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Why aren't rates of domestic violence going down?


Recent research by the NSW bureau of crime and statistics and research has found that rates of intimate partner violence have remained relatively stable over the past 15 years. These rates are still alarmingly high. If we care about the welfare of those most impacted by domestic violence, predominantly women and children, we must ask ourselves: why are we failing to make headway on this issue, and what should we be doing differently?

The Federal government’s National action plan to reduce violence against women and their children (2019-2022) focuses on the issue of attitudinal change — using education and public messaging to reduce attitudes that support violence and abuse. Research in this area however, finds that issues such as childhood trauma and abuse, attachment and personality disorders, poverty and disadvantage and substance use may all play a causal role in domestic violence. While this does not imply that perpetrators have no control over their actions, it does suggest that in many cases, those who use violence in a domestic setting do so for complex reasons.

The framing of violence against an intimate partner as a choice made by the abusive person is understandable — it has come about to counter narratives claiming that abusive men are not to blame for their actions, and that it is the victim who is to blame. Such narratives have had real consequences for women and children, and resulted in serious harm. It’s no wonder then, that any public discourse that veers away from the narrative of personal responsibility is regarded with suspicion and fear that it will reverse any gains that have been made for victims of domestic violence.

The problem with the Federal government’s plan is that telling people their behaviour is wrong and that they have to change is seldom enough to create change. For most people, there is a complex web of personal experience, personality and circumstances, as well as conscious choice, behind the way we react, respond and relate to others — even when those actions appear to be planned and intentional. This is especially the case for people who have experienced trauma or abuse, unhealthy attachment relationships in childhood or live with personality disorders.

While many people experience these and do not abuse intimate partners, their children or anyone else, it would be an oversight to discount the role factors like these can play in the way those people who are abusive in relationships relate to their partners or ex partners. This is not an excuse, and in no way should it be used to justify such behaviour or convince victims to tolerate being abused, but it is something that prevention and treatment initiatives must consider, if real progress in this area is to be made. 


'It’s time for societies, faith communities and governments to acknowledge that domestic violence is part of a broader social problem, in which there is too little support for those who experience child abuse, trauma, mental illness, poverty and substance use disorders, and that it will require far more than just attitudinal change to make Australia a safer place for women and children to live.'



Just as domestic violence causes harm, distress and trauma, so does child abuse and neglect, which often co-occurs with domestic violence. Just like domestic violence, child abuse and neglect is a topic that often provokes anger. While both domestic violence and child abuse can impact on families from all socio-economic backgrounds, in many cases they occur in a context of trauma history, substance abuse, mental illness, lack of social supports and poverty. While society at large does not support child abuse and neglect, the knowledge that child abuse is wrong, and even the prospect of having children removed is not enough to prevent harm to children. In child protection work we have come to accept that the exacerbating or causal role of these factors cannot be overlooked if we want to support change in such families. It is likely that the same is true of domestic violence, and that addressing individual and societal attitudes while overlooking complex causal and exacerbating factors is akin to placing a band-aid over a gaping wound.

Not all domestic violence is the same — causal factors vary between cases and research is increasingly demonstrating the complexity of domestic violence and the reality that no one solution will prevent or address all domestic violence. Attitudinal change is a worthy goal and the message that violence and abuse in all forms are unacceptable is an important one that could prevent some potential abusers from becoming abusive, or prompt others to seek help for their use of violence.

If we think this is enough however, we are missing important opportunities for change. It’s time for societies, faith communities and governments to acknowledge that domestic violence is part of a broader social problem, in which there is too little support for those who experience child abuse, trauma, mental illness, poverty and substance use disorders, and that it will require far more than just attitudinal change to make Australia a safer place for women and children to live.




Ulrike Marwitz is a social worker who has worked in the area of child protection, and with survivors of child abuse. She is a PhD candidate with the Australian Catholic University and is researching how different types of domestic violence are addressed in child protection practice.

Main image: (Alvaro Medina Jurado / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Ulrike Marwitz, Domestic violence



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Existing comments

A very thoughtful article on the failure of ‘attitude change’ campaigns to curb family violence. 'Family violence reaches into all facets of Australian society' is a narrative that has helped get family violence on the mainstream agenda. However, we now urgently need to unpack family violence data to effectively protect women and children at risk.

Who are these men who bash and kill women?’ Are they mainly younger or older males? Is poverty, disadvantage, and poor education major factors? Are there particular post codes where women are at greater risk? What of women and children in rural and remote communities? And yes ‘what is the relationship between mental health, drug and alcohol abuse and domestic violence?’ And don’t we need to know what are the cultural and religious variables that predispose men to want to control women?

I agree we should not be asking these questions to point the finger or to suggest that violence is somehow excusable given a person’s background. However, to protect women and children from violence, we need to focus on ‘who is at risk from whom’.

Social workers know that family violence, like other social problems and criminal activity can be reduced by early intervention. And that success requires the careful targeting of programs to the potential victims of violence and to those most at risk of perpetrating violence.

Mike Kelly | 03 November 2023  

Thank you for this article Ulrike. The whole issue of domestic violence is indeed a complex one and it seems we are far from understanding it, let alone working out ways to prevent it. While each situation has its own factors, I think it can be said there are also patterns that can be observed, and these are perhaps where we need to focus our efforts. It seems to me that often we spend most off our time and energy on working out how to respond once an episode has happened, when we also need to spend just as much effort, if not more, in working out prevention strategies. While there are many factors at play, there does seem to be an attitude to intimate partners that is not reflected in perpetrators' attitudes to work colleagues or other people in their lives. We don't hear of so many work colleagues being killed every week in Australia. So what's the difference, and how do people manage their anger or rage or sense of frustration in the work place, but seem unable to do so in the domestic setting? There is much work to be done!!

Beth Gibson | 03 November 2023  

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