Australia’s Struggle With Domestic Violence, And How We Can Fight It: An Interview With Rosie Batty

"We're starting to understand that this problem is huge, and has been so for a very long time."

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Since February last year, Australians have recognised the name of Rosie Batty with an uncomfortable clarity. Batty became the focal point of a national outpouring of shock and grief after her 11-year-old son Luke was murdered by his father on a Melbourne cricket oval.

In the days and weeks following the tragedy, Rosie became Australia’s most recognisable and vocal figure in the battle to combat domestic violence, calling on political leaders and society at large to properly confront what she calls the “social epidemic of our time”.

With her sudden profile has come an avalanche of praise, titles and appointments — the 2015 Australian of the Year award perhaps the most significant so far — but any concerns Batty would be relegated to a silent, toothless figurehead for politicians to pose with have long since been dispelled. She famously excoriated Joe Hildebrand on Studio 10 last year for what she perceived as his ignorant and victim-shaming comments regarding women too afraid to leave an abusive relationship, and called on Prime Minister Tony Abbott to reverse cuts to community services that help victims of domestic violence in last year’s budget just days after he named her Australian of the Year.

Thirteen months on from Luke’s death, Batty’s efforts to drag domestic violence onto the national agenda have begun to bear fruit. Yesterday Tony Abbott announced that federal and state governments will launch a $30 million awareness campaign to stop domestic violence, and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has called for a crisis summit on the issue and signalled his intention to “make it the central political debate in the national Parliament”. On her end, Batty’s new Commonwealth-funded smartphone app directing women at risk of domestic violence to local support services, Daisy, was launched yesterday, and she will address a cross parliamentary group of MPs on Monday evening warning of the perils of victim-blaming.

But while over a year of starting conversations and pushing for change has given her cause for optimism, Batty is convinced Australia requires far more from its leaders, its governments and its communities if it’s to confront domestic violence with the seriousness it deserves. Ahead of her appearance at the Sydney Opera House’s All About Women festival for International Women’s Day, we called Batty for her thoughts on what progress we’ve made, and how far we have to go.

Junkee: You’ve been absorbed in the ins and outs of domestic violence and our responses to it for almost a year now. What are your broad impressions of Australia’s relationship with domestic violence, both from a policy perspective and in a wider social context? How are we travelling?

Rosie Batty: We’re seeing hope. It’s a topic that’s come out from behind closed doors and started to be more widely talked about. The stigma associated with family violence is starting to be overturned, people are starting to understand that victims are not to blame, and we’re becoming more mindful of the statistics around it because we’re seeing them more. We’re starting to understand that this problem is huge, and has been so for a very long time — one woman a week is being killed, in fact it’s almost risen to two a week at this point in the year. Now we’re turning a corner in actually looking at ways to improve our understanding of how violence happens and where it comes from.

We’re seeing a continuous increase of people seeking to access support services, and that’s going to continue. On one hand it’s good — we want people to reach out and access those services which are available to them. But those services have to be effective, that’s the whole issue. We need proper systems and processes in play, rather than the current approach, where everyone works in silos.

You’ve talked about how providing women with economic support and empowerment is one of the most effective ways of freeing women from abusive relationships. How is the system going with that at the moment?

I’m sure that most victims want to have a period of time where they adjust from getting out of an abusive environment — not everybody wants to have to go into a crisis centre or a refuge. But a major problem is affordable rental accommodation — the rental market is very expensive, and there’s a definite problem with people not being able to live on a single income.

Obviously it’s not the only reason women don’t choose to leave, but economic pressures are one of those obstacles that make it very overwhelming. If you’re in a position of financial vulnerability, that’s a huge area of control that the perpetrator has, because you can’t afford legal representation and you’re unwilling to put your family in a difficult financial position. We need to look at giving people the support that takes them through a difficult period while they rebuild their life and seek to be independent and self-sufficient.

In the Saturday Paper recently, you wrote that you “won’t be satisfied sitting on a panel looking for solutions while money is siphoned away from frontline services”. You’ve also criticised Prime Minister Tony Abbott for cutting funding to those services while publicly raising domestic violence as an issue. Are you worried of being used by politicians and others as a way of paying lip-service to domestic violence without committing to real reform?

I honestly believe there’s genuine intent, but like everything it’s not solved overnight. What we can’t have from governments is rhetoric saying “we recognise this is a very severe problem, we need to do something about it,” but on the other hand cutting back on resources that have been underfunded forever. In NSW you’ve got really dramatic cuts that are putting service responders to violence under incredible pressure — we can’t afford to lose any more funding. The systems do an amazing job with what they’ve had to work with over decades, but the sector’s enormously underfunded and under-resourced.

What we’ve also started to see, particularly here in Victoria, is strong leadership politically. The new Labor government led by the Premier, Daniel Andrews, put domestic violence on the political agenda last year, and Victoria’s commenced a royal commission into family violence and the service responses to that. We’re getting encouraging messages from the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, in acknowledging the issue and an intent to support changes. So we’re starting to see political leadership stacking up, which is very important, but we need to see more action rather than rhetoric, and be looking at the things that actually affect change.

There’s been a lot of research done in the past and reports from agencies working in this area that have been ignored, and I’d like to see state and federal governments going back and looking at some of those recommendations and seeing which can be put in place. To get everyone to agree to change at a federal level is not an easy prospect, but there is an urgency, and it doesn’t go away.

Domestic violence is obviously a massive issue in Australian society, but it doesn’t exist in isolation — what broader problems does Australia need to address if it’s to confront domestic violence properly?

Somehow we’ve always been critical of the woman — we spend a lot of time talking about her responsibilities in the relationship, assuming that the woman has to leave, and that the family’s safety is placed on her shoulders. We really need to work towards perpetrator accountability and intervention on the other side — how can we act strategically so a woman doesn’t have to go into a refuge? How can we intercept perpetrators, and not just hold them accountable, but work with them towards change and accepting responsibility for their behaviour, rather than the victim battling a system that doesn’t acknowledge the dangers they’re in?

More broadly, we need to shift the conversation towards perpetrator behaviour: men’s violence. When we catch ourselves talking in a judgmental or critical manner about the woman we have to understand that when we do that, we’re shifting blame and responsibility to them. That’s where, culturally, it really starts. We’re not putting pressure on changing male behaviour and understanding why a man’s sense of entitlement — when he feels he’s losing control and power in a relationship — drives him to exerting violence. It comes from gender inequality and a sense of privilege that men invariably do have. That’s a testing conversation to have, and a test for a lot of men to acknowledge; that their view of the world and relationships and women has to be challenged.

1800 Respect – the National Sexual Assault Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service – can be reached on 1800 737 732. Download Daisy for Android here (Daisy will be available for free in the Apple Store soon).

Rosie Batty is speaking at the Sydney Opera House’s All About Women festival on Sunday, March 8.