Our Approach to Domestic Violence Needs to Change

By Kerry Carrington
Illustration by Ellen Porteus

If we’re to ever achieve gender equality, we must first make the world a safer place for women. One in three women in the world experience domestic or sexual violence mostly at the hands of an intimate partner. This year, China introduced its first ever law criminalising domestic violence, while Brazil and Columbia strengthened their domestic violence laws and adopted the UN protocol for investigating domestic related violent deaths. The spot light shone brightly on domestic violence in Australia too following the choice of Rosie Batty as Australian of the year. Queensland is trialling Australia’s first domestic violence court, and implementing a range of recommendations from the Not now, not ever report; Victoria established a Royal Commission into Family Violence; and the Commonwealth Government announced a $100 million safety package 100 million package ‘to provide a safety net for women and children at high risk of experiencing violence’ (Press Release, PM, 24 September 2015). Despite these efforts, much more needs to be done to make Australia a safer place for women, as police deal with a domestic violence matter every two minutes, and a staggering proportion — 41% — of homicides arise from domestic and family violence.

Here is where Australian policy makers and legislators can glean some inspiration from other parts of the world. Brazil was the first country to establish women’s only police stations in 1985. Since then, women’s only police stations have spread across Latin America, including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Peru, and Uruguay, and more recently to Africa and parts of Asia. Some are standalone civilian or judicial units, while others are specialised police stations.

A 2011 United Nations Women evaluation found that women only police stations enhanced women’s access to justice, willingness to report, increased the likelihood of conviction and enlarged access to a range of other services such as counselling, health, legal, financial and social support.

Of those surveyed for the evaluation, 77% in Brazil, 77% in Nicaragua, 64% in Ecuador and 57% in Peru felt that women only police stations had reduced violence against women in their countries (UN Women, 2011).

Buenos Aries established Comisarias de la Mujer (Police stations for women) in 1988. The province currently has 95 in operation and aims to have 135 by 2017. I had the opportunity to visit some of these police stations for women in May 2015, and was impressed by the simplicity with which they enhanced women’s safety. Most were converted, brightly painted houses that provided child care, transport, a variety of services, support and comfort. None had cells.

Kerry Carrington at a female police station in Bueno Aries

The police did not wear weapons and interview rooms were adorned with flowers and paintings.

While male police officers worked alongside female police officers at these stations, the reception counter was always staffed by a female employee. Police stations for women also improved the gender balance of police services and provided improved career pathways for female police officers. Given that most police stations in Australia (and indeed elsewhere) are male only police stations; by default not design, there are aspects of this model that could be adapted to enhance our responses to domestic violence.

Without significant additional funding or resources, existing police services could be redesigned to adapt elements of this model for an Australian context. The key would be to create stations that provide a one-stop entry point for victims to access a range of support and justice services that ideally could be co-located. They would need a broad legal and policy framework that offers protections to victims and consequences for perpetrators. That framework critically needs to remove the current barriers about information sharing while establishing robust communication mechanisms — with other police, legal, welfare, family and domestic violence related service agencies. Too many domestic violence deaths have occurred due to the lack information sharing across the busy field of non-government and government agencies involved in responding to this largely hidden crime. Domestic violence police stations would also need a mandate for prevention, public awareness raising, as well as victim support, investigation and processing. There also needs to be more creative thinking about how domestic violence services operate in rural and regional Australia, in inter-cultural contexts such as in ethnically diverse or new migrant communities, and in some Indigenous communities, where rates are higher on average. Argentina has mobile women’s police stations that rove the country side handing out information, providing women with advice and support.

Australia, like many other countries, has concentrated on providing post-assault intervention measures necessary to address the devastating impact of domestic violence. The Qld specialist DV Court is an example of this. If the proportion of homicides and pervasiveness of assaults are ever to be reduced in Australia, then preventing domestic violence needs to be prioritised (see UN Framework for Prevention, 2015).

Domestic violence police stations with a broad mandate for prevention are a cost effective way of preventing lethal domestic violence from occurring or reoccurring.

Unlike the hard steely seats of the grey waiting areas of dimly lit police stations, domestic violence police stations would reduce the stigma and discomfort of reporting abuse, enhance access victims to justice, while reducing the lethality of domestic violence. Well worth a trial in my view to prevent the tragic loss of more lives like these.

Domestic and family violence account for a significant proportion of lethal violence in Australia.

Between January 1, 2006, and December 31, 2013, 180 (45%) homicides in Qld involved an intimate partner or family member. A quarter of homicide victims in Qld over this period were killed by a partner. Most DV homicide victims were women while most offenders were male (Qld State Coroner, Courts, Qld)

Across all Australian states and territories, over 10 years (from 2002–2012) there were 1158 victims of domestic and family violence, accounting for 41% of all homicide victims in Australia. 23% of homicide victims were killed as by an intimate partner, while 18% were killed by another family member. (Cussen and Bryant, 2015).

“In 2014, the number of victims of family and domestic violence-related assault offences as recorded by police was:

  • New South Wales — 28,780 victims (or 383 victims per 100,000 persons);
  • South Australia — 5,691 victims (or 338 victims per 100,000 persons);
  • Western Australia — 14,603 victims (or 568 victims per 100,000 persons);
  • Northern Territory — 4,287 victims (or 1,749 victims per 100,000 persons); and
  • Australian Capital Territory — 615 victims (or 159 victims per 100,000 persons).”

Source: ABS, 2015

Kerry Carrington is Head of the School of Justice at Queensland University of Technology. For 26 years she has studied a range of topics in criminology, many related to youth justice and gender and crime. She has written over 100 publications in the field. In March 2015 Kerry urged authorities to consider trialing women-only police stations as a way to target domestic violence. In 2015 Routledge published Feminism and Global Justice, the pinnacle book of her career. In 2013 she was awarded a Distinguished Scholar Award and in 2014 received a lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Criminology in recognition of her contribution to the study of gender and crime.

Kerry will be delivering a solo talk, “Women and Violence” and is part of the panel discussion, “True Crime vs Real Crime” at All About Women on March 6 at the Sydney Opera House. For more information: aaw.sydneyoperahouse.com