The Q & A episode on domestic violence everyone is already talking about

Tonight domestic violence will be the subject explored in ABC’s Q & A program. Although it hasn’t been recorded or broadcast yet it’s already the subject of some controversy.

Three of the five panellists are men, a fact that immediately caught the attention and ire of viewers of last week.

The 2015 Australian of the Year Rosie Batty & the Ambassador for Women and Girls Natasha Stott Despoja will sit alongside the Acting Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police Tim Cartwright, radio sports broadcaster Charlie King and a Counsellor for Men and Families Simon Santosha.

Given that women are disproportionately the victims of family violence isn’t this a subject in which women might outweigh men? 

Q & A defended the panel on Twitter:

“Statistically, more men are the perpetrators of DV. We need them to be big part of the solution and ending the violence.”

Executive Producer Peter McEvoy told Fairfax Media:  "Family violence is not 'a women's issue'. It involves men, women and children."

That is true. Broadening the conversation about domestic violence from being a “women’s issue” to being a whole-of -society issue is critical. Domestic violence isn’t a crime that occurs quietly in the fringes of society and its damage isn’t limited to women. 

Domestic violence is horrifically commonplace in Australia and it doesn’t discriminate in the way that, perhaps, it is tempting to believe. Domestic violence is certainly being talked about publicly more than ever. The fact Rosie Batty was named Australian of the Year and the fact an entire Q & A is being devoted to this topic reflects as much. 

But despite the increased focus, the rate of domestic violence is growing; in the early stages of 2015 it has already claimed the lives of 14 women.  That is double the oft-quoted statistic that “one woman a week” dies in Australia at the hands of a partner or ex-partner. 

Is this because, despite the increased focus, we are not understanding the issue any better?

Prominent British researcher and activist Professor Liz Kelly CBE, who has worked in the field of violence against women and children for almost 30 years, says we are inclined to separate the various dynamics that contribute to domestic violence.

“We’re in a space where we never have all of [the dynamics] visible in a conversation with women and policy makers at the same time,” Kelly told Women’s Agenda. “We’re recognising one part and losing a sense of the other part. How do we hold all of the encounters that women and girls have with intimate intrusion in our vision at the same time? It’s not easy. But it’s the challenge. Not just to hop from one issue to another to see the bigger whole.”

In Sydney to deliver the keynote address at the UNSW Gendered Violence Research Network conference earlier this month, Kelly says that sexual harassment is one area we tend to overlook when considering domestic violence. 

“One thing I have observed in Australia and in Britain is how slippery the concepts are becoming. We’ve lost a focus on sexual harassment for example. The everyday harassment that young women in particular encounter is no longer in our plans of action and not what we think of as violence against women,” Kelly says. 

But it is a component of violence against women.  “Treating harassment as strange and exotic – rather than linked into domestic violence – discounts the harm,” Kelly says. 

Kelly established the concept of sexual violence occurring on a continuum and identified common elements in different types of violence and connecting them to structural gender inequality.

She explains that the everyday encounters and experiences with sexual harassment that most women have at some point, are connected to the more extreme forms of violence that get written up in newspapers. 

“The everyday is connected to the extreme and it’s connected in two ways. First in terms of women’s experiences but it’s also connected in the sense that it’s not deviant, crazy men who do this,” she says “There are some crazy and deviant men but the majority are relatives, colleagues, or friends. A lot of this violence is normalised; it’s only by challenging it and identifying it that we perceive it as violence.”

Sexism and power are fundamental factors in domestic violence that need to be addressed.  

“Institutional sexism is one the reasons why agencies and institution still continue to not respond effectively [to harassment and domestic violence],” Kelly explains. “It’s still minimised and not seen as that important.”

This is partly because it’s easier to blame victims than it is to call out power. 

“For many people to name men’s violence feels complicated and difficult. There are so many ways in which their behaviour can be excused and minimised, and victim blaming is the other side of that,” she says. “The minimisation and the excuses are a mirror image of the extent to which women can be made responsible. It’s fundamentally about not holding men to account for their behaviour and that’s one of the things that happens with power. To call out power feels like a slightly dangerous thing to do. It’s much less dangerous to blame the victim.”

Earlier this month a White Ribbon Ambassador, Dr Tanveer Ahmed, wrote a controversial column asking whether the empowerment of women – and the subsequent disempowerment of men – was contributing to violence against women. (He has since stood down from White Ribbon.)

Professor Kelly says the critical issue is what power is legitimate.

“It is about men’s power and if we’re going to end violence then men do have to lose that power. They don’t lose the power we all have to act as human beings. They lose power over other human beings,” she says. “If a White Ribbon Ambassador is suggesting that power over women is legitimate then I have a problem with that.”

Kelly says men who want to stop the cycle of domestic violence need to model respectful relationships – with their partners and children - that are not dependent upon control.

Listening to Kelly speak in such detail about the complexities of domestic violence makes me realise how deeply misunderstood the problem is. So often the public narrative is one-dimensional. 

Leaders from business, the public sector and government, are quick to state that no woman should ever have to endure domestic violence. It is undoubtedly a noble position to adopt. I don’t question the sincerity of such statements but I do wonder how many leaders look inside themselves, their own homes and their own organisations to examine the various ways in which they might unwittingly contribute to the problem?  Do they dismiss sexual harassment? Do they dismiss complaints of sexism? Do they know the ways the gender inequality contributes to domestic violence? Do they understand the broader dynamics that facilitate domestic violence?

On the weekend Crikey’s political editor Bernard Keane highlighted a paragraph in the Sydney Siege report that illustrates, quite powerfully, our perceptions of domestic violence. 

“Monis’s acts of personal violence were exclusively directed to women who he knew in one capacity or another, rather than towards the public at large.”

It seems extraordinary to dismiss a person’s violent history on the grounds that it was only directed towards women that person knew. The implicit message, whether it’s intentional or not, is that a brutal act of violence towards a woman you know is less informative than an act of violence towards strangers.

We know that most often the perpetrators of violence against women are known to the women and, yet, still we underplay this. It’s almost a minimising factor. Is it any wonder – against this backdrop – that the problem with domestic violence continues?

I hope that the panel on Q & A tonight will delve beyond the ‘what’ and explore the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of domestic violence. There is no shortage of people who can talk about domestic violence but there certainly seems to be a dearth of public forums where the factors that contribute to it are discussed with sufficient understanding and depth. Tonight’s program might be it. If it is, what a welcome development that will be because the conversation around domestic violence desperately needs to change. 

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

Georgina Dent

Georgina Dent is a Contributing Editor at Women's Agenda. She began her working life as a lawyer before building a career in journalism as an editor, reporter and recognised advocate for women. Follow her on Twitter here and Facebook here.    

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