Since becoming an MP, I’ve been required to confront the reality of men’s violence against women in my own community. Initially I was horrified at its scale; one in three women in Australia has experienced physical violence. Almost one in five has been subjected to sexual assault. Most shocking of all, one woman is killed by a partner or former partner every week. I thought of all the women I knew, respected and loved, and was overwhelmed by the idea of what many of them have been subjected to.
Despite these shocking figures, the most surprising thing I have found is that for many men, this isn’t enough. Unfortunately, the first reaction of many men is to ask: "Well, what about men?" Gary Johns’s column yesterday attacking the Our Watch public awareness initiative is an example of this instinctively defensive reaction.
Johns concedes that a woman a week is murdered by a partner in Australia but then informs us that "violence knows no gender divide" and that 4.5 times as many men are murdered every year. On this basis, he concludes that this is a greater emergency than that of violence against women and presumably worthy of greater attention from the public and government.
So why focus on violence against women when the rates of violence against men are so much higher? Put simply, the causes and impacts of men’s violence against women are different from the violence perpetuated by men against other men.
Men’s violence against women is a gendered crime. Its causes are different from male-on-male violence. The National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children, one of those rare policies to gain support from the Gillard and Abbott governments, makes it clear that the root cause of this violence is gender inequality. Much like rape is a crime of power, not passion, domestic violence is a crime of control.
A large body of research has found an association between men’s violence against women and men’s agreement with sexist, patriarchal and sexually hostile attitudes. The relationship between this kind of violence and control can be seen clearly in the spikes of violence against women during pregnancy and after separation; two periods in which the extent of a man’s control over a partner is threatened.
It is a miserable fact almost 20 per cent of women report experiencing violence from a partner for the first time during pregnancy; 36 per cent of women who have experienced violence from a partner will do so while pregnant.
Women’s experience of violence is very different from that of men’s. They are three times likelier to be injured as a result of violence than a man, five times likelier to be hospitalised, and five times likelier to have feared for their lives in the attack.
More than 60 per cent of men’s violence against women is committed in the home, often forcing women to live for prolonged periods in a state of constant fear.
It’s unsurprising in this context that, according to VicHealth, violence against women is the biggest single contributor to ill health and premature death of women aged 14 to 44.
It’s more damaging to women’s health than high blood pressure, obesity or smoking.
We cannot forget that the different context of men’s violence against women means that children are far likelier to be exposed, compared with male-on-male violence. In fact, it is estimated that a quarter of Victorian children have witnessed a man being violent against a partner, with obvious further implications for their development and mental health.
This is why the Foundation to Prevent Violence Against Women and Their Children was established and why initiatives such as the Our Watch campaign are so important.
Even the casual observer will appreciate that Canberra is a conflict-ridden place at the moment. But I know first-hand that there is a strong desire across all political parties to put an end to the stain of men’s violence against women in our community. We have to do better than to let the issue become another cheap debating point in the culture wars.
Tim Watts is the Labor member for Gellibrand.