SPEECH: When it comes to ending violence against women, we’ve lost our way

This weekend Abigail spoke at the annual Greens Reboot Conference, a platform for sharing radical ideas and thought provoking discussions.

Abigail said:

Thank you to everyone who is attending today’s event, to my fellow speakers and to those who have organised this event so well. Reboot has a proud history of encouraging us to think outside the box, and I’m going to take that opportunity here today.

We are of course standing here on the lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and I pay my respects to elders past and present. This land is, was and always will be, Aboriginal land. Sovereignty was never ceded – this land was stolen by the British invaders. With violence. And it has been retained ever since, through violence.

Just as in so many other countries around the world. First Nations people are displaced, dispossessed, murdered. Deliberately disadvantaged and discriminated against. So that the British and the so-called Western countries can occupy and dominate and exploit the resources of the land.

We can see it playing out clearly in Gaza. Thousands of people murdered, so many more injured and maimed. Millions turned out of their lands by one of the most sophisticated military forces in the world, with the backing of those countries like our own determined to maintain the world order, the world where white wealthy people exploit and take what they want from non-white poor people through dehumanisation, obfuscation and lies. The same world order where humans dominate over animals, and men dominate over women. A hierarchy kept in check, if not with violence, then with the threat of violence. And that violence is not just physical, it’s sexual, mental and psychological, used to coerce and control.

And I have heard from many Aboriginal people about how the invasion of the British brought with it a culture of violence against women that simply hadn’t existed before. The capitalist imperialist colonialist culture forced upon the first inhabitants of this land relies on hierarchy, a chain of authority, and maintaining that hierarchy relies on force, on violence. Misogyny, racism, ableism, classism – these aren’t just unfortunate byproducts of this cultural approach, they’re a core part of its design, essential for maintaining century-old power structures. 

And so it is that today we wring our hands and gnash our teeth about the seemingly intractable problem that is domestic violence in Australia. A country where at least one woman every week is killed by a current or former intimate partner. Where 1 in 5 women have experienced sexual violence from the age of 15. Where most women I speak to would rather be alone in the woods with a bear than with an unknown man.  

And the most common reaction by our politicians to this epidemic of violence against women is to try and cure it with more violence. The knee-jerk reaction is to demand we have more police to march into people’s homes, more ways to isolate and contain women ‘for their own safety’, ever-stronger laws to put and keep more men in jail. If the problem is violent men exerting control over women, then surely we just need the State to exert even more control over those violent men. May the bigger Man win.

On Monday of last week, it became a crime to coerce or control a current or former intimate partner in NSW. For many of us who have been lobbying for a coercive control offence, it’s been a bittersweet moment. And not just because of the deeply flawed, perpetrator-friendly way with which the new offence has been drafted.

We have long known about the link between coercive control and domestic homicides. In 99% of domestic homicide cases between 2008 and 2016 in NSW, there was clear evidence of a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviours leading up to those deaths. Coercive control is exerted through emotional, psychological, sexual and/or physical abuse. For many victims, the first physically violent act occurs only once they try to leave their partner, the most dangerous period for women fleeing coercive and controlling men.

To prevent those deaths, we need to raise awareness of coercive control well beyond the domestic and family violence sector into the community as a whole, to not just recognise coercive control as it’s being perpetrated, but also to understand its effects on victim-survivors and the way in which it can impact on their behaviour. 

The point of criminalising coercive control was never about throwing more men in prison. It was about keeping women safe through harnessing a greater understanding of power and the dynamics that play out in relationships, thereby enabling society to intervene to prevent further harm. 

You may be surprised to realise that marital rape only became a crime in late 1980. Although there has been very few prosecutions of the offence since, its success is shown in the norm the law has set - the educative impact that comes about from society saying no, you don’t get to rape someone just because they once agreed to marry you. The success of these offences should be judged based on whether or not they prevent harm, not on how many offenders end up getting charged and put in jail.

And so it is with the new coercive control offence. By understanding coercive control, and the trauma responses it elicits, we can be better equipped to prevent and respond to domestic and family violence. But the NSW Government has messed it up. They’ve chosen to prioritise a law and order response to domestic and family violence – draconian bail laws for those charged with domestic and family violence incidents, so-called police blitzes to try and catch multiple offenders at once while making a big song and dance about it for coverage in the Daily Terror - over setting out to educate the community and change societal norms. They’ve given next to nothing for community education, and zero extra core funding for prevention and frontline services and those who can help to stop the violence before it begins. There was nothing in the recent budget to relieve the pressures on those frontline workers who are already turning women and children away every day. They are, rightly, concerned that with the introduction of these new laws, more victim-survivors may recognise the coercive relationship they are in and flee to find safety in refuges already too packed to take them in. 

