DAY FIFTEEN: Social Action in the 80s –has anything changed?

The late 1970s and 1980s marked a time where it was no longer possible to ignore domestic violence, rape and the sexual assault of children. But is our world a safer place?

Jan Breckenridge and Mailin Suchting

Featured image: “Commemoration of International Women’s Day 2018 at United Nations Headquarters” by UN Women Gallery is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The late 1970s and 1980s marked a time where it was no longer possible to ignore domestic violence, rape and the sexual assault of children. The second wave of the women’s movement emerged alongside other progressive social movements including anti-war/moratorium, gay rights and environmental and anti-nuclear collective actions. 1980’s feminism felt hopeful, and we believed our actions could change our social, political and cultural worlds.

While there was no one feminism or singular political focus, there was a shared commitment to challenge domestic and sexual violence by those of us who saw ourselves as part of the ‘women’s movement’. Analysis of power and gender led to a consistency and diversity of views. In Australia, there were challenges to white middle-class feminists from Aboriginal women, women from migrant and refugee backgrounds and working-class women about their marginalisation on the basis of race, class, culture and ability.

Despite these differences there was still a sense of a woman’s community or communities that contributed to a belief that all things were possible and provided a home for a broad church of political perspectives. We remember women’s cabarets the Freda Stares tapdancing group, the Women’s Choir and a multitude of community festivals and theatre events.

Freda Stares tapdancing group – photo from personal album of Jan Breckenridge

There were actions such as International Women’s Day marches, Reclaim the Night, Women against Rape in War and Women for Survival – Close Pine Gap.

For the first time, women loudly and with passion broke their silence about their experiences about a range of important issues, including gendered violence and abuse. The demand for equal rights was central to feminism and increasingly activists, many of whom spoke from their own lived experience, argued that men’s treatment of women was a central weapon of their subjugation. Again, opinions were divided with liberal feminists arguing that the state was central to any response and other feminist groups arguing that the state was complicit in maintaining structures, attitudes and beliefs that supported the perpetration of gendered violence and did little to address the root concerns.

Collective actions of any kind are never linear or sequential but there are certain issues which benefit from other political actions. Differences were unpacked in working class and middle-class women’s groups.

The focus on child sexual assault as we called it then, followed on from successful collective actions establishing domestic violence and rape as prevalent and serious concerns requiring a response to directly address women’s lived experiences. Women shared their experiences in consciousness raising groups and child sexual assault was raised as an issue that many women had also experienced but felt they could never disclose. When they had tried to tell many of them were not believed or pathologized.

When women started talking, they broke a silence that only gained in momentum. In 1980, The Australian Women’s Weekly, a normally conservative magazine known to reinforce traditional gender roles and stereotypes of women, invited its readership to write in and tell of any unwanted childhood sexual experiences. It was a shock when they received 30,000 responses from their female readers. Feminists in refuges, and rape crisis centres had also been capturing the childhood experiences of women in surveys and groups. This evidence was used to demand changes to legislation, service delivery and even ways of understanding CSA – aligning the impacts with the effects of trauma rather than psychiatric disorders as had previously been the case.

The results of this work were tangible with a proliferation of speakouts, women’s health centres, government policy development, community based incest services, sexual assault services within health systems and as non-government organisations, taskforces, state plans and survivor groups. All of this is documented in one of the first edited books, Crimes of Violence focussed on rape and child sexual assault in Australia.

There is no doubt that these changes established child and adult sexual assault as a serious and prevalent issue. But is our world a safer place?

Between 2013 – 2017 the Commonwealth Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse provided the opportunity for over 8000 survivors to tell of their experiences of child sexual abuse in institutions. Their Final Report made 409 recommendations to better protect children from institutional child sexual abuse and progress is being made to implement these. These recommendations are no doubt, important.

But survivors of child sexual abuse perpetrated in families have not experienced the same attention. Their stories remain untold publicly – despite the family being recognised as a central institution in all cultures. We now have a renewed set of social movements in the digital age including #MeToo and the public disclosures from individual advocates such as Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame, both of whom at some personal expense, have spoken publicly about their unwanted sexual experiences. Some others have produced memoirs to raise the profile of the issue.

Are we at another crossroads? To date the government’s response to these public disclosures has not inspired hope and we are still circling around silences within the institution of the family.

How many more experiences do we need to hear before silence is a thing of the past? When will speaking out put perpetrators on notice and achieve real safety for all?

Authors’ bios:

Jan Breckenridge is a Professor and Head of School of Social Sciences and the Co-Convenor of the Gendered Violence Research Network, UNSW Sydney. She has undertaken extensive work in the areas of gendered violence, with her research oriented towards maximum impact in innovative social policy development, best practice service provision and outcome measurement of effectiveness.

Mailin Suchting is the Manager of the Gendered Violence Research Network, UNSW Sydney. She has extensive practice, management and research experience in the fields of domestic and family violence, sexual assault and child protection.

