DAY FIFTEEN: Does she have a voice? Do we hear her? The silencing of Indigenous women and girls experiences of violence: does it ever change?

It is widely understood that gender-based violence disproportionately impacts Indigenous populations compared to other population groups. Why are their lives not honoured or mourned or valued in the same way?

Kyllie Cripps

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains reference to community members who have died.

It is widely understood that gender based violence disproportionately impacts Indigenous populations in far greater numbers than other population groups (AIHW 2019). Available evidence tells us that Indigenous women are more likely to be the victims of homicide and  be hospitalised for injuries sustained as a result of violence (AIHW 2019, Bricknell 2020).

It is important to recognise that despite these statistics and the devastation that violence has brought to our lives and that of our communities, we have not been voiceless on this issue. There are countless examples dating back decades of Indigenous women speaking up and speaking back to the narratives constructed about our victimhood.

For example, the 1986 Women’s Business Report was the first report to ever consult Indigenous women on a national basis on issues impacting them at the time. It was a landmark report that highlighted issues related to violence, and the findings of that report still resonate with Indigenous women’s experiences today as June Oscar the Social Justice Commissioner so rightly highlights in her Wiyi Yani U Thangani Women’s Voices Securing Our Rights Securing Our Futures report released in 2020.

The problem is that in the public sphere, there have been active choices historically and contemporaneously, made about whether our stories, our voices should be heard.

It is as Professor Marcia Langton so aptly put it at the National Safety Summit in September 2021 “Nobody listens to us. They talk over the top of us”. Examples of this exist in several places. Certainly one only needs to read the powerful text by Distinguished Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson Talkin’ up to the White Woman, now in its 21st year of publication, to see how this has played out throughout our history.

Or contemporaneously to reflect on the 2021 debates on criminalising coercive control where the voices of our women were ‘talked over the top’ even despite us making it plain that the introduction of coercive control laws could detrimentally impact our women and lead to their further incarceration (see Watego, Macoun, Singh & Strakosch 2021). We know this because we have seen the law wielded harshly on our women and we are left to repair its damage.

Taking this a step further, we have seen public vigils, marches in the streets, national displays of mourning, speeches from political leaders decrying the violence inflicted on other women but never our women.

Leaving us to ask: why are our women unworthy of this attention? Why are their lives not honoured or mourned or valued in the same way?

An example of this is the death of Hannah Clarke and her children on the 19 February 2020 – Australia mourned, and our Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared to Parliament that “There are never any excuses – there are none – or justifications for the evil that Hannah and her children experienced – never – not under any circumstances”. Yet, when Aboriginal mother Adeline Yvette Wilson-Rigney was murdered with her two children on the 20th May 2016 there was no similar displays of public outrage. In fact, of the few media articles that were published most focused on blaming Adeline for the death of her children (Cosenza 2021, Dornin 2016, Lee 2016).

This is a common experience, we see the media’s engagement with us as ‘blameworthy victims’ responsible for what has befallen us; or they refer to Indigenous women as angry, aggressive and violent black women; irrespective of context, the harms our women have and continue to endure fail to be seen.

The public fails to empathise with our situations. They fail to support us when we say this is what we need. They in effect silence us. Amy McQuire says ‘silencing often works by not only silencing voices and testimonies of black women but by replacing the ‘silence’ with disclosure that is most palatable to White Australia’. It is most evident in the reporting of what takes place in court rooms, in criminal trials across this country every day.

For example, in the criminal proceedings related to the sexual homicide of Aboriginal woman Lynette Daley, from her death in 2011 through to the conclusion of appeals in 2021 preference was given to hearing and reporting on the offenders version of events in mainstream media outlets (See  Cripps 2021). The headlines during this period were nothing short of sensationalist ‘Rough Sex Death’, ‘Beach sex death – Mum of seven died after a ‘wild, drunken beach sex session’, ‘Review for sex death case’, ‘Woman had seizure after “wild sex”: Court’ (See Cripps 2021).

The devaluing of Indigenous women’s worth but also the exaggerated sexualising of our women’s lives and bodies demeans them to the public. Some might say but this case must of be an anomaly, sadly it is not. In Western Australia there is the case of Stacey Thorne who was also a victim of homicide in 2007. At the time of her death Stacey was 22 weeks pregnant. This matter has been traversing the legal system for 13 years. One element of the media reporting around this case was on the alleged offender’s characterisation of the relationship with the victim as secret, and that it was for the purpose of ‘casual sex’. This focus served to diminish and demean the victim’s reputation when she was no longer alive to say otherwise. It was also contrary to what the victim’s family victim’s family reported and knew of the relationship.

