ABS domestic violence Australia

– Micheal Woods; University of Western Sydney; Senior Lecturer, 2006

The domestic violence industry in Australia is a multi-million dollar enterprise ($73.2 million from the Federal Government alone). It is ostensibly designed to ensure that women live free of violence. However, it seems that some sections of this industry are engaging in the use of dishonesty to further the interests of organisational growth rather than contribute to addressing a social problem. While questions of probity are important where substantial amounts of government funds are involved, the dishonesty being practiced is also contrary to the interests of those women the industry claims to champion.
The following notes some of the most glaring instances of false and misleading claims in the current campaigns on violence against women. Secondly, some data is provided from the recently released Personal Safety Survey (2005), which could be described as the “gold standard” of research on interpersonal violence in Australia. The PSS data shows that levels of violence against women are nowhere near the magnitude so often cited, and suggests that the simplistic causal models championed by some parts of the DV industry need to be replaced with more comprehensive models that take into account the significant factors of alcohol abuse and social disadvantage.
The International Violence Against Women Survey (2004)
The major national campaign sponsored by the Federal government – and influential members of government, media, business and sporting identities – is the White Ribbon campaign. Unfortunately, the data propagated by this UNIFEM managed campaign can only be regarded as fundamentally flawed.
The White Ribbon campaign cites data from the International Violence Against Women Survey (IVAWS), 2004. This data is being used and promoted to demonstrate that there is a terrifying level of violence against women – all of it by men. The flyer and publicity information for UNIFEM’s 2006 “White Ribbon” day claims:
57% of Australian women will experience an incident of physical or sexual violence by a man in their lifetime.
Over 30% of women will experience abuse in a relationship in their lifetime.
This data is extracted from the IVAWS (2004) study. Yet the IVAWS does not pass the most basic criteria of good research, being both conceptually and methodologically flawed. Its primary failings are:
1. The definition of violence against women. The study notes that it dismisses normal understandings of violence, and includes as violence anything that can leave a woman feeling “put down” in collecting its figures. While this unique definition was used to collect data, attention is not drawn to it when propagating the data. The brief reporting from this study leaves us to assume that the “violence” referred to is what would be normally understood (that is, some physical or severe psychological harm).
2. It uses “lifetime” estimates. Women to the age of 69 who experienced any form of “violence” (including “put-downs” that left them feeling bad about themselves) since the age of 16 are included in producing rates of violence. In no other areas of social reporting is this type of measure used. We do not circulate rates of child abuse & neglect over a lifetime, but rates in the preceding 12 months. We do not try to educate people about the level of driving offences by producing rates based on adding every offence from the past 53 years, as this study does. Using an uncommon form of measurement has the potential to deceive, not enlighten.
3. It makes no mention of violence by women against women. The Women’s Safety Survey (1996) – as well as the recent and more comprehensive Personal Safety Survey (2005) – show that 30% of physical assaults on women are from other women. The IVAWS study does not say if it excluded all instances of female-to-female violence, or simply and erroneously assumed that if it was violence against women it must have been done by a man (which would, of course, inflate the figures substantially). As the authors of IVAWS frequently cite the WSS, where rates of female to female violence were reported, it is surprising that this phenomenon goes unmentioned. In reporting violence from intimate partners, no mention is made of rates of partner violence in lesbian relationships. There are a number of studies showing significant rates of violence in both gay & lesbian relationships. Again, this survey either excluded all such instances by refusing to question gay women, or it made the inept assumption that all women are heterosexual.
Violence against children
A further related aspect to the dishonesty of these campaigns concerns violence against children. Over the past few years the campaigns have begun to refer to “violence against women and children” – clearly implying that both are primarily the victims of male perpetrators. This probably increases the levels of our concerns for women, as children being in danger guarantees a heightened level of emotional response. Yet conjoining the two is at odds with the established data showing that women were the perpetrators of physical assaults of children in up to 50% of cases; 50% of recorded infanticides, and up to 7% of sexual assaults on children (FitzRoy, 2003). Women are also responsible for the majority of instances of emotional abuse and neglect of children (Tomison,1996 – although note that latter this is rather old data, as state and federal government agencies do not readily provide gender breakdowns of perpetrators).
The claims associating “women and children” as the victims of (inevitably male) violence restrict men from seeking help in those instances where their children experience violence from a female partner. As the above shows, women do perpetrate a substantial amount of the violence that children experience. We should encourage any adult to be able to seek help for their partners of whatever gender, not limit such support to only those instances where a male is the perpetrator.
The Personal Safety Survey (2005)
Contrasted to the IVAWS study that includes instances of being “put down” 53 years ago as examples of violence against women, there is the far more rigorous Personal Safety Survey (2005), conducted by an organisation of the highest integrity – the Australian Bureau of Statistics. While the PSS does provide lifetime rates – presumably to enable comparisons with these measures from other studies such as IVAWS
– it also reports on the far more readily understood rates of violence over the preceding 12 months. A summary of some of its major findings is produced below. Comparisons with the survey’s findings on rates of violence against males are included. Rates of violence in last 12 months
Lifetime rates of physical and sexual violence
While these do not provide a readily understandable estimate of levels of violence in the community, the figures are substantially less than those used in media releases.