DAY SIXTEEN: Lifting our voices to end violence against women: the Hummingsong choirs

The Hummingsong Choirs build “community”, bringing together women of all backgrounds and stages in life to sing, laugh, nourish their souls and build close-knit connections. The other important purpose is to extend support to those most vulnerable in the community, women and children escaping domestic violence. 

Picture above: Still from video: “Fix You” by Coldplay, performed by Hummingsong Community Choirs. Arrangement by Dorothy Horn.

Carolyn Thompson

Anna Humberstone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Hummingsong Community Choirs – a 500 strong group of women across 8 acapella choirs in Sydney and most recently Melbourne.  Hummingsong Choirs are committed to quality music making, taking their non-auditioned members on a journey of aiming high and reaching goals that the singers and often audiences never thought possible.

“It’s not just about getting together and having a good old sing.  It’s much more thoughtfully scaffolded to create an environment that takes each member on a journey that is both musically, socially and intrinsically fulfilling” said Anna.  

For Anna the key word is “community”, bringing together women of all backgrounds and stages in life to sing, laugh, nourish their souls and build close-knit connections. The other important purpose of Hummingsong Choirs is to extend support to those most vulnerable in the community, women and children escaping domestic violence.  For Anna “domestic violence bears no social class…it’s a passion of ours to continue working towards zero tolerance for violence against women.” 

For many years Hummingsong Choirs have raised awareness for the Women’s Community Shelters through fundraising at their annual concert. To date Hummingsong Choirs has raised over $200,000 for this cause.  In 2019 Hummingsong Choirs were able to take their passions of singing, community and domestic violence awareness to a world-wide audience by making the semi-finals of Australia’s Got Talent with their stirring arrangement of Somewhere Only We Know by Keane.  

“Somewhere Only We Know” by Keane, performed by Hummingsong Community Choirs at Sydney Grammar School on 21 September 2018. Accompanied by Sydney Grammar School String Sextet & Bill Risby, conducted by Melissa Kenny.

Fast forward to 2020 and the contrast from last year could not be starker. COVID-19 has brought choral singing and its many benefits to an abrupt halt.  As one Hummingsong member puts it, “not being able to sing has had an effect on my happiness, well-being and overall mental health”. The knock-on effect also means that charities such as Women’s Community Shelters who rely on fundraising through the Arts and Entertainment sector are missing out on the community funds they rely on so heavily to survive. 

In the absence of concerts and reality TV exposure, this year Anna forged ahead with a video production of Coldplay’s Fix You as their major fundraising effort.  Over 230 members individually recorded their parts which were then pieced together to create a moving arrangement.  “Singing over zoom is a poor substitute compared to the benefits of singing in choir” Anna said, however the video has managed to raise in excess of $22,700 of a $40,000 target since its mid November release.  

“Fix You” by Coldplay, performed by Hummingsong Community Choirs. Arrangement by Dorothy Horn.

Now that large gatherings at sporting and theatre events are permitted, it’s hoped that choral singing will soon follow. The life-enhancing benefits for those who love choir and the flow-on support it provides to the vulnerable are what lifts a community and makes it stronger. 


Carolyn Thompson joined Hummingsong in 2015 after the death of her mother left her longing for something to provide some comfort and happiness. Unable to read music and not feeling comfortable singing alone, Carolyn was attracted to this non-audition community choir.  She knew at her first visit she had found something very special. Hummingsong provides a welcoming, fun, challenging and inspirational space for women to come together to learn and sing beautiful songs in harmony.  The friendships, sense of belonging and “soul food” elements of choir give Carolyn so much to be thankful for. The choir also gains a greater sense of unity and purpose through their fundraising efforts for charities such as Women’s Community Shelters. 
Carolyn can’t wait for the restrictions preventing Choral singing due to COVID 19 to be lifted so she can be back with her friends doing what they love, and for the choir to continue its work raising funds to support those experiencing violence at home.

Hummingsong Community Choirs can be found at https://www.hummingsong.com.au/

Day Eleven | A calling to account: Suing perpetrators of domestic violence in Australia

Anni Gethin

anni gethin day 11Image of King Street Court House Sydney by Kgbo, used under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license

The costs of being a victim of domestic violence (DV) are huge. Prolonged abuse by a partner results in psychological, physical, and financial devastation. Leaving the abuser brings a set of formidable challenges, including staying safe, impaired capacity to work, sole parenthood, and high risk of poverty and homelessness. DV costs victims and the Australian economy AU$22 billion a year, yet the people responsible – DV perpetrators – are almost never required to pay for the damage they have caused. 

Suing DV perpetrators in civil actions is one way to put accountability back where it belongs, and to bring some measure of just compensation to victims. In Australia, Domestic Violence Redress, a  joint venture between survivor charity, The Brigid Project, and law firm, The People’s Solicitors, aims to make these actions widely available to DV survivors. 

