What is family violence?
Family violence is when someone behaves abusively towards a family member. It is part of a pattern of behaviour that controls or dominates a person and causes them to fear for their own or others’ safety and wellbeing.
Violent and abusive behaviour includes physical and sexual violence,
and financial, emotional and psychological abuse. Slapping, hitting, rape, verbal threats, harassment, stalking, withholding money, and deliberately isolating someone from their friends and family are some examples of the types of behaviour that occur in family violence.
In Victoria, the meaning of family violence is set out in the Family Violence Protection Act 2008.
Who does family violence affect?
Family violence is a predominantly gendered issue whereby it is mostly perpetrated by men against women and children within intimate partner relationships and immediate family contexts. [Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2019); Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (2018)]
This produces highly detrimental individual and social outcomes:
- Intimate partner violence contributes to more death, disability and illness in adult women than any other preventable risk factor.
- Approximately one in four women has experienced intimate partner violence compared to one in 13 men.
92 per cent of women physically assaulted by a man they know, most commonly a former intimate partner (42%).
- On average, one woman per week is killed in Australia by a current or former male partner. [Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (2018); Australian Institute of Criminology (2017).]
- Family violence can occur in a range of relationships, including between current and former spouses or partners, parent/carer-child relationships, and relationships between siblings and other relatives, such as grandparents or extended family members. It also includes ‘family-like’ relationships such as paid or unpaid carers for people with disability, families of choice for LGBTIQ people, and cultural kinship networks in multicultural and Aboriginal communities.
Importantly, family violence is not solely a gendered problem but also an intersectional problem, driven by complex hierarchies of power, privilege and oppression with far-reaching impacts that reinforce structural disadvantage and marginalisation.
Research demonstrates that the populations most impacted by family violence are younger women, children, older people, people with disability, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds (including people with temporary residency status), LGBTIQ people, people in rural and remote communities, people with mental health issues and/or substance misuse problems, people from socio-economically disadvantaged areas and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. [Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2019).]
Emerging evidence also shows that the rates of intimate partner violence within same-sex relationships are as high as the rates experienced by cisgender women in heterosexual relationships, and possibly higher for bisexual, transgender and gender diverse people.[Our Watch & GLHV@ARCSHS (2017)]
Children are victims of family violence in their own right by law in Victoria, even if they do not directly experience or witness violent and abusive behaviours. The effects of family violence are harmful to children’s development, safety and physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing. [Australian Childhood Foundation (2013).]
- Australian Childhood Foundation (2013).Safe and Secure: A trauma informed practice framework for understanding and responding to children and young people affected by family violence. Melbourne: Eastern Metropolitan Region Family Violence Partnership.
- Australian Institute of Criminology (2017). Homicide in Australia: 2012–2013 to 2013–2014: National Homicide Monitoring Program Report. Canberra, ACT: AIC.
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2019). Family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia: continuing the national story 2019. Cat. no. FDV 3. Canberra, ACT: AIHW.
- Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (2018). Violence against women: Accurate use of key statistics (ANROWS Insights 05/2018). Sydney, NSW: ANROWS.
- Our Watch & GLHV@ARCSHS (2017). An analysis of exiting research: primary prevention of family violence against people from LGBTI communities. Melbourne, Vic: Our Watch.
How common is family violence?
In Victoria, data on all family incidents attended by police are collated each year. The latest report for 2015–16 shows:
- 78,012 family incidents, an increase of 10% from the previous year
- of those affected, 74.8% were female and 24.8% male.4
The incidence of family violence is likely to be much higher than these figures indicate, as many incidents of family violence are never reported.
What causes family violence?
Family violence is complex. We know from international evidence that the major cause is inequality between women and men – that is, the unequal distribution of power, resources and opportunities. Stereotypical ideas about the roles of women and men in society and the way they should behave fosters an environment for violence against women to occur.5
Gender inequality plays out in society in many different ways, including:
- ‘everyday sexism’ such as sexual and verbal harassment of women and girls
- demeaning and sexualised portrayals of women and girls in the media
- fewer women in leadership roles, giving men more control over decision‐making
- the gender pay gap, caused by men being paid more than women for the same or similar work
- women’s sport attracting less sponsorship, prize money and media coverage compared to men’s.
In individual relationships, this inequality plays out in the belief that a man is entitled to exercise power and control over his partner and children. Individuals – both women and men – are more likely to condone, tolerate or excuse violence against women when they don’t believe women and men are equal, or see them as having firmly set roles or characteristics.
For a detailed description of gendered drivers and reinforcing factors, go to Change the Story: A shared framework for the primary prevention of violence against women and their children in Australia.
What is the impact of family violence?
Family violence by a partner has an enormous impact on the women and children who experience it and on the community as a whole. Abuse and violence can severely limit the activities of women and children and affect their participation in all aspects of life.6 The impact of violence against women and their children costs the Australian economy more than $21.7 billion per year, and this cost is rising.7
Across Australia, police are called out to a family violence incident on average once every two minutes
- Every three hours a woman is admitted to hospital as a result of family violence8
- At least one woman a week is killed by a partner or former partner
- Intimate partner violence is:
- the leading contributor to preventable illness, disability and death for women aged 15 to 44
- the single largest driver of homelessness for women
- a common factor in child protection notifications.9
How women experience family violence
While every woman’s experience of family violence is unique, for many women experiencing family violence there is a spiral of increasing abuse (this could be physical, emotional, financial, or a combination), rather than a one-off incident. Family violence often starts with an intimate partner’s apparent love transforming into controlling and intimidating behaviour. Over time, the woman is often increasingly isolated from friends and family by her partner. Physical violence may not occur until the relationship is well established, or it may not occur at all. The abusive, violent and controlling behaviours create an environment of fear and constant anxiety in a place where women and children should feel safe and secure.
