Sen. Michaelia Cash: Australian women deserve a stronger commitment to eliminating violence

White Ribbon Day, or the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, is marked on November 25 each year, in an effort to engage Australian men to help prevent violence against women.

In Australia, horrifying statistics show one in three women over the age of 15 will experience physical violence and one in five experience sexual violence over the course of her lifetime.
The current plan for tackling domestic and family violence in Australia is set out in the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children 2010-2012. This plan has bipartisan support.

It is therefore unfortunate that under the Gillard government, the first three-yearly implementation plan, which was due for release in July 2011, was not released until September this year.
Likewise, the government's promised National Centre for Excellence for data collection on domestic violence has not yet been established. While this was a core promise from the government, the opening date of the centre is still unknown. In July this year we were advised that representatives at the COAG Select Council on Women's Issues had "agreed to work towards the development" of the centre.

This lack of true commitment to this crucial area by the government is also seen in the Australian Human Rights Commission's criticism of the government's draft National Disability Insurance Scheme which it said contained no specific measures addressed at violence against women and girls with a disability, despite the fact that protection of people with a disability from violence is a key policy area of the National Disability Strategy 2010-2020.

I believe Australian women and children deserve more than what appears to be a half-hearted approach by the government to a silent epidemic.

Take, for example, the former Howard government's Bsafe Program. In 2007 a pilot Bsafe program was funded for three years in the Hume region of Victoria by the Attorney General's department. It cost less than $300,000. Seventy-two women and their children were given personal alarms to activate if their partners or former partners were threatening them. To be eligible, the women had to have an intervention order that was at risk of being breached. The evidence given by the women was that the program saved their lives. These were women living in constant fear, unable to sleep, to work, or often, to even leave their houses.

Evidence shows that domestic violence is linked with homelessness. The Bsafe evaluation report found that in relation to women who have to leave their home due to domestic violence: "The cost of a woman with children who accesses crisis accommodation, refuge, transitional housing and then exits into private rental in the Hume region was estimated at $10,195.90."

The benefits of a perpetrator being removed and a woman and her children being able to stay in their homes are enormous. There is no need for dislocation from local community, from schools, and often from family or friends in the area. There is greater potential for the women to be in employment, gain a wage, improve their prospects for financial security later in life, retain a sense of dignity and ultimately, the taxpayer dollar is saved. This is the kind of program that has a proven practical impact.

No further funding was provided by the federal government to continue the pilot scheme after it finished in 2010.

Although women are predominantly the victims of domestic violence this is not a "women's problem" alone. That is why the approach that White Ribbon takes in mobilising high-profile men to promote the notion that violence against women is unacceptable is such a powerful one. Through peer influence and male role-modelling, within their families, workplaces and communities, men are able to effect attitudinal and cultural change that will work hand-in-hand with other strategies.

I applaud the more than 59,000 men across Australia who have vowed to never remain silent in the face of violence against women, and implore them to advocate far and wide for its reduction and eventually, its elimination.

A program that advocates best practice for change in the corporate world is the Australian Human Rights Commission's Male Champions of Change program, developed and orchestrated by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick and launched in April 2010. The group of CEOs and chairmen has committed to advocate and drive gender equality strategies through their businesses using their personal connections and influence.

Some of these CEOs attended a panel discussion at the Sustaining Women in Business conference in Melbourne last month, and it was promising to see they are recognising the impact that domestic violence can have in a workplace. Nearly two-thirds of women who experience domestic violence are employed. The cost of domestic violence and sexual assault to the nation has been assessed at $13.6 billion per year. So by acting to identify and reduce incidences of domestic violence in their workplaces and providing a supportive and safe environment, businesses will be able to reduce costs associated with turnover, absenteeism and productivity. Facilitating the continuation of a woman's employment while she deals with a situation of domestic violence will also help ensure her future financial security and that of any children she might have.

We have come a long way in raising both the recognition and the profile of domestic violence both through the police forces and in the community over the past few decades. However, while there is still a single person in this country who believes that a woman "had it coming", or who believes that it is acceptable to hide her car keys so she can't go to work and earn a living, or who isolates her from her friends, family and support networks in order to gain psychological power and control; or hit her, it means that there is still much work to be done.

Senator Michaelia Cash

Michaelia Cash is the Assistant Minister for Immigration & Border Protection, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women and a Senator for WA.

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