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Policy, not platitudes needed to address domestic violence

Opinion

Family violence is a national emergency and it is imperative that community awareness and behaviour change be backed up with appropriate services and funding, argues Marielle Smith.

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The words ‘family’ and ‘violence’ do not belong together.

Family should be the source and the centre of so much that is good in life. Our families should make us feel loved, supported and safe.

That’s why it is so utterly shocking and distressing when members of our community are killed by those who are meant to love and protect them.

This past fortnight, family violence stole at least three precious Australian lives.

In South Australia, a beautiful 9-month-old baby girl, Kobi, lost her life in what police are treating as a murder-suicide.

On Queensland’s Gold Coast, Kelly Wilkinson, a mother of three was killed in horrifyingly familiar circumstances, in the place her and her children should have felt the safest.

And also on the Gold Coast, the body of Lordy Ramadan was discovered alongside that of her fiancé in another suspected murder-suicide.

I don’t know the families of any of these victims of family violence, and I don’t seek to speak for them, but as a representative of our community, I know that countless hearts broke at the news, unable to comprehend the immensity of the tragedies, the depth of the loss, the horror the victims’ loved ones must be feeling every minute of every day.

Because the words ‘family’ and ‘violence’ should never go together. Yet, in Australia, far too often they do.

This is not just a source of national shame, it is a national emergency.

On average, one Australian woman is killed by a current or former partner every week.

According to White Ribbon, family and/or intimate partner violence is the leading cause of serious injury, disability and death for women in Australia.

These are statistics we cannot ignore and should never accept.

I’m not an expert on family violence, and I’m not a victim of it. I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers, but like so many Australians, I’m determined to do all that I can to stop these senseless, tragic deaths. Here are a few places we can start:

1) We must acknowledge we cannot stop family violence if we don’t address inequality

We know that women and their children aren’t the only victims of family violence, and I in no way wish to minimise the experiences of male victims. However, women are dramatically overrepresented in the family violence statistics, which means we cannot address this problem without applying a gender lens.

Family violence has roots in a much broader cultural, societal phenomenon of gender inequality. While we are having a long overdue reckoning with the treatment of women in workplaces, not least of which my own, the Federal Parliament, that is only part of the story. This is a society wide problem and requires us all to play a part, including the many men in our community who I recognise are equally committed to seeing an end to inequality and family violence.

While marginalised groups may face unacceptable additional barriers to accessing family violence services or support, we know that family violence occurs in families across age groups, races, ethnicities and socio-economic position.

Challenging sexist attitudes towards women and tackling the scourge of violence is everyone’s business, and it cannot be put off any longer.

2) We must empower and equip those who stand ready to help both victims and potential perpetrators with the money and resources they need to do their jobs.

There are countless good services and dedicated workers who support women and children experiencing family violence. But they can only do so much. They need more resources, and the certainty that comes with knowing they will have them into the future.

The Federal Liberal Government has so far failed to commit to extending the existing funding arrangements for many family violence services beyond the end of this financial year. These funding failures are unacceptable and need to be remedied in the upcoming May Budget.

At the state level, just last week we learned the Marshall Government is cutting funding to women’s crisis accommodation and support service Catherine House. I have seen first-hand the incredible work Catherine House does caring for South Australian women at some of the most challenging moments of their lives. To cut its funding now, when need is increasing, is unconscionable.

We must ensure every woman and child has support when they need it. Because if we want to stop these senseless deaths, there is no alternative.

Stopping family violence also means ensuring that those who fear they may inflict family violence have somewhere to turn for help. In the wake of recent tragedies, South Australian organisation Don’t Become That Man reported a marked increase in calls from men fearing they may lose control or that their behaviour might escalate into violence.

We must be clear that it is not the responsibility of women and children experiencing family violence to manage the emotions or actions of their abusers. But stopping these deaths also means ensuring potential perpetrators who want to do the right thing can get the help they need.

3) We must ensure that women who need to leave can do so.

For many reasons, it’s not always easy to leave a dangerous situation at home.

But an inability to access paid leave from work, or fear of financial hardship, shouldn’t be one of them in Australia. That’s why paid domestic violence leave is so important, and I’m proud that Labor has pledged to implement this.

We will only see the lasting change we need with a bipartisan approach and commitment to eliminating family violence. The Federal Government has announced a women’s safety summit to be held in July. Out of this summit must come practical action, not more platitudes.  This action must ensure women who need to leave can do so safely and with supports in place, and it must be ambitious enough to deliver real change.

Everyone deserves to live a life free of abuse and violence. To ensure the words ‘family’ and ‘violence’ are no longer uttered together, we must do better.

Marielle Smith is a Labor Senator for South Australia.

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