Silencing of Indigenous women has also occurred in trials when they have been charged with killing their partners after experiencing years of domestic violence. Many would remember the case of R v Kina – Robyn was an Aboriginal woman who had experienced years of domestic violence and sexual abuse from her defacto partner. On 20 January 1988 Robyn endured yet another beating but today was different – he threatened to sexually abuse her niece if she did not submit to the sex he was demanding of her. Robyn felt she had few options and she stabbed him. She was charged with his murder, she pleaded not guilty, her trial lasted less than a day. Robyn electing not to give or call evidence. She was then sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour. Her case would later be the subject of a long campaign to have her pardoned given the miscarriage of justice that occurred on the basis of ‘problems, difficulties, misunderstandings and mishaps occurring in the communication of her instructions to her lawyers’.

Many would have hoped we had learned valuable lessons from Robyn’s case, that systems had reformed, and that Indigenous women are heard and actively represented in such cases in the present. Sadly, I cannot say that that is true. In 2015 Jody Gore was sentenced to life with a minimum non parole period of 12 years for murdering her abusive partner in Western Australia. She, like Robyn, had experienced years of abuse at the hands of her defacto partner. What was interesting in this case was that the defacto partner also had mental health issues that the State couldn’t manage and who were relying in Jody to manage despite the threat of violence towards her. When self-defence was raised at trial it was not successful. It took an extensive campaign led by Associate Professor Hannah McGlade, Jody’s family and others to have Jody released pursuant to a royal prerogative of mercy, which revoked Jody’s sentence but not her conviction (See Deathscapes 2016-2020, Douglas et al 2020).  

The institutions referred to in this article are colonial institutions that are not neutral, they are deeply implicated in the continued practice of colonialism and framing of Indigenous women stereotypically, amplifying the precariousness of our lives to the exclusion of all else. They have served to normalise the violence visited upon us. They have also defined who is a worthy victim and who is grievable.

The detachment and indifference with which these institutions engage with the violence that we endure is deplorable. It offers little by way of support to change the status quo. But that is not to say that there is not hope in our women’s stories and futures. Having had the honour and privilege to work with many women over the years, the inspiration and motivation for addressing and responding to gendered based violence is in our communities.

Author’s bio

Kyllie Cripps is a Scientia Fellow and Associate Professor in the Faculty of Law and Justice and Co-Convenor of the Gendered Violence Research Network at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. Kyllie as a Palawa woman has worked extensively over the past twenty years in the areas of family violence, sexual assault and child abuse with Indigenous communities.


DAY THIRTEEN: Teaching sexual and gender-based violence: learning environments and pedagogic dilemmas

What is a safe learning environment and how do we create them? Tereza Valny explores the ethical dilemmas and strategies when teaching about sexual and gender based violence in the classroom.

Tereza Valny

Content note: the following post contains references to sexual and gender-based violence

Featured image: “A Classroom” by DaveFayram is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Sexual and gender-based violence as unavoidable topics

The attention given to the systematic use of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) against civilians and unarmed combatants during times of war and genocide has increased since the 1990s.[1] What has become clear in the last few decades, beginning with close analyses of the case studies of Rwanda and Bosnia, is that SGBV was and is a primary tool of genocide. Rape and other forms of sexual assault are an intrinsic part of dehumanisation and are clear attempts to interfere with the continuity of life in both physical and psychological ways. SGBV has always been a part of armed conflict and, although it tends to disproportionately affect women and girls, the use of sexual violence is so embedded in acts of mass atrocity that it impacts everyone, including men, boys and individuals with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.

As a historian who teaches extensively on the topic of genocide, my courses inevitably examine sexual violence. In addition to the aforementioned Rwanda and Bosnia, the case studies I cover include: the disappearance and murder of Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people in Canada; the use of SGBV in a displacement context in Darfur and with regard to the Rohingya; and the legacies of silence surrounding SGBV after the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, and the Cambodian genocide.[2] But covering these case studies with sexual violence as an intrinsic component creates a space for anxiety, tension and in some instances, distress. So what can we do as instructors to face these inevitable dilemmas that arise from teaching material which has the potential to traumatise and re-traumatise?

Pedagogic dilemmas

Sexual violence is an inescapable reality and it does affect our students. The overall statistics suggest there is a chance that at least 25% of the women in our classrooms have faced some form of SGBV, with transgender assault rates being even higher.[3] Sexual violence against men and boys has been harder to quantify due to under-reporting, but there are many estimates in place both globally and nationally. Therefore, as teachers in a university context, there is a probability of having a victim of SGBV in the classroom. And I do believe that I am ethically obliged to think about anticipating the needs of students affected by these dynamics.