OK, so what’s the alternative to fighting men’s violence with State violence?

We can start by correcting the power imbalance between men and women in our society. It’s not a radical concept to accept that our power in society comes from more than just comparative physical strength. 

Women are more easily controlled when they have less financial security, for instance. All the time we’re earning so much less than men, when our careers are more easily interrupted by parenting, when we are due to retire with significantly less super than men, we are more reliant on, and more easily able to be controlled and coerced, by men. 

It’s all good and well for politicians to talk about respecting women – about treating us as equal participants in society – but when the policy decisions they make actively disrespect and disadvantage women, is it really that surprising that the message isn’t being heeded? 

Recent gender pay gap analysis is truly shocking – the private sector pay gap is around 22%, while the public sector is about 13%. In 96% of all occupations, men have a higher average salary than women. Even within those industries that are overwhelmingly women, men are earning more. So for example, 99% of Australian midwives are women, and yet the 1% of midwives who are still men earn 23% more. In industries dominated by men, the same is true - plumbing is 99.5% men, but the 300-odd women who are plumbers are being paid 30% less. At every level in almost every occupation, men get paid more than women for doing exactly the same job. 

There are so many levers that governments could pull to help rectify these sorts of inequalities but instead we have policies that actively disadvantage women, especially migrant women and single parents. The obstacles to being a woman independent of a man in this country are huge - just take a look at our antiquated property laws.

And don’t even get me started on the double-standards the media apply to women, to the sexist perpetuation of sexist cultural norms, the invisibilisation of women over a certain age, the exponential disadvantage faced by those who dare to be not just a woman but also a woman of colour, or a First Nations woman, or a disabled woman, or a queer woman, let alone a trans woman in Australia.

When we have an entire society set up to control women, when we have a culture that holds up the ‘strong man’ as a heroic figure, when every single day being a woman involves a fight against the norms and institutions that view us as lesser beings than men, is it any wonder that we can’t stop violence against women with harsher criminal laws and a few extra police?

No. We need to rethink this whole thing. We need to start doing this. frankly, in the way women would have designed it had we had the chance. We need to actually take note of the way things worked before the British invaded and wrecked this joint.

We need to embrace restorative justice. A form of justice that allows the victim-survivor to decide what they need and be supported to achieve it.

We need a whole of society responsibility to resetting norms and having them upheld. I don’t know about you, but I don’t need ever-stronger more powerful men to keep me safe from violent men. I need a whole community to stand alongside me and to say that together we are more powerful than those violent men and that we won’t be putting up with their shit any longer. 

In Jess Hill’s book, See What You Made Me Do, she speaks of a town where the response to domestic violence offenders is to haul them in front of a town hall meeting and have them explain themselves. Where the town tells the man to stop, that there will be consequences for that man’s participation in the community if they don’t change. Where the man is asked what support he needs to change his ways. Where the violence is not the victim-survivor’s responsibility to solve, but where the whole community is responsible for changing that man’s behaviour.

And this intuitively makes sense. There will always be cases where someone can not be kept safe unless the perpetrator is removed - where jail is the only way to keep the victim safe - but in so many cases the victim isn’t asking for their perpetrator to be put in jail, they’re asking for the violence to stop. And this is even more the case in First Nations communities, where a man in jail, even for a short period, faces such a high risk of dying in custody, and where women are at such a high risk of having their children taken away at the slightest hint of family trouble.

Let’s ask women what they want. And let’s listen and support them to escape violence. You can’t fight fire with fire, and fighting men’s violence with State violence isn’t the answer. We need a new way of doing things – one that doesn’t rely on police and the justice system, but one that creates lasting and widespread change by bringing the whole community together to help unpick centuries of men’s unearned power over women.

And there are so many people trying to do just that, but they need governments to get on board. Stop pumping more and more funding into the police. Stop introducing ever more draconian laws. And start properly funding domestic and family violence and sexual violence prevention and response services. Start investing in first responders with social work and psychological expertise, amp up the incredible work being done to co-locate social services workers within police stations. Change the nature of policing to be primarily about intervening and preventing crime, not about catching criminals and having them prosecuted. Police KPIs that rely on numbers of arrests and convictions need to be replaced with KPIs that measure genuine safety of the community, through empowerment of individuals to make independent decisions and to enable choice in whether or not to stay in relationships. 

To end the war on violence against women we need nothing short of a revolution in the way we’ve been thinking about police, crime and power. It might seem like a big ask, but asking women to continue to live in a society where they would feel safer with a bear than an unknown man is far, far bigger.

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