By Christine Nixon
Not long after I joined the police force in the 1970s, I discovered that three of my friends – all women, all police officers – were being physically abused by their husbands. All three were strong and capable women. They arrested criminals. They protected the public. They handled guns.
I was shocked. I thought if violence could touch the lives of my friends, it could touch the lives of any woman. So for the rest of my life, I have been not only aware of violence and abuse of women and girls, but also working towards solutions.
Life has changed in so many ways since the 1970s, but the violence and abuse against women and girls remains with us. Fifty-two women have been murdered in the past year, the majority by men who were or are their partners.
But it’s not a problem that’s peculiar to Australia. In this country, one in three women reported experiencing sexual, physical, emotional and financial abuse, usually at the hands of a male intimate partner or someone they know. Globally, the figures are broadly the same: one in three. That’s an almost unimaginable number of 1 billion women.
The root of this violence is attitudes which devalue and exploit women and girls which exist throughout the world. Whether or not those attitudes are more common in developing countries than nations like our own is arguable. What is not arguable is that they still exist. And they need to change if we are to end violence and abuse against women and girls. They need to change everywhere.
Change needs to occur at all levels of society: among individuals, among communities and among institutions. Institutional change can often seem tough, but it can certainly be done. When I joined Victoria Police, I realised that our statistics on family violence were very low when compared to my experience in NSW. I commissioned a major review of our response to family violence. The taskforce established to work on the problem came from across the police force, the community, the judiciary and a men’s anti-violence group. Their combined efforts underpinned major reforms in 2004 that transformed the response to family violence across the police, the courts and our service sectors.
Now we are seeing a Royal Commission into Family Violence in Victoria. Violence against women is widely reported and commented on. We clearly have a long way to go but we, as a society, are finally talking about violence against women and girls. As long as we treated just as a family matter, or a personal problem, or it was the victim’s fault, a solution was never going to be possible. Now we can work together to make a real and lasting difference.
But those billion women experiencing violence across the world need that conversation to begin where they live, too. Don’t think for a moment that attitudes cannot change in developing nations. They can, and the change can make a substantial difference for women at risk of domestic violence.
Examples include projects by Plan International in Uganda and Zimbabwe – which happen to be funded by the Australian government. Communities which often accepted or ignored violence against women as a fact of life saw their attitudes challenged through education. While women came to understand and assert their rights, police and the courts were trained to support them.
Just as in Australia, the result has been a transformation in the lives of women. Violence has not yet been eliminated, but it has been acknowledged. We need to go further, to identify the causes and condemn violence and abuse against women and girls. That’s our experience in Australia, and it can and should be our experience around the world.
As this work in Africa shows, Australia has the resources to help that conversation begin at individual, community and institutional levels. But that is just a handful of communities in two countries.
There are countless communities around the world – rich and poor, developed and developing – where violence against women is ignored, unacknowledged, even flourishing.
We need to export our fight against violence and abuse towards women and girls, even as we continue to wage it ourselves. Other countries have much to learn from the changes we have seen in our attitudes since I first joined the police force in the 1970s, and I daresay we have much to learn from their experiences.
The conversations we have together could well prove to be the key to finally ending the scourge of violence and abuse against women and girls.
Christine Nixon APM is a former Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police. She will be speaking at event on ending violence against women and girls at RMIT on August 17. For more information or to attend, visit plan.org.au