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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: Rear view of a woman sitting on her bed looking out the window. (Alvaro Medina Jurado / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Ulrike Marwitz, Domestic violence



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Existing comments

One of the factors in this plague of intimate partner and family violence is the shaming and brutalisation of adolescent boys. The hazing and shaming to toughen up boys, drives the empathy and humanity from many young males. This was highlighted in a recent big ideas podcast on the ABC where the author, to her surprise, found that this damaging cultural practice laid the groundwork for future issues of dominance and control. These things don’t come from thin air. Perhaps we could start there.

Steve Carey | 28 April 2022  

Well written and researched article.
It is a complex issue that embodies all the social issues listed.
Advocating for Aboriginal families in the out of home care system I cannot understand why our bubbies are removed to the care of strangers while perpetrators of violence remain in the family home?????
Much change has been urgently needed for the last 100 years.

Jan Wright | 28 April 2022  

Substance abuse has to be addressed by a big educational campaign as DV often happens in this context.

Leonor Gouldthorpe | 28 April 2022  

Unfortunately over the past decade the number of people in the Catholic church has been declining and the number and variety of local parish based groups has fallen. A parish based family centered group would have have quite an influence on family life I believe, just as a social justice group has on particular justice issues. There are 1300 parishes across Australia where a family group could operate, educating men and women on family issues, supporting single parents and a range of other family issues. Family life is one of the missionary areas that the church needs to be involved in into the future.

Kevin E Vaughan | 29 April 2022  

Why? Because we are living through the decline of Judeo-Christian Civilisation obsessed with individualism and self satisfaction. Nothing new in that but, as with all things, the human being fails to learn from history. Ancient Rome showed us the way 2000 years ago with its self-indulgence, sex orgies, violent public entertainment for the masses in the Coliseum, widespread "same sex indulgence, self harm and baying crowds cheering public executions. It took a couple of hundred years for Roman civilisation to decline and be lost forever. We are more sophisticated than the Romans at the height of their civilisation and do public violence, pornography, sexual liberation, self indulgence far more successfully and made such liberation accessible to all on the internet and the iphone including our children. What is to be done - return to the Christianity that defeated the outrages of Rome and which we have largely abandoned before it is too late. We will never eliminate the excesses of this society until we defeat the underlying causes the most obvious of which is the widespread disrespect for others and the primacy of self.

john frawley | 29 April 2022  
Show Responses

Mistreatment of women, physical and psychological, has been happening since Eve ate the apple. ‘Adam’ didn’t dominate ‘Eve’ until then, notwithstanding over a thousand years of state-sponsored Christian religion which believed the Genesis account, and over a thousand years of other religions dominating their communities with an equivalent ethic of the subordination of the individual to society.

'Sexism' is a long-standing sin.

roy chen yee | 30 April 2022  

As you so rightly say, Ulrike, and you've actually worked in the field of child protection, so you have real practical experience with victims and perpetrators of domestic violence, the causative factors of DV are many and varied. There is no 'one size fits all' bandaid solution. I think poverty and its many spinoffs are major causes, as is the fracturing of society in this 21st Century. The Scandinavian countries are to go-to ones to see how poverty can be tackled and gross income inequality can be addressed. They also seem to have some of the best attitudes to women and children in the world, which helps enormously. Of course, the Scandinavians are happy to pay for their excellent welfare system through taxation. We must not move to the Thatcherite belief that 'there is no such thing as society'. That will move us closer to the USA, which has enormous social problems, far beyond what we experience. Scandinavians are not overtly religious per se but the collective social ethos they have is partly due to residual Christianity in their society. We can learn much from them.

Edward Fido | 29 April 2022  

We need to address the influx of ice coming in from China-in particular HongKong. Over 40% of the meth amphetamine foisted on our youth is fostered by the CCP backed Triads. Their aim is to weaken our youth and destroy their self esteem.
Substance abuse among Aboriginal communities again occurs in alarming rates because the general population wont give them jobs and the devil finds plenty of work for idle hands.
The first thing we need to do is cut ties with China until they remove their 20 bn worth of unjustified Tariffs. Remove our reliance on their exports in the manufacturing sector.
The only avenue at present for Aboriginal advancement is education and sport (at which they excel).

Francis Armstrong | 30 April 2022  

This is a fabulous article. Thank you. I agree that domestic violence is complex and often driven by trauma. However I think also that strong messaging in the media is a powerful start to changing attitudes. Ad campaigns that teach respect for women and girls using everyday situations, sow the seeds for societal change. While evidence shows that most perpetrators are men, I believe that the best teachers are their fellow men and peers. I applaud ad campaigns that show men teaching other men how to respect women and girls. It is a bold and important start to a long and complex social issue.

Mary Toye | 02 May 2022  

Steve Carey is on the money. The macho male image, particularly in the idolisation of 'tough footballers', who are both Australian icons and frequently perpetrators of DV of both their spouses and children, is responsible for much that's wrong in our society. Stopping bullying, which is not the same as having 'an anti-bullying policy', which looks good but may remain unimplemented, would be a good start. It can be done. The then Headmaster of Melbourne Grammar School had eliminated both corporal punishment and bullying in the Senior School in the 1960s. IMO they went together. Bullies are never heroes. Ever. As far as the Aboriginal community goes, I think they must heed their own wise members, such as Jacinta Price. She may not be an 'Aunty' but she is right on the ball about all the social ills which beset that community. They need to heed. I do hope she is not their modern-day version of Cassandra.

Edward Fido | 03 May 2022  

Thank you so much for this article. As a survivor you have hit the nail on the had with your last few paragraphs especially. Please put in whatever you can to work towards resolving those issues.

Tina | 06 May 2022  

Thank you Ulrike for your insights on the very distressing issue of domestic violence.

The causes for this problem are many and complex.

It seems to me that governments need to undertake dedicated and thoroughly researched long term strategies to identify and counter the causes.

In this approach, it seems to me that we need to deal with the issue in the systematic way we have approached managing hazards in workplaces to protect workers. After all, in the best managed workplaces, harassment, bullying and violence are treated as work hazards and there a strategies to prevent these issues arising and methods to deal with them if they occur.

In the meantime, more money needs to be allocated for infrastructure and support services to assist the victims of DV including the creation of centres to shelter those at risk.

We also need to be creating a supportive and compassionate society that puts a strong emphasis on the caring of its members who are at risk and far less emphasis on competition.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 07 May 2022  

Why should we expect any forms of abuse to decline when the appalling spectacle of political abuse continues unabated?

Ginger Meggs | 16 May 2022  

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