• Hannah Clarke and her three children, Aaliyah, six, Laianah, four, and Trey, three. (Facebook)Source: Facebook
Domestic abuse is not just isolated, aberrant acts of extreme violence by individuals, it's a pattern of power and control, and it starts small.
Sarah Malik

21 Feb 2020 - 2:50 PM  UPDATED 6 Apr 2021 - 1:03 PM


"I confess that I have no philosophy, nor piety, nor patience, no art of reflection, no theory of compensation to meet things so cruel, so hideous and so mad, that they are just unspeakably horrible and irredeemable to me, and I stare at them with angry and blighted eyes."
-Henry James. 

Hannah Clarke knew she was being tracked.

Days before the Brisbane mum and her three children, Aaliyah, 6, Laianah, 4, and Trey, 3, were torched in their car by ex-partner Rowan Baxter, Hannah was desperately trying to navigate a web of digital surveillance that saw her  monitored and tracked by her killer.  

Baxter, who was found dead on the footpath with self-inflicted wounds after dousing the family car with petrol and setting it alight in an act of violence that has left the nation reeling, allegedly "controlled every aspect of her life".

According to the ABC, just days before her murder, Hannah confronted Baxter about photos of herself she spotted in his car. The report found Baxter reportedly hacked her phone and secretly recorded her conversations, with one friend saying he "was so obsessed with her it was scary"

In 2019, SBS Voices special two-part series Under His Eye investigated digital surveillance and domestic violence,  uncovering how perpetrators are weaponising technology - using spyware, apps, Google maps and tracking devices - to surveil and control their partners. 

The stories we covered were horrifying and pervasive, with technology abuse often not taken seriously or misunderstood by police, leaving victims with a maddening sense of fear, exposure and a sense of being followed but not being able to prove how. 

According to the Domestic and Family Violence Death Review Network, 36 per cent of the men who killed their female partner or ex-partner had a history of stalking the women they ultimately killed.

The 2013 Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria survey found 97 per cent of domestic violence support workers interviewed said technology-facilitated domestic violence formed part of the abuse experienced by their clients - who were overwhelmingly women. 

Sydney Legal Aid lawyer Alex Davis, who is part of the team’s Domestic Violence Unit, recounted the story of a woman who had escaped her violent partner only to be tracked by her own technology. When she rushed to catch a bus to her new job, she found her ex-partner waiting at the stop. He had hacked her Opal card and was able to access her new transport routes. 

Experts told us survivors were particularly vulnerable when they were trying to leave, with support agencies often stepping in to offer secret 'safe' phones to help women plan their escape safely. 

The murders of Hannah, Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey are the pointy end of a society that normalises male power, authority and control. One that humanises and forgives perpetrators as 'troubled', 'complicated', who one day 'snapped' and their crimes an extreme but understandable 'response' to relationship breakdown. It's a society that demonises 'imperfect' victims. It erases the malign pattern of cruelty and domination that simmers underneath these acts of violence. 

Women also experience rejection, heartbreak, mental health trauma and divorce, but we don't have an epidemic of women killing their partners.

It's important we understand it's male entitlement that drives the gendered nature of intimate-partner violence.  

Every week we lose a Hannah, and her family mourns. Every single week in Australia, on average one woman is killed by her former or current partner.

Controlling and coercive intimate partner behaviours need to be targeted.

It starts small, but these are not innocuous when seen in the larger context of the sickening statistics on domestic violence in this country. 

We can't let it get to this point - where a woman and her children are horrifically burned alive - before we take women's safety and pain seriously. 

As expert Paul McGorrery has stated, coercive control needs to be made illegal in Australia. Defined as a “malign pattern of domination” that can include “emotional abuse, historical abuse, isolation, sexual coercion, financial abuse, cyber-stalking, and other distal forms of intimidation,” coercive control was criminalised in the UK and Scotland.

Convictions have revealed malignant behaviours that are not criminal in Australia - like forcing partners to sleep on the floor, to only eat certain foods, confiscating a partner's income, conducting 'inspections' on their body or property, and threatening to reveal private photos. 

A better understanding of how these form the poisonous pre-cocktail to physical violence is vital to make sure we are tackling domestic abuse as fundamentally a pattern of power and control, not just as isolated, and aberrant acts of extreme violence by individuals.    

If we want to live in a society that is serious about violence against women, we need to criminalise the kind of behaviours that don't always lead to murder, but always start there. We need to take cyber-threats and fear expressed by women seriously. 

These early intervention convictions will save lives. The lives of women like Hannah and their babies depend on it. 

Sarah Malik is a senior writer and presenter at SBS Voices and a former Our Watch fellow. You can follow Sarah on Twitter @sarahbmalik. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing family violence or sexual assault phone 1800RESPECT or visit 1800respect.org.au. For counselling, advice and support for men who have anger, relationship or parenting issues, call the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491 or visit ntv.org.au.

The three-part documentary series See What You Made Me Do, presented by Jess Hill, premieres weekly on SBS from Wednesday May 5 at 8:30pm #SeeWhatYouMadeMeDo. 

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