Family Violence: The Other Pandemic

Domestic violence is the most frequent type of violence experienced by Australians. Sometimes called intimate partner violence, it’s a form of abuse when a family member, partner or ex-partner attempts to cause harm to another person. It can include physical, emotional and economic abuse, as well as sexual assault, isolation or other forms of coercion. One in four women report that they have been victims of intimate partner violence or stalking by someone they know. These crimes occur in both heterosexual and same-sex relationships.

In diverse communities, domestic violence is further amplified by various barriers, including language, discrimination, past trauma, lack of community support, fear of authorities and lack of understanding of systems that can provide protection.

We recently spoke to Theresa Sengaaga Ssali, Chairperson of the African Women’s & Families Network (AWAFN) and a fearless champion of diversity and inclusion. The AWAFN creates safe and appropriate capacity building contexts for women, children, youth and men to realise their potential.

Since March of last year, family violence incidents in Victoria increased 9.4 per cent to 92,521 cases reported, the highest number on record. Apart from being obviously shocking, what are these numbers telling us? 

All forms of family violence (also called domestic violence) are illegal and unacceptable in Australia. But for women from culturally diverse backgrounds, the situation is even more complex. Their own cultural context and a mix of cultural and social factors within Australia, make culturally diverse women particularly vulnerable to violence. Family violence affects everyone regardless of gender, sexuality, race, religion or age. The rise in numbers shows us we need to do more in addressing the drivers behind this in addition to ensuring all those affected have access to support including the elderly.

Are the numbers higher in diverse communities or is that a myth?

To say numbers are higher in diverse communities would be to minimalize experiences of individuals who don’t fall into this group. However, research from leading multicultural agencies does show that there is a higher level of vulnerability due to various barriers such as fear of backlash, isolation and normalization of gendered based violence. The focus on numbers does not do any justice for those affected by family violence, the focus should really be on prevention. The many years of work in the community tell me that there is still a lack of awareness of what family violence is.

That’s a pretty grim picture. What do you think can be done about this, especially in diverse communities?

We need to shift focus on empowering individuals and communities to prevent all forms of family violence. For any community, family violence is destructive. It can cause physical and psychological harm, particularly to women and children. Family violence is the leading contributor to preventable death, disability and illness among Victorian women aged 15 to 44 years. And it can pass from one generation to the next. Many culturally diverse women come to Australia with physical, mental and sexual health conditions as a result of their experiences of sexual assault, war and conflict, and their time in refugee or detention camps. In addition, men in their communities and the extended family often regard the changes that take place in their family in Australia as undermining their authority and the cohesion of their family and try to reassert their authority by using violence. There is also continued abuse from immediate and extended family

What are the barriers to safety and support for people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds?  

Some behaviours that are considered illegal acts of violence in Australia may be accepted in some cultural contexts, and may go unreported in Australia. This makes it difficult for culturally diverse women to receive the help and support they need. There are many intersecting problems that can prevent them from seeking support and feeling safe. Some examples are:

  • Marital rape – some women may not consider forced sex with their partner to be family violence. Since 2006, around 100 countries have changed their laws to make marital rape a crime but, in practice, in many countries, it continues to go unrecognised and unpunished.
  • Dowry-related violence.
  • The fear of not being believed and accessing services remains a significant barrier for those from CALD backgrounds.
  • Lack of support networks and extended family support as well as fear of becoming isolated from their community.
  • Lack of understanding about Australian law and people’s rights.
  • Limited knowledge about housing, income and support services.
  • Poverty, lack of access to health care or income support and no option to work (if they were sponsored or hold a limited rights visa).
  • Religious communities’ beliefs about separation and divorce.

Given that women and children are the most affected by domestic violence, what may they also be fearful about?

Many women are concerned about risking future Australian residency or entitlements. This is especially common among women on temporary or spouse visas. They may worry about deportation and the risk of worse persecution back in her own country. In some communities, women have expressed concern about the use of interpreters from their community and confidentiality.

Can you tell us about other barriers to reporting family violence?

Typically, some of the barriers include guilt and shame over the sexual violence previously suffered. Language and limited availability of translators or interpreters can also be a significant challenge, especially in rare and emerging communities. Lastly, some women could be reluctant to confide in others. These can manifest itself through discrimination, language and education. For example, simple tasks as making a referral can be problematic due to lack of cultural safe practices where organisations would benefit immensely from working with grassroot organisations and respected community connector/ leaders. Often support services have stringent practices where they don’t allow community support workers to be present or speak on behalf of the victim survivor. This can be problematic as many women from CALD backgrounds lack of the language to explain what the situation is and how they would like to be supported.

What can organisations be doing better to reach out to and support family violence victims, as well as perpetrators, especially from multicultural communities?   

I think mainstream organisations can do a much better job in supporting diverse people experiencing domestic violence. Here are some tips:

  • Engage in co-design practices that promote cultural safety and diversity.
  • Designs that seek to include the expertise of vulnerable communities, victim/survivors.
  • Invest in specific family violence training where front line staff have the confidence and necessary tools to adequately respond.
  • Make additional funding available for ongoing prevention programs that collaborate with grass root initiatives.
  • Ensure all initiatives are flexible in delivery, categorized as an essential service and be developed and led by respected community leaders.
  • Engage more with community connectors/ leaders to pass on languages particular on family violence messaging and information on impact of family violence, for example family violence awareness, explaining the role of police and legal services.
  • Go to where communities gather to disseminate information, don’t just rely on putting your information on online on your website.
  • Develop pathways for professional recognition of community leaders that can provide professional support which would be suitable for court, police interviews, obtaining legal advice etc.
  • Genuinely employ more CaLD social work FV, bi-cultural community connectors/workers and avail them to professional training in FV practices.
  • Employ bi-cultural support workers on an on-call basis to provide additional support to those experiencing FV.
  • Broker co-case management/support services from trusted ethnic community organisations who primarily rely on volunteers and pay for this service/support. FV services should have agreements with a range of CALD community organisations so they can broker these services when needed.

How can governments better utilise the language services industry to support people affected by family violence from multicultural backgrounds?  

Interpreters are crucial in domestic violence support; communities rely heavily on them to relay and understand information. Steps should be taken to ensure availability within all support services where it is not subjected to funding. Interpreters and translation services should be budgeted as part of core operating business. Consideration should also be given to subsidising professional interpreting courses, particular for languages from new and emerging communities. A very important aspect in supporting multicultural backgrounds. Lastly, drawing on the language and cultural expertise of ethnic community organisations who can assist through a (paid) brokerage co-case management or support service is a must for any mainstream organisation.

Watch our full interview about domestic violence with guest speakers Theresa Sengaaga Ssali and Cathy Oddie on Ticker Talks here.