Several nights ago, the ABC’s flagship political discussion program Q&A departed from its usual agenda of day-to-day domestic and international politics. We were to have an entire one hour show devoted to the issue of family violence. All the powers brave and good, even a UN representative and the Australian of the Year, were to speak up for the victims.
Surely the result of this national attention would be real facts, real statistics, real discussion, real debate and real solutions. But most of all, the outcome of this national attention and the appointment of an Australian of the Year to deal with it would be to empower victims. Finally the victims of violence would have a voice. They would have the authorities speaking out for them. We would end discrimination in domestic violence policy and we would empower and validate everyone in Australia suffering family violence and abuse.
But we didn’t get an unequivocal affirmation throughout the show that ALL victims of violence would be treated equally and with respect. We didn’t get the confidence that the law enforcement agencies would treat ALL victims equally and fairly. Instead the overwhelming message was that domestic and family violence is synonymous with violence against women. That it is a gendered phenomenon and the protections we afford should be limited to reflect that. In fact, the solution to family violence is a radical power transfer in society from men to women.
The evidence in Australia is strong that around one-third of the victims of family violence is male. For instance, during 2010–11 and 2011–12, there were 121 females (62%) and 75 males (38%) killed in domestic homicides according to the latest figures just released by the Australian Institute of Criminology. Moreover, according to the same AIC source and contrary to what was implied in the Q&A program, the number and percentage of domestic homicides shows a moderate declining trend over the last 10 years. The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Personal Safety Survey 2012 also showed that 33.3%, exactly one in three, of the victims of violence by a current partner within the previous 12 months were male.
There are many rhetorical questions that flow from this. Where does it say in all the international human rights instruments that victims of crime be treated differently based on their race or gender or based on the fact that they are in a demographic minority or majority? Where does it say in our common law tradition that victims be afforded different standards based on their race or gender? How is it appropriate that we advocate and provide services and support to one group in society based not on the nature of the harm suffered, not on the callousness of the way they were treated by their offender. But purely and unequivocally, coldly and deliberately on the basis on their demography.
As someone who worked for many years on human rights issues, I am very proud of the fact that as a civilisation, we adopted after the horrors of the Second World War a UNIVERSAL Declaration of Human Rights. We adopted an International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that has non-discrimination at its core. We did not say that racial discrimination WAS discrimination against blacks. We did not say that because white men had long oppressed blacks that those UNIVERSAL instruments would not protect whites or Asians if they were subsequently discriminated against. We never did and we never will because we decided to be a free people and a just people and we decided that rights and dignity arose from birth – never from demography.
Yet today in Australia we have people - the highly educated, the political elite, those with authority and power - who seem to say that family violence and violence against women are the same thing. Official ABS and AIC figures tell us differently. How disempowering do you think that feels for the one-third of family violence victims who do not happen to fall within the relevant demography? How validated do you think a man in a heterosexual or same sex relationship who has been beaten by his partner feels when those entrusted with our authority on this issue keep talking about the gendered nature of family violence. Does he not suffer the same bruise from a well-delivered punch, the same injury from a knife penetration, the same sickening denial of his dignity and humanity from constant put-downs and emotional abuse?
The recent movie release “Selma” has again reminded us of that great human rights warrior of the 1960s who dreamed of the day when people would not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. He did not preach for an end to discrimination against blacks just so that other races could suffer the same indignities.
Yet 50 years on, we seem to have forgotten the message of the great civil rights defenders. It seems that the solution to abuse in Australia is a new kind of Apartheid in which we divide the victims into two classes based on demography. Advocate and provide services for the two-thirds who happen to be female and completely ignore, isolate and silence the one-third who happen to be male.
I cannot see how dividing victims into two categories and allocating services and protections to them at different standards (in fact, no services in the case of male victims!) is a viable solution to reducing relationship abuse. I do not see how making advocacy, services and protection CONDITIONAL upon gender identity is helpful or indeed lawful. How is it not the same kind of segregation that Martin Luther King and the Kennedys sought to end all those years ago?
In all of this, I am not advocating for the slightest reduction in support for women victims. They deserve our absolute support. If the ABS and AIC figures are to be believed, they are in the majority. And yes, their abusers are mostly (but not exclusively) men. We need to change the behaviour of perpetrators - both men and women. But it does not serve the interests of female victims to tell them that as a victim you may not have sympathy for other victims of that very same abuse. And you may not support or advocate for them simply because they happen to be from a different demographic background - because they happen to be male.
Female and male victims have absolute common cause in opposing this evil that causes so much pain and suffering in our society. And it is not just the immediate victims who suffer. Most particularly children suffer. Their pain is not of a different or lesser nature if it happens to be the mother rather than the father who does the battering, or indeed, the killing. We owe it to them to adopt universal values, universal policies, universal rights and universal care to protect them and their parents.
Of course, there are many unfunded and tireless campaigners for equality, those linked to Australia’s ground-breaking and world-recognised One in Three movement being a prominent example. And there are those in authority too who have acknowledged that men deserve support. But the Q&A program galvanised attitudes on this issue. It seemed to affirm that in Australia we are still going backwards and that the weight of elite opinion is that as a society we support one class of victim while the other class is forced into devastating silence.
The challenge for us now is to break that silence. There are countless men, women and children behind closed doors right now suffering the indignity and helplessness of family violence and abuse. Systematic discrimination only compounds their suffering, increases its prevalence and debases our core values in the process.