Violence against women: Australia says no? Thoughts on White Ribbon Day.

Yesterday was White Ribbon Day. It is sobering to learn that 1 in 3 Australian women over the age of 15 will report physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives.

Profiled in the Age this morning was Siobhan Kent, a young, educated woman who was living with the man she regarded as the love of her life. Together they moved to Queensland and started a business. But when the business failed to thrive, Siobhan became the human punching-bag for her partner’s frustrations. She was hospitalised many times for her injuries. The article quotes a 2005 ABS report which suggests that partner violence happens to women from all types of backgrounds. About 1 in 6 women had experienced domestic violence from either a previous or current partner.

In 2004, the ‘Violence Against Women –Australia Says No’ television ads were a feature of the $20 million Howard government campaign. Although the tagline remains catchy (not least, I suspect, because it recalls Little Britain’s ‘Computer says no’ skit. If you can excuse my lack of tact.), the campaign’s impact is less certain 12 years on.

This week I also read of an exhibition about the epidemic of violence against women on the US-Mexico border. The epidemic has received international attention (mostly thanks to the efforts of Amnesty International), but I was unaware of its magnitude. The border city of Cuidad Juarez is the seat of the Mexican drug cartel, and has been host to an estimated 5,000 femicides (female homicides, or, more specifically, “the killing of females by males because they are females”) since 1993. This is from a piece in The New York Review of Books:

In the 1990s, when young women began to disappear from the poorest shantytowns in the city, and then turned up like so much waste matter, bruised, raped, mutilated, and dead, police officers laughed in the faces of the distraught parents who appealed to them for help.

The murders are associated with gang activity, drug trafficking, and interestingly, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which came into effect in 1994. The vulnerable young women comprising the bulk of the maquiladora workforce are exploited as a source of disposable, underpaid labour. It is also thought that this appearance of female autonomy does not sit well with the Mexican ‘Machismo’ ideology, which sees the role of women as in the home.

Closer to home, the rollout of domestic violence leave entitlements continues. In a media release posted three days ago, the ACTU reports that one million Australian workers now have access to domestic violence leave, mostly employees of local councils and the public sector, and many more are poised to get it. In my work inbox, I received news of a rather generic-sounding Employee Assistance Program (EAP).  I agree that employers should have a greater role in assisting workers to change  or escape a violent home environment, and not just because it benefits their bottom line to tighten up all that ‘lost productivity’. Still, I can’t seem to shake this unease. I fear that by establishing ‘family violence leave’ as a specific category in its own right, we risk normalising domestic violence.

Anyone reading this, it would be great to hear your thoughts.


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