and early intervention. What’s important is “education about gender stereotypes and inequality,” she says. “Education all the way.”
If this article has raised issues for you and you would like to talk to someone, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit their website by clicking here. For information about services from St Vincent De Paul, click here or for services offered by Salvation Army, click here.