The mainstreaming of domestic violence

As many as 700,000 Australian workers now have access to paid domestic violence leave and many more are poised to get it. This world-first workplace initiative is attracting keen interest from overseas and according to Ludo McFerran, a campaigner against family violence, Australia is being applauded for it. I have a real problem with domestic violence being treated in this manner. Surely this paid domestic violence leave is just condoning violence against women and the provision of the leave being a concession we need in order to keep the destructive institutions of the family, the workplace, and society functioning.

This first agreement on paid domestic violence leave was signed at the Surf Coast Shire Council in Torquay two years ago. More than 20 Victorian councils have agreed to the paid leave, as has the New South Wales public service and big private-sector employer Queensland Rail. Family violence leave typically allows victims flexible hours, paid days off or even having their email addresses or phone numbers changed to escape harassment.

Campaigner Phil Cleary believes his sister Vicki could have lived if a family violence agreement had been in place at her work. In 1987,Vicki was stabbed to death by her former boyfriend outside the Coburg kindergarten where she worked. Cleary told The Age that the agreements are important as they acknowledge how widespread the violence is. ”It’s sad we’ve got to factor family violence into an EBA because it’s necessary, because violence in the home afflicts women workers. I welcome it, but the cautionary tale is that we have to deal with the violence firsthand.”

In 2005, an Australian Bureau of Statistics report showed that about one in six women had experienced domestic violence from either a previous or current partner. That equated to about 1.3 million women. About one in four of those women had been sexually assaulted while more than 80 per cent had been physically assaulted.

The mainstream media reporting of the issue of domestic  violence lacks history and analysis. ‘In the 1970s feminist literature boldly addressed the need for social change,’ says Louise Armstrong, author of ‘The Great Incest Hijack’, a chapter in Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed. ‘It was a vibrant force’ and a time when women protested about rape and asserted that it was ‘male violence against women’.

Being a victim of incest can cause major problems such as depression, drug-addiction and dissociation, but for Armstrong it led to feminism and an understanding that incest was among  ‘the forms of male violence against women and children long-permitted through history’. However the mainstream view of incest regarded it as a mental health problem – no more than a ‘symptom of family dysfunction’ and that it’s practice should be de-criminalised. As Armstrong and others campaigned for social change and the cessation of paternal rape of children, kids were being ‘yanked from mothers’ and ordered to live with their rapists.

Patricia Hughes is the author of Enough, her personal account of surviving an abusive relationship. Hughes stayed in an abusive marital relationship but did manage to escape and establish a new life. ‘Domestic violence is complex’, she says. Domestic violence is the single most common source of injury among women between the ages of 15-44.

Writing the forward to Enough, author and psychotherapist Betty McLellan wrote:

Men’s violence against women and children in the home is the most constant and arguably the most heinous. McLellan describes this as domestic terrorism’ – Women and children in huge numbers living with terrorism in their own homes.

McLellan suggests that there’s a definite link between domestic violence and violence expressed in terrorism and war and that DV is permitted to continue ‘because it suits the purposes of those in power around the world to condone and even encourage men’s violence’.

This latest move on domestic violence – paid leave to victims is an example of the liberal approach to domestic violence and one that has been favoured by governments since the 1970s. It deals with the situation in a ‘band-aid’ way. Victims are moved to a safe place, given support and the perpetrator is advised to seek  counselling .

However a radical approach suggested by feminists researchers and activists is very different and names domestic violence as ‘a violent man abusing his partner’. It seeks to cut to the root of the problem and focusses on societal and group attitudes rather than individual behaviour.

McLellan claims any government that really wants to be rid of this violence against women would use such a radical approach and would seek  ‘to change the present masculinist culture of violence into a culture of harmony and acceptance’.

Today women are wives, partners, mothers and employees. The government supports this initiative with Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten commending employers that had signed up to the leave. But paid domestic violence leave will not stop the abuse and is once again a band-aid solution, designed to ensure that the whole destructive patriarchal system keeps grinding on.

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