June 2024

To end domestic violence attitudes and behaviours must change

Domestic and family violence will continue if we ignore and tolerate violence and aggression, especially gendered aggression, in our homes, our schools, our workplaces and public places, writes Congregational Leader Sister Catherine McCahill.

Thirty-five Australian women have been killed this year through acts of violence. Thirty-five too many! Most of this violence was perpetrated by intimate partners, former partners and family members.

Domestic and family violence is a serious and persistent problem. Research published by Mission Australia reveals statistics that are horrifying and shameful: one in six women and one in 16 men have experienced physical or sexual violence by a current partner.

However, most welfare agencies are certain that the incidences are substantially under-reported. Anecdotally, we know that domestic and family violence is much more prevalent than the statistics indicate.

At the Good Samaritan Inn in Melbourne, our vision is to support women and children to recover from the trauma of family violence and homelessness in a safe and inclusive environment. The Inn is often one of the first places victim-survivors stay after leaving family violence.

Violent domestic deaths are still newsworthy and, despite the prevalence, most Australians are horrified. In the 24-hour news cycle a given incident is prominent for a few hours, maybe half a day. Repeatedly, the neighbours are surprised. So often they are reported saying something like, “This is a quiet neighbourhood. We never expected this to happen here.”

In the 2021 National Community Attitudes towards Violence Against Women Survey, 91% of those who took part recognised violence against women as a problem, yet only 47% saw violence as a problem in their own neighbourhood.

Our federal and state politicians are united in their condemnation. Of course, they are not so united on possible solutions.

The fact is, given the statistics, most, if not all of us, know survivors and victims of domestic and family violence. We want change. We don’t want violation of our loved ones, of our friends and our neighbours.

We want the governments to spend more. We want more intervention, more shelters, more counselling, stricter laws and harsher penalties. Change the bail system, we cry out, when violence is committed by a perpetrator on bail. We want those with authority to keep us safe, to make sure that everyone is always safe.

The problem, however, is domestic. My reflection leads me to wonder about the underlying attitudes and behaviours of ordinary women, men and children. No amount of money or legislation will solve the problem or alleviate the suffering if we continue to ignore and tolerate violence and aggression, especially gendered aggression, in our homes, our schools, our workplaces and public places.

Our children witness domestic violence. All too often, they also suffer the impact of violence and abuse. One in six girls and one in nine boys experience physical or sexual abuse before the age of 15 (Mission Australia).

Most of the time, we don’t witness serious acts of aggression or violence. But I wonder what we do see and ignore. I wonder what would happen if we, collectively as a nation, were no longer tolerant of bad behaviour? What would happen if we called out the small things and put a stop to words and behaviours that are aggressive or abusive?

I think we would all agree that we need to teach our children that aggression, in word or deed, is not an acceptable response to life’s irritations. We need to teach them the skills of disagreement without abuse or aggression.

Speaking up or calling out bad behaviour requires tact and diplomacy. We can no longer say, “This is not my business”. To be neighbour surely means that I don’t turn a blind eye or a deaf ear. Of course, I don’t mean engaging with irrationality or during a violent episode that might only be escalated by my inadequate response. There are situations that require professional intervention.

In recent weeks, I have seen and heard significant interest in the serious situation in Australia with respect to family and domestic violence. However, I have not heard or read much about the violence and aggression that we experience daily via the media and online platforms.

Where is the arena in which we discuss the online ’games’ that we play individually or with others, games in which the winner is the aggressor or the purpose is the annihilation of others? What about the games that use weapons of violence? How can we teach our young people about peaceful solutions to disagreements while they witness and participate in virtual violence?

I am interested in the affairs of government, but I refuse to watch Question Time in Federal or State Parliament. Surely, our leaders need not act so aggressively when debating the important matters of this country. Is this what we want to teach our children about respectful disagreement?

I ask myself about my own reactions when I am affronted by other drivers on the road. My reactions can add to or diminish the aggression in the environment.

Fortunately, most Australians are still confronted and appalled by the amount of family and domestic violence perpetrated in our midst. We want it to stop. Before it is too late, I hope that we can, as people who are good at looking after each other, consider the forms of violence to which we have become tolerant. Maybe when we weed out the lesser forms, there will be a long-term change in the deadly acts of aggression.

For 24/7 domestic violence counselling call the National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line on 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) or visit www.1800respect.org.au







Catherine McCahill

Good Samaritan Sister Catherine McCahill is the Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She has served on the Congregation's leadership team since 2011. Catherine has been involved in education for more than 30 years, in secondary schools and, more recently, at a tertiary level in biblical studies and religious education.

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