‘Anticipating needs’ can mean different things, but a solid first step is justification. Is the content essential for a deeper historical understanding of the subject? Given how profoundly embedded SGBV is in the history of genocide and mass atrocity, the answer is straightforward. However, this does not mean that students will be unaffected by the material even after an explanation and a content note is given. This potential effectof learning about SGBV has a range of forms, including re-traumatisation.

Trauma, re-traumatisation, and vicarious trauma  

Many victims of sexual violence experience what is known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).[4] If we consider that some of our students are affected by past trauma then we should also think about the relationship between the examples of SGBV covered in class and how that might interact with their own experiences. In particular, for a victim of sexual violence, this exposure can lead to re-traumatisation (or re-experiencing, a part of PTSD). More generally, students being exposed to traumatic content can experience vicarious trauma.[5] Not everything can be accounted for, and spontaneity of reaction to SGBV material does happen, but generating an atmosphere where a tense situation can be addressed effectively is part of a strategy that can be helpful in the classroom and mainly helpful to those affected by the content. These strategies are all part of creating a safe learning environment

Creating a safe learning environment

If the content linked to sexual violence is deemed essential (as is the case with the history of genocide), then the following steps can help to facilitate a safer learning environment: content notes addressing the material’s links to SGBV; thinking about how to react to unplanned disclosure in advance; making sure rape culture is not being (even inadvertently) reinforced by the lesson plans and discussions; having a way ‘out’ for students who do not want to participate (which does not spotlight their experience); and being honest about the material covered from the start while making it clear to students why certain topics have to be covered.[6] These steps matter; in the case of victims, negative social reactions can cause re-traumatisation. If a system is in place to manage situations such as this, then some of this potential damage can be mitigated. This can also include a follow-up, in confidence and at the victim’s discretion, which lets them know what their options are once they have disclosed.[7]

These are just some of the steps that can be taken. As instructors who have made a choice to teach about SGBV, these are steps we must take.

Author’s Bio

Tereza Valny has been a teaching fellow in modern history at the University of Edinburgh since 2017. Tereza’s main current focus of research within genocide studies includes representations of trauma in various mediums. She has recently given a series of talks about landscape, violence, memory and trauma, in relation to post-genocidal spaces. Tereza also teaches several undergraduate and postgraduate courses which focus on witnessing, testimony, trauma and reconciliation related to genocidal events. Part of her recent related activities included a co-running a teaching circle in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology (at the University of Edinburgh) about ‘teaching sexual violence’ as well as organising a seminar on representations of toxic masculinity.


Footnotes

[1] I am using a comprehensive definition of sexual and gender-based violence rooted in international law (namely, the Rome Statute of 1998), because the definition covers the ‘widespread and systematic acts of SGBV as an act of genocide, a war crime and a crime against humanity’: Davies, Sara E. and True, Jacqui (2015). ‘Reframing conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence: Bringing gender analysis back in’, Security Dialogue, 46(6), 495-512, p. 495. An additional breakdown of the term SGBV, taking the definition out of the parameters of armed conflict, is provided by the Médecins sans frontières (MSF), but please note that it includes images as well as graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

[2] By ‘legacies of silence’ I am referring to a lack of survivor testimony, documentation and understanding of the role of SGBV within these genocides partly due to non-existent frameworks for survivors and witnesses.

[3] There is a range of statistical information available where you can read up on global rates and estimates, including: the ONS report for England and Wales; data on violence against women and girls from the UN Women’s report; statistics from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (US-based); the WHO report from 2017; and because I am based in Edinburgh the Scottish government’s latest data compilation for sexual crimes recorded by the police (this does not delineate GBV).

[4] PTSD as a concept has its limits in terms of the centring of the individual in their own healing process, and what this implies (an assumption of resources). However, the term also generates an understanding of what happens to victims of trauma, therefore I have used it in this blog.

[5] There is extensive literature on these concepts, particularly in the field of psychology and social work. I have included a few of these texts: for example: Branson, D. C. (2019). ‘Vicarious trauma, themes in research, and terminology: A review of literature’, Traumatology, 25(1), 2-10; Hernandez-Wolfe, Pilar, et al (2014). ‘Vicarious Resilience, Vicarious Trauma, and Awareness of Equity in Trauma Work’, Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 55(2), 153-172; Ullmann, Sarah E. et al (2007). ‘Psychosocial correlates of PTSD symptom severity in sexual assault survivors’, Journal of Traumatic Stress, 20(5), 821-831; Michalopoulos, Lynn M. & Aparicio, Elizabeth, (2012). ‘Vicarious Trauma in Social Workers: