By Anastasia Powell, Jacqui True, Kristin Diemer, and Kyllie Cripps
As of November 17, 49 women have been killed in Australia this year as a result of violence; 28 were allegedly killed at the hands of a male intimate or ex-intimate partner. That’s according to the activist project Counting Dead Women Australia, which collects these figures based on media-reported crimes.
The Commonwealth government’s recent Outcomes Framework identifies key targets that need to be met if we are to end violence against women in “one generation”, as set out in the National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children 2022–2032.
The targets include:
- 25% annual reductions in women being killed by intimate partners
- improved understanding of violence against women and support for gender equality in the community
- halving the rate of all forms of domestic/family violence and abuse against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children by 2031, as progress towards zero.
Yet, Indigenous women in Australia are eight times more likely than non-Indigenous women to be murdered. Overall, one woman is killed by an intimate partner every two weeks in Australia.
There is no doubt violence against women has gained critical public and policy attention. But sometimes it can feel as though the problem is growing and that nothing we are doing is working to stop it.
So how much progress are we actually making?
What the data show: the good news
Any preventable death is one too many, and zero homicides of any person should be our ultimate goal. Yet data from the National Homicide Monitoring Program show a reduction in intimate partner homicide in particular.
For example, in the most recent report, 25 females were killed by an intimate partner (2020-21). That’s a 31% reduction in one year from 2019-20, when 36 females were killed by an intimate partner. In 2016-17, 40 females were killed by an intimate partner, so the reduction over five years to 2020-21 is about 38%.
While the rates vary year-to-year, the good news is that the overall trend over the past decade shows intimate partner homicide is in steady decline.
Another critical measure of violence against women is the Personal Safety Survey (PSS). This is the most accurate measure of self-reported experiences of all forms of personal violence in Australia.
Conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics since 2005, the fourth wave was released earlier this year. While we often hear the lifetime prevalence rates of violence against women, it is changes in rates of violence experienced during the past 12 months that are most sensitive to current policies and programs. This means they are most useful for monitoring a decrease over time.
The survey shows rates of total partner violence, including both physical and sexual violence, have reduced. Overall, the 12-month partner violence rate decreased significantly, from 2.3% in the 12 months prior to the last survey (in 2016) to 1.5% during 2021-2022. The rate of cohabiting partner violence over the past two years has either decreased or not changed in all states of Australia (NT and ACT not reported).
Rates of sexual harassment in the most recent survey (2021-22) were also the lowest they’ve ever been in every state and territory. And there was a significant reduction in the national 12-month rate of sexual harassment to 12.6% in 2021-22 compared to 17.3% in 2016.
As a community, we are also hearing more about the truth of violence against women. This does seem to be improving our knowledge and attitudes. The Australian National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) survey of Australian community attitudes towards violence against women (NCAS) identified that understanding and rejection of violence against women has been increasing over the past 12 years.
Where do we have the most work to do?
As mentioned, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander women experience violence at higher rates than non-Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander women. Available national data tell us that, despite comprising less than 3% of the population, Indigenous women have consistently experienced higher rates of homicide than non-Indigenous women since 2005–2006. The average rate is eight times higher than for non-Indigenous women.
Professor Kyllie Cripps’ coronial records investigation into 151 Indigenous women killed over the past two decades due to intimate partner violence by Indigenous and non-Indigenous men further found that almost all had sought help from the police but did not receive the support that could have saved their lives.
Alarmingly, national data on unsolved missing persons cases highlight that Indigenous women represent up to 10% of cases. This is significant, as many are presumed dead.
When these data are coupled with statistics highlighting the disproportionate rate at which Indigenous women are hospitalised for assault-related injuries (32 times higher than for non-Indigenous women), there is clearly much work to be done in this area.
Our national datasets do not routinely report on the specific experiences of Indigenous women. This makes it difficult to know if there have been reductions in intimate partner and family violence in recent years.
But statistics alone do not articulate the complexity of these women’s stories and the systemic challenges they have encountered. This requires more in-depth research and engagement with Indigenous communities to appreciate risk, and how that translates into intervention and prevention strategies.
The Senate Inquiry into Missing and Murdered First Nations Women and Children and the dedicated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Action Plan are investments in building evidence to better understand the systemic issues and ultimately end the pervasive family, domestic and sexual violence in communities across the nation.
A further issue raised by the available data is the persistent rate of sexual assault in the Australian community. The 12-month prevalence rate from the last Personal Safety Survey showed no significant change in sexual assault or threatened sexual assault, a trend that has remained steady since 2005.
Further, the most recent national survey of Australian community attitudes towards violence against women (NCAS) identified that overall, four in ten Australians mistrust women’s reports of sexual violence. This suggests we still have a way to go to better educate and inform people about the reality of sexual assault and to support women in reporting it.
There has been a welcome increase in policy and funding to address violence against women across Australia in recent years as well as investments in research.
And while it is difficult to directly attribute reductions in violence against women to specific policy actions, the data to date show there is cause for optimism that our efforts are beginning to have a meaningful impact.
It’s not yet clear if these reductions will continue – we need to analyse the trend over time to make a clear assessment. And we need further investigation on how our prevention and response efforts affect different groups within the Australian population to ensure that all women are safer.
But it is clear that to end violence against women “in one generation” – between 20 and 30 years – we must not lose our focus. It will continue to take a coordinated and evidence-based set of actions across our whole community to address, and ultimately prevent, violence against women in Australia.
If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732. In immediate danger, call 000.
Anastasia Powell, Professor, Family & Sexual Violence, RMIT University; Jacqui True, FASSA FAIIA Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for the Elimination of Violence against Women (CEVAW), Monash University; Kristin Diemer, Associate Professor of Sociology, The University of Melbourne, and Kyllie Cripps, Director Monash Indigenous Studies Centre, CI ARC Centre of Excellence for the Elimination of Violence against Women (CEVAW), School of Philosophical, Historical & International Studies (SOPHIS), School of Social Sciences (SOSS), Faculty of Arts, Monash University
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