Family violence is not about poverty and it is about gender

Miranda Devine’s Sunday column about domestic violence provoked outrage all over the internet. Which is probably what it was designed to do and is why she is such an effective columnist for the Daily Telegraph.

There’s very little point directing a response to Devine herself, or the people who slavishly read and agree with all her columns. They’re unlikely to consider any alternative and even less likely to be persuaded by it.

However, given the extent of the misinformation in her column, I do think it’s worth addressing a few of the points she raised, if only so that the data and analysis are available to people who actually want it.

Stripping out all the guff, Devine’s main points were that domestic violence is higher in areas of extreme poverty, that welfare at the very least encourages (the implication was that it caused) violence and that shaming men is counter-productive in the effort to end family violence.

Demonising men, and pouring taxpayer money into permanent meddling bureaucracies, will do nothing to alleviate domestic tragedy.

If you want to break the cycle of violence, end the welfare incentive for unsuitable women to keep having children to a string of feckless men.

She also cites NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics data as proof that family violence is more prevalent in poverty stricken areas than it is in more affluent suburbs. 

There are so many issues to raise in response to this that there is just no way to do them all in one article. So I’m going to limit myself to three main points: gendered violence, poverty and “unsuitable women”.

Violence is gendered

We are not demonising men when we say that most violence is committed by men, or that most family violence is committed by men against women. There are obviously exceptions, but it is a reality that must be recognised in any effort to understand and change the causes of violence.

(I’m going to attempt to head off the #notallmen comments here, because they are a waste of everyone’s time. This article is not about all men, it is about all violent men, if you are not a violent man then it is not about you. If it makes you feel defensive, you might want to have a think about why this is the case.)

The tragic truth about family violence is that the very nature of it means it is almost impossible to obtain robust statistical data about its prevalence or characteristics. Personal surveys, like the ABS Personal Safety Survey, depend on self-reported experiences of violence. Where this becomes problematic with ongoing abuse is that very few abusers see themselves as the aggressor, they think they are the victim, so they will report violence they perceive as being enacted against them in all sincerity. When you add to that distortion, the fact that many victims of violence believe they are to blame for what was done to them, or simply do not recognise the abuse for what it is, self-reported experiences of violence become very difficult to record. Even where an abused person knows they are being abused, fear of retribution is also likely to distort response.

We can get some information from crime data (which shows that around 80-90% of violent crimes are committed by men), but we also know that particularly family abuse is often not reported and that it is not always physically violent on a frequent basis. As Rosie Batty has said (and she is truly an expert in her own experiences) her husband was rarely physically violent towards her. It only has to occur a few time for the threat of it, the fear and control that creates to be abusive. Violence can, at times, be very, very quiet.

There is really only one dataset that presents a reliable, robust picture of violence – homicide data. It is unlikely to suffer from under reporting and it is so thoroughly investigated, by police and by Coroners, that the risk of perception bias or missing data is significantly reduced.

So when we look at homicide data, the gendered nature of violence is stark and undeniable.

A recent Australian Institute of Criminology report on Domestic Homicide in Australia collated all the homicides between 2002/3 and 2011/12.

Of the 2349 murders committed over that time, 85% were committed by men.

Women committed only 5% of the homicides that occurred outside family relationships.

654 were intimate partner homicides, 77% were committed by men.

More than 80% of the homicides committed by women occurred inside family relationship.

This particular report doesn’t include any data on the circumstances of those family homicides, but the NSW Coroner’s Court produced a report last year that did consider those circumstances.

That report looked at all the family homicides in NSW over a ten year period, and found that in that entire ten years there were no cases where a woman was a domestic violence abuser who killed a male domestic violence victim. Where women did kill men, the men were identified as being the abuser of the woman who killed them in almost every case. The exceptions were three men who were killed where there was "evidence of violence and abuse used by both parties with no clear coercion and control" and one man was the extramarital intimate partner of a woman and was killed by her and her abusive husband acting together.

The same report found that all but 3 of the 108 women killed by men were cases where the man had a history of abusing the woman he eventually killed.

Where parents kill their children, which happens tragically often, 80 per cent of the fathers who killed their children were perpetrators of domestic violence and 94 of the mothers who killed their children were victims of domestic violence.

The findings of abuse were the result of police and Coroner’s investigations and were not solely dependent on self-reported abuse. Abuse was confirmed by family, friends, neighbours, doctors, hospital reports and police investigations.

There’s not really any room to move on the gender imbalance in that data.

Poverty and “unsuitable women”

The notion that the complex interaction of entrenched poverty, inter-generational family violence, substance abuse and welfare dependence can all be “fixed” by simply removing welfare would be laughable if it wasn’t’ so incredibly dangerous. The idea that these are the only things that cause violence is ever more so.

The crucial point Devine failed to understand is that it is possible to recognise the circumstances that lead to entrenched, generational poverty can be inextricably linked to entrenched, generation violence, without denying that violence can and does occur outside those circumstances.

Telling women from affluent areas that they cannot be victims of violence, because that only happens to poor “unsuitable” women is not just reprehensible, it is incredibly dangerous. It’s difficult enough for women in abusive relationships to recognise what is happening to them without hearing irresponsible media telling them they have no right to make such a claim.

Wealth is not a protection from violence. Crime stats of this magnitude are an indication, not an absolute proof of the prevalence of violence across geographic areas. Like any statistical data, crime stats need to be interpreted, and reasons for pattern need to be investigated not arbitrarily assigned. What possible explanations could there be for higher reporting in poorer areas? Are there different training procedures for police in different areas? Could it be simply that in poor areas houses are smaller, closer together, less sheltered and therefore sound travels more easily and neighbours are more likely to call police? Are reports to police coming from neighbours or from victims? Is the data recording callouts or police reports of what happened on the callout? If a call is made from an affluent area, are police more likely to record it as a non-event? If police turn up to a “nice” house and are met by a “nice” lawyer or doctor who tells them that nothing has happened are they more likely to believe him than if they arrived at a rundown unit and were met by an inarticulate scruffily dressed bloke who is instantly defensive and angry? How much does perception bias affect police response?

The data also assumes that violence requires a physical expression. While it is the case in some abusive relationship that violence is present on a daily basis, it is by no means always the case.

It is also horrifyingly true that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander are horrifically over-represented in all forms of violence. This was addressed in the Coroner’s Court report cited above:

The reasons for the overrepresentation of male Aboriginal perpetrators of violence are manifold. As discussed above, all of the perpetrators were suffering from serious social disadvantage including in many cases poverty, substance abuse issues, violent coping mechanisms, intergenerational violence and the residual effects of social historical dispossession. Fractured kinship networks and losses of culture and support networks due to geographical, social or other reasons were also common characteristics across this dataset.

These characteristics of violence and poverty are repeated throughout particular areas of Australia. To suggest, or even consider the possibility that such damage can be rectified by removing welfare is ludicrous beyond belief.

There are absolutely more details, more issues to be examined, more complexities to understand that I have been able to present here. Violence, particularly within families is not simple, it does not have a single cause and will not have a single solution, only a deluded, ignorant fool would suggest otherwise.

Jane Gilmore

Jane Gilmore is a former Editor of Women's Agenda.

Twitter: @JaneTribune



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