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Simple fixes not enough to protect domestic violence victims


We have seen a groundswell of distress and anger about women in Australia dying at the hands of their current or former partners. Many members of the public are rightfully demanding action and solutions. This public sentiment is justified, but there is a risk it could lead to legal or policy responses which are simplistic and aimed at appeasing popular opinion rather than being evidence-based. 

Public understanding of domestic violence and intimate partner homicide is largely based on prominent cases publicised in the media, such as the terrible death of Molly Ticehurst which occurred while her former partner was on bail after being charged with offences against her. 

While the widespread distress and anger at tragedies like this is understandable, the reality is that many intimate partner homicide cases are complex and involve varying underlying issues. Many intimate partner homicides involve both the perpetrator and victim being affected by alcohol. Some involve the perpetrator using coercive control and killing the victim after she left or tried to leave the relationship. Some are by men with no previous history of violence, while other cases there is a long history of violence, sometimes by both the perpetrator and the victim. In many cases the perpetrator has a history of themselves experiencing abuse and trauma. 

None of this in any way excuses the actions of men who kill their partner. However, if we do not acknowledge the issues that contribute to these tragedies, we risk missing opportunities to intervene in the lives of both perpetrators and victims in a way that could prevent the worst from happening. Distressing social issues such as domestic violence or child abuse often tempt us to see the world in black and white terms, rather than shades of grey. When we are confronted by the suffering of vulnerable people at the hands of others the explanation we jump to most easily is that the people who commit such acts of violence are bad. We paint a picture in which there are clear distinctions between good and evil, perpetrator and victim. To some extent this may be helpful. A sense of being on the side of good and fighting against something evil can galvanise change movements and bring about action from those in positions of power. The problem, however, is that if we assume that all people who do terrible things are terrible people who deserve punishment rather than empathy and support, we are unlikely to embrace the kinds of solutions that might lead to real and lasting change. Further, if we leap to punitive responses that do not recognise complexity, we risk causing further harm to already vulnerable people. For example, although there are undoubtedly cases in which perpetrators of domestic violence have been granted bail when they should not have been, harsher bail laws could also increase the already disproportionate rates of incarceration of Aboriginal men, and potentially increase Indigenous deaths in custody.

Domestic violence is the kind of social issue that is sometimes called a ‘wicked problem’. So called wicked problems are those that do not have straightforward solutions, in which actions intended to solve the problem may have unintended consequences, and which are characterised by multiple underlying issues which are, in and of themselves, also often challenging to solve. The nature of problems such as domestic violence means that potential solutions must include openness to accepting that those who commit dreadful acts may, in some cases, do so because of their own experiences of abuse, neglect, or mental illness.


'We must sit with the discomfort of complexity and advocate for the slow hard work of reducing disadvantage and tackling the complex social issues that contribute to the tragic loss of too many Australian women and children.' 


The line that defines someone as being either a victim or a perpetrator of harm is not always clear, and there are many people who are both. For example, people who experience neglect as children are more likely to use physical violence against a partner as an adult, and there are many cases of women who are arrested for domestic violence offences who have also been a victim of violence from their partner. Domestic violence is not a simple or straightforward issue, and we know that not all cases have the same dynamics or the same causes. In some cases of domestic violence, punitive justice system responses such as imprisonment of the perpetrator may be necessary and may allow victims space and time to escape and access supports. In other cases, however, holistic interventions that support both victims and perpetrators to address underlying or contributing issues such as drug or alcohol use and relational conflict patterns may be needed. For those in roles across the justice and social services systems who are tasked with responding to and assessing the overwhelming numbers of cases involving alleged or proven intimate partner violence, determining which cases are likely to escalate to serious harm is no easy job. Due to the complexity of many of these cases responding to them often requires the untangling of issues such as conflict, use of power and control, drug or alcohol use, and mental illness, all of which can make it challenging to determine what kind of response might best reduce the risk of serious harm in any individual case.  

To lessen and prevent the harms caused by domestic violence, including the most serious cases that result in intimate partner homicide, we need to begin with addressing the diverse underlying causes and exacerbating factors that lead to it. Rather than applying one size fits all responses, we should support research and training programs that increase the ability of justice and social support systems to identify high risk cases, implement targeted interventions with both victims and perpetrators, and reduce the likelihood of today’s children becoming the perpetrators or victims of domestic violence in the future. With public attention on this issue, we have a remarkable opportunity to create lasting change.

The challenge now is not to let our anger and distress sway us toward simplistic explanations or solutions offered as political rhetoric. Rather, we must sit with the discomfort of complexity and advocate for the slow hard work of reducing disadvantage and tackling the complex social issues that contribute to the tragic loss of too many Australian women and children. 





Ulrike Marwitz is a social worker who works with children and families. She has recently completed a PhD in the area of domestic and family violence and child protection and is a research fellow with the Australian Catholic University Institute of Child Protection Studies. 

Main image: (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Ulrike Marwitz, Domestic violence, Women, DV



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Existing comments

There is now a significant chance for change around the issue of domestic violence. Too many women and too many children have died and many families (women, men and children) desperately need help. It will take extensive effort and expertise to understand and respond to the individual circumstances. However in order to turn around aggressively threatening environments new conversations need to start. Women’s rights have to be taken seriously; men’s uncertainty has to be addressed; and children must be protected as a first priority. Thanks for an incisive article, Ulrike.

Pam | 21 May 2024  

I realise that I have entered the age of "the silly old bugger' but fortunately I have not not lost my memory as yet. But no matter how often I try, I can't recall as a child growing up or as a doctor working in emergency departments up until the late 1960's, children or women being murdered or battered and bruised by "partners" (no longer husbands). I do recall with some clarity, however, the enormous societal disruption that took root in the late 1960s and 70s when the radical feminist movement urged women to step down from the pedestal on which they were placed by the late Renaissance movement and to enter the men's world with all its perceived advantages. The women demanded to be treated as men, were encouraged to shed the bonds that secured sexual propriety with the safety now provided by the contraceptive pill, to ignore the role of (in their view) subservient marriage, the very bedrock of societal stability, childcare and male-female relationships based on commitment and cooperation. It is no mystery that with the demands to be treated equally, the blokes started to treat women as they did other men. Enter the bloke with low self esteem, the inability to compete with other blokes and the small brain (frequently attested to by the expansive tattooing - the only thing they possessed that might attract attention). It is sadly now too late to sort out the radical feminists and the inadequate blokes. I suspect that if women were again to assume the pedestal on which they once stood and regained that attractive mystique that accompanied their position, the blokes might start to behave themselves again. Re-education in the privilege and responsibility of parenthood might also not go astray.

John Frawley | 22 May 2024  
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An interesting article but not enough balance about gender? I highly respect Jess Hill's research and writing seems to look at these issues more deeply including the cause/suggestions for change.
It is indeed a deep issue

Liz Nelson | 27 May 2024  

If you go to Trove at the National Library, select the 1950s, and search for 'woman assaulted'. There you will find many examples of women being assaulted by their husbands, often only reporting it after many occasions, and reluctant even then because they would lose what little support they had if their husbands were jailed. See < https://trove.nla.gov.au/search/category/newspapers?keyword=woman%20assaulted&l-decade=195 >. 

If that's not enough, go back 50 years and enter 'wife beating' and you'll find that it's been around for a long time before second wave feminism. < https://trove.nla.gov.au/search/category/newspapers?keyword=wife%20beating&l-decade=190 >.

Ginger Meggs | 05 June 2024  

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