Most people don’t know that suing an abusive ex-partner is even possible, but it certainly is; in 2018, I took legal action against my former partner and obtained an AU$100,000 settlement in DV-related damages. That my case was unusual was obvious from the reaction of the judges during the five interlocutory hearings – they had clearly never seen a similar case. 

Researching the topic, I found there had only been 9 heard cases in Australia where DV survivors had sued the perpetrator (these cases are Jackson v Jackson (NSWSC, 26 March 1999, unreported); Ainsworth v Ainsworth [2002] NSWCA 130; Penn v Caprioglio [2002] VCC 37; Grosse v Purvis [2003] QDC 151; Varmedja v Varmedja [2008] NSWCA 177 Giller v Procopets [2004] VSC 113; [2008] VSCA 236; Elliott v Kotsopoulos  [2009] NSWDC 164; Morris v Karunaratne [2009] NSWDC 346; Cooper v Mulcahy Mulcahy v Cooper [2013] NSWCA 160). Similarly, an international search only found a very small numbers of cases in other common law countries.

I got the idea for suing my ex-partner from the litigious United States, specifically the OJ Simpson civil case – this case suggested that if the criminal system fails you, then you can bring a civil suit. The criminal system had failed me: it was traumatising and disempowering and did nothing to compensate for the debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder that resulted from the abusive and violent behaviour of my former partner, nor the associated loss of income from being unable to work for two years. The criminal process also delivers little to nothing in terms of perpetrator accountability.

Tort law, by contrast, can compel a person or company pay money for the harm they have caused, whether by negligence or on purpose. Tortious harms can occur from events such as a street assault, being defamed, or trespass on your property; tort also applies to some domestic violence behaviour. In Australia, there are around 25 intentional torts. DV victims can potentially use a number of these torts to sue perpetrators, although tort law does not by any means cover the full scope of domestic violence. 

Where there has been physical violence, then the tort of battery is relatively easy to establish as it makes actionable any touching without consent. Battery includes slapping, pushing, punching, hair pulling, sexual assaults, and attacks causing serious injury or disability. It also includes physical contact that is primarily degrading, such as urinating on the victim (see Morris v Karunaratne [2009] NSWDC 346, 3), or pouring beer on her (see Cooper v Mulcahy [2012] NSWSC 373, 204). 

DV perpetrators commonly stop their partners from leaving the house, even tying them up or locking them in the home; these behaviours could result in an action for wrongful imprisonment. Intentional infliction of emotional harm is a tort that potentially makes the more shocking emotional abuseby perpetrators actionable, such as sexually abusing children or slaughtering pets. The tort of deceit brings into scope fraud and financially abusive behaviours, such as forcing a victim to sign loan documents.

There are also torts which I call the ‘stalker torts’, because they enable actions against this common form of DV. Stalking is typically used by perpetrators to control a partner, and to terrorise a victim if the victim attempts to leave. Trespass to land, nuisance, and breach of privacy torts were all used in a landmark Queensland case where the survivor successfully sued an ex-lover who stalked and harassed her for many years (Grosse v Purvis [2003] QDC 151).

There are benefits to bringing an action in torts. Damages payouts can be substantial. The largest payout in the DV cases was $800,000 (in Penn v Caprioglio [2002] VCC 37), with damages in six of the nine DV cases exceeding $150,000. These sums should be compared to the tiny amounts available through victims’ compensation schemes. Civil litigation also puts the survivor in control: it is their case, and they instruct their lawyers. This contrasts with criminal cases in Australia where the victim has no role, and the prosecutor and defence can make deals that effectively erase offences. Importantly too, that of the nine DV cases, the women were from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds. This is not just an action for middle class victims.

Despite the potential benefits, suing the perpetrator is definitely not for every DV survivor. Perpetrators regularly kill and seriously assault their former partners, and civil courts have none of the protections of family and criminal courts. If a defendant has no money, there is no point pursuing damages. The survivor will also have to relive the trauma to make out their claim, and will need to prove injury or loss. Larger damages payouts can only be expected where the victim has experienced substantial physical or psychiatric injury, and/or a large loss of income connected to the DV. 

Even given these limitations, 1 in 4 Australian women are subjected to DV, so there are thousands of viable cases. Domestic Violence Redress aims to start running actions in 2020, with an initial target of 25 cases. These will run on a no-win no-fee basis, and we will establish a fund to cover the initial costs of litigation and any adverse costs orders. Opening up this legal avenue for redress will make an important contribution to compensating DV survivors. It will also profoundly challenge current social expectations of perpetrator accountability.

Dr. Anni Gethin is a health social scientist with an interest in domestic violence law reform. She coordinates The Brigid Project, a peer support charity for survivors of domestic violence, runs a research consulting business, and lectures in public health and criminology at Western Sydney University. Anni holds a doctorate in population health and, to further her interests in law reform, is completing a Juris Doctor at UNSW. Her current research focuses on legal remedies for victims of domestic violence, and perpetrator accountability.