It has to stop. At the source

The UN says the world can’t afford to pay the price of violence against women. If ever this were true, it’s in Indigenous communities. They can’t afford this. Nor can Australia.

By Elizabeth Henderson, Director, Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce

Last Friday marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, beginning the UN’s “16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence” campaign. Marches were held across Australia including in Darwin and Alice Springs. Appropriately so. Family violence exists across Australian society but its epicentre is the Northern Territory, which has among the highest rates in the world fuelled by disproportionate violence in Indigenous communities. Any discussion on violence against Australian women that omits the NT barely addresses the issue.

NT Coroner Greg Cavanagh has described domestic violence in NT’s Indigenous communities as “out of control”. So began his September report into the deaths of 2 Aboriginal women, Ms McCormack and Ms Murphy. It’s essential reading for anyone wanting to understand family violence in Indigenous communities.

Its headline finding was the criminal justice system failing to protect Indigenous women. This isn’t primarily because of deficiencies in the system. At the source of NT’s family violence epidemic lie factors no criminal justice system could be expected to fix. Socio-economic disadvantage is one such factor. The report reveals family and community acceptance of violence, agencies tolerating children being exposed to violence and chronic alcohol abuse, as others.

Ms McCormack and Ms Murphy had long histories of serious, sustained violence at the hands of their husbands. Mostly they refused to cooperate in convicting them. Despite this, police did what they could charge the offenders. Ms Murphy’s husband served considerable time before murdering her.

Some people say Indigenous women don’t seek help from police because they fear and mistrust them. That wasn’t the case here. Both regularly called police to defuse violent situations and obtain DVOs. However, they wouldn’t cooperate in prosecuting their husbands. Whether fear of police was behind this is unclear, but fear of family and community evidently was.

The Coroner heard Indigenous women are routinely blamed by their families and community for what happens to their husbands in the criminal justice system. Families pressure victims to withdraw complaints. If jailed, the husband’s family keep an eye on the victim, inform on her, even take her to live with them. On release, husbands pursue retribution. Domestic violence is said to be about control of the victim through fear. Here families and communities are complicit in that control.

The report details raw, blood-curdling, bone-breaking violence. If on television it would be rated unsuitable for children. Yet such violence is being viewed daily by young children.

Ms McCormack’s children witnessed their father smashing his way into the house, assaulting her and chasing her and the children with an axe. She once called “000” to report him hitting the children. She moved the children back and forth between home and shelters. NT’s Department of Children and Families knew they were exposed to dangerous violence at their home. Its staff “worked with [Ms McCormack] and the children around their protective needs. They spoke about keeping potential weapons, like kitchen utensils out of sight and keeping a means of escape available. They spoke of making an escape earlier rather than later.” Advising mum to hide the kitchen knives and get out at the first sign of trouble. Is that the best protection child services could offer?

People may debate whether children should be allowed to remain at home in a domestic violence situation, especially if their mother won’t cooperate with police. However, the Coroner also heard paternal mothers-in law possess considerable power and may take the victim’s children if she does cooperate with police. NT’s Indigenous domestic violence victims are vulnerable to losing their children whatever their choices.

Ms McCormack and Ms Murphy’s stories are riddled with the hallmark traits of alcoholism. Excessive drinking at all hours, drunken arguments, regret, failed abstinence attempts, continued drinking despite adverse consequences. Most violence occurred when their husbands were drunk, often they were drinking together. Both they and their husbands were intoxicated when they died. All 7 other cases mentioned in the report involved drinking by the offenders and in at least 4 the victims were drinking with them. The Coroner heard couples drinking together amplifies DVO breaches and DVOs are ineffective because drinking isn’t for social enjoyment but “a need”.

NT’s violence won’t end if alcohol abuse isn’t curbed. About 60% of NT domestic violence assaults involve alcohol, including every domestic homicide in Alice Springs in the last 3 years. The report portrays families and communities in the grip of alcohol addiction, a problem Cavanagh says has never been confronted. Even if there was no violence, it’s a serious health problem requiring urgent attention.

The UN says violence against women “is a human rights violation, public health pandemic and serious obstacle to sustainable development. It imposes large-scale costs on families, communities and economies. The world cannot afford to pay this price.” If ever this were true, it’s in Indigenous communities. They can’t afford this. Nor can Australia.

This article was first published in the Daily Telegraph on 1 December 2016

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