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November 26th 2012 print

Terry Barnes

Family violence is more than a gender issue

No one disputes violence against women is a curse on its victims and all society, but the emphasis on one gender's suffering diminishes the greater evil, violence itself


Every year, White Ribbon Day shines a needed light on the scourge of violence against women and children. The Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, Ken Lay, spoke from the heart when he told a White Ribbon event that “violence against women is not OK. It is not acceptable.”


In Victoria, this year’s White Ribbon Day message has been embodied in the intense public reactions to the brutal murders of young women Jill Meagher and, this month, Sarah Cafferkey.  In September, Meagher’s death sparked an extraordinary public reaction, with a crowd of thousands marching through the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick in silent vigil for her.  

While the White Ribbon movement opposes all violence against women, its main messages focus on the social pestilence that is domestic and family violence.  Indeed, bold banners in 2012 White Ribbon marches declared that to stand against family violence is to stand against violence against women and children.

None must doubt that family violence and violence against women are intertwined, but simply to conflate them does not reflect sad reality. An unpleasant and buried social truth is that the perpetrators of family violence are not always men, but in many cases are women.

Statistics tell their own story. Earlier this year the Victorian Department of Justice released a sobering longitudinal report analysing the Victorian Family Violence Database for 1999- 2010. What it found is that the stereotype of male-perpetrated violence is not as universal as most people want to believe.

Even allowing for great advances in incident reporting and response, the Database’s police and court annual data show consistently across the eleven-year period that in cases of family violence against adult victims – predominantly partners – around that 80 per cent of detected perpetrators are men and 20 per cent are women. That’s a one in five ratio, making female perpetrators a significant minority of offenders and certainly not, as some claim, rare.

Given the gender stereotyping that still exists in our society, it’s probably right to say that beyond these statistics there are many unreported cases of so-called “battered husbands” who have kept to themselves what they see as their personal shame. When working in the Human Services portfolio, as well as in my personal experience, I was exposed to cases of such spousal abuse – they are ugly and all too real.

In relation to violence against children, domestic violence and child protection reporting also show that men are not the sole perpetrators. Sadly, mothers as well as fathers lash out at children in relationships where they are physically, as well as emotionally and economically, dominant over children in their care. Highly volatile fuels of harm, notably alcohol and drugs, affect both sexes too.

What’s more, reports like the Family Violence Database don’t effectively document cases of emotional and economic abuse that, although now included in Victoria’s statutory definition of domestic violence, mostly escape police and court notice. In these areas, women are just as capable as men of playing aggressive and demeaning mind games to dominate and hurt partners and children.

In short, domestic violence is not just a gender issue. Male and female, we all have the latent capacity to hurt others. The evil seeds of violence, the animal desire to physically and emotionally dominate other human beings around us, lurk in every heart.  Those seeds know no gender, and while the better angels of our nature mostly suppress these dark impulses, the statistics bear mute witness to the tragic reality that not all of us succeed.

While not politically correct to say it, the generally unchallenged assumption that men are always the aggressors, and that women and children need to be protected from them, needs to change. Community attitudes, and the public policy that flows from them, should state unambiguously that any and all relationship and family violence, whatever the perpetrator’s gender, ethnicity or socio-economic status, is evil and must be stamped out.

Anti-violence advocates such as White Ribbon encourage men to take responsibility for their actions and emotions, and to offer women and children a helping hand instead of a fist. While well-intentioned, this message reinforces the perception that only violent men are the problem, especially in domestic and relationship violence.

Similarly, the tendency of federal and state governments, and political parties seeking the women’s vote, to treat domestic violence as a women’s rather than a general social issue is counter-productive. Domestic violence is a mainstream issue and demands mainstream policy responses to be combated effectively.

To this end, the White Ribbon movement itself can take a big lead by lending its considerable advocacy clout, demonstrated by the number of bandwagon-jumping politicians in the lead-up to the White Ribbon Day itself, to ensuring that all family violence – whether spouse on spouse, parent on children, or child on parent – is treated with the repugnance that it deserves.

While not diminishing the evil of violence against women, it’s only by questioning the established gender stereotypes of violence that we can make real progress in ensuring that all family life is free of fear and harm. We need to take that next step.

Terry Barnes is a social policy consultant and former senior ministerial adviser in social portfolios, including child protection. He blogs at Cormorant