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An old problem, a new conversation

  • 06 May 2024
  I can't remember her name, but I remember her apartment: an old post-war cream brick unit up a short flight of stairs. Inside, the place was bare, save for a ring of dilapidated soft toys lining the front room, their fur matted and grubby. The woman – I’ll call her Anika – sat on the floor with her daughter. Evidently, she’d not been there long and had moved with no time or means to pack anything. I was with another volunteer from Vinnies, a case worker, and Anika’s mother. We stood around taking stock of what Anika needed while she played with her daughter. The list was long. As I left, Anika’s mother handed me a plastic take away tub of coconut curry. I politely refused about four times before accepting.

While volunteering, it was not uncommon to meet people like Anika — women fleeing domestic violence, often with nothing but a child in tow. I assisted several men too, similarly escaping abusive situations. To these, we offered a range of essentials to keep them afloat.

Yet Anika’s apartment stands out. The ring of mangy teddies arranged around the empty room was an imperfect attempt to provide solace in an unfamiliar environment and spoke volumes about the emotional and physical toll of domestic violence on children.

Anika was lucky, in a sense. Homelessness Australia says violence is the biggest cause of homelessness for women and children. Often women don’t leave abusive, violent environments because they have nowhere to go.

This was one issue tabled last week when the National Cabinet met to discuss gender-based violence and committed to a range of strategies to stop violence against women. These included increased funding for housing for victims of domestic violence.

The national conversation is very much spotlighting domestic violence and gendered violence towards women, with one woman killed every four days by someone she knows. Each one plunged into an experience against which society could somehow not defend them.

There’s been much talk of this being a national emergency, a national crisis in the words of the Prime Minister and an ‘epidemic’ in the words of Attorney General Mark Dreyfus. And with the recent 30 per cent spike in intimate partner violence, that language is justified. We need to find out the reasons for this increase. But the latest Australian Institute of Criminology homicide statistics tell a more complex story. The female intimate partner homicide rate in 2022-23 was 0.32