Common experiences for women include:
- constant monitoring and regulation of her everyday activities such as phone calls, social interactions and dress
- her every move measured against an unpredictable, ever-changing and unknowable ‘rule book’10
- constant put downs by her partner about anything and everything she does
- having no control or say over the household finances
- criticism of the way she parents her children
- disrespectful behaviour towards her in front of their children and others
- threats and actual physical violence against her, their children and pets
- being blamed for the violence
- surveillance using smartphones and other technology.11
Impact on women
Abuse and violence have a destructive effect on women over time. It can affect her:
- self-esteem, confidence and ability to make decisions
- employment, financial independence and long term security
- relationships with children and capacity to be a loving, effective parent
- social connections with family, friends and community networks
- physical health and wellbeing.
It can cause:
- physical injuries, chronic pain and other medical symptoms and illnesses
- anxiety, depression, eating, sleep and panic disorders, suicidal behaviour, traumatic and post-traumatic stress disorders
- the adoption of risk behaviours that further affect health such as substance and alcohol abuse, and physical inactivity
- unwanted pregnancy, difficulties during pregnancy, foetal abnormalities, stillbirth and low birth weight.13
Impact on children and young people
Children often hear or witness family violence, and this has a cumulative impact on them. Effects include:14
- impacts on the brain’s neural pathways, affecting cognitive development and stress response systems15
- low self-esteem and difficulties at school affecting their long term employment and financial security
- mental health problems including anxiety, depression, symptoms of trauma, eating disorders and, for some, suicide attempts
- increased aggression, anti-social behaviour and likelihood of substance abuse
- teenage pregnancy.
As well as impacting on health, wellbeing and education, growing up with family violence can affect relationships in later life. Many children who experience family violence do not go on to use violence as adults, but research shows that boys who have been exposed to family violence are more likely to become perpetrators themselves. Meanwhile, girls may be more accepting of intimate partner violence than those who hadn’t experienced family violence as children.16
Why it is hard for women to leave violent relationships17
Leaving a violent relationship is difficult and many women will attempt to leave a number of times before finally separating.18 There are many reasons for this.
Increased risk of harm
- Violence often escalates when the woman is planning to leave or actually leaves, with an increased risk of assault, stalking and murder.
- Many family violence homicides occur during the separation period.
Barriers to accessing the system
- Women experiencing family violence may not know there are support services that can help them.
- Women may not know about the kinds of support available to them; they may feel that services won’t be able to help with their situation.
- Women may not have access to money and may not know where financial support is available.
- A lack of safe and affordable housing options means women may feel there’s nowhere to go.
- Lack of access to money or other resources.
- Having to leave her job if she needs to be relocated for safety.
Conflicting concerns and priorities
- Not wanting to disrupt her children’ lives, education, and links to family and community.
- Believing it’s in her children’s best interests to be close to their father.
- Continuing to care for her partner and hoping he will change. (Many women don’t want to leave the relationship, they just want the violence to stop.)
- For some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, the fear of putting their connections to extended kinship and family networks and to land at risk.
- For some women with disabilities, the fear of losing the person on whom they feel dependent.
- For some immigrant and refugee women, the fear of losing their residency entitlements.
- Wanting to avoid the stigma associated with being a single parent.
Social isolation and its effects
- Feelings of shame and guilt about the violence or believing it is her fault.
- Fear of being isolated or ostracised by her community.
- Difficulty making decisions because she has been cut off from friends and family, is exhausted, and/or lacks confidence in her own judgement.
What about men?
There is strong evidence that men are overwhelmingly more likely than women to be perpetrators of family violence than victims. But men also experience family violence.
Many of the male victims of intimate partner violence are in same-sex relationships. For example in the one of the largest surveys of LGBTI people ever conducted, the Private Lives study, found that of the 33 per cent of participants who had experienced intimate partner abuse, 28 per cent were men19.
Many males grow up in homes where family violence is present. That most recent statistics show that over half a million women reported that their children had seen or heard partner violence. And over 400,000 women experienced partner violence during pregnancy20.
There is evidence to show that along with the range of detrimental effects (see link to Impact on children and young people section), exposure to family violence in childhood can increase the risk of males becoming perpetrators in adulthood21.
Both men and women are three times more likely to assaulted by a man than a woman. For women these assaults are more likely to occur in their home whereas men are more likely to be assaulted in a place of entertainment22.
Find out more:
Flood, M 2013 He hits, she hits: Assessing debates regarding men’s and women’s experiences of domestic violence.
No to Violence, 2014 No to Violence response to the One in Three organisation’s comments about male victims
The Line, What about violence towards men? http://www.theline.org.au/what-about-men
Stark Evan, 2009, Coercive Control: How men entrap women in personal life, Oxford University Press, Oxford
Coercive control: How can you tell whether your partner is emotionally abusive?