Proportion of population who were physically assaulted in previous 12 months (x characteristics of perpetrator).
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, Personal Safety Survey Australia 2005, Commonwealth of Australia

Contextual factors

The involvement of contextual factors in relationship violence such as alcohol & substance abuse is supported by the data from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics (2005). Additionally, the PSS reveals a greater likelihood of experiencing violence for those who are unemployed / under-employed or on other forms of government benefits. This also is supported by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics (2005), who note the 10 areas in NSW with the highest rates of issuing of Apprehended Violence Orders (AVOs) are also those ranking highest on terms of social disadvantage (according to the SEIFA index).
In summary, the PSS 2005 – like a number of other studies – does not offer support for the claims of the White Ribbon campaign, and leads to concern over its intent to over-simplify the realities of social violence. The CEO of UNIFEM has been notified about the problems of their quoted data, and provided with a copy of the PSS, but seems disinterested in using figures from the credible source of the Australian Bureau of Statistics. This is counter-productive not only because it diminishes the credibility of UNIFEM and the White Ribbon campaign, but more importantly because the continuing use of falsely inflated figures unnecessarily increases women’s fear. The inflated figures could also be seen to “normalise” male violence against women. While very few men (probably less than 5%) are perpetrators of any violence against women, these men would believe their behaviour is relatively normal if 30% of women are experiencing partner abuse. A simplistic gender-based explanation of inter-personal violence will also result in more, not less, violence against women, as the inadequate understanding of the dynamics of interpersonal violence leads to misguided interventions.
To reduce violence against women requires frameworks for planning interventions that recognise the reality of inter-personal conflict and contextual factors, including the contributions of poverty and alcohol. Services should target those groups most at risk – young women and men living in situations of social stress and who use alcohol and other substances to excess. The overt rejection of these factors in violence may be attractive to those determined to blame men for all social ills, but does not assist women – or children – at risk of violence. Women’s well-being appears to have become the sacrificial lamb on the altar of the domestic violence industry.
1. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Personal Safety Survey Australia 2005, Commonwealth of Australia. Link.
2. Professor Bruce Headey, Associate Professor Dorothy Scott, Professor David de Vaus, “Domestic Violence In Australia: Are Women And Men Equally Violent”? in International Social Science Surveys Australia, Volume 2, Number 3: July 1999
3. David M. Fergusson, L. John Horwood, And Elizabeth M. Ridder, 2005, “Partner Violence and Mental Health Outcomes in a New Zealand Birth Cohort“ in Journal of Marriage and Family 67 pp 1103–1119
4. FitzRoy, Lee, 2003, ‘The violence of women: Making sense of child abuse perpetrated by mothers’, Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference, February 2003
5. Mouzos, Jenny & Makkai, Toni, 2004, Women’s Experiences of Male Violence: Findings from the Australian Component of the International Violence Against Women Survey (IVAWS), Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra
6. People, Julie, 2005, “Trends and patterns in domestic violence assaults“, in Contemporary Issues in Crime & Justice, No 89, October, NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, Sydney
7. Tomison, Adam, 1996, “Protecting Children: Updating The National Picture” in Child Abuse and Neglect Australia 1994-1995, Child Welfare Series No.16, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, AGPS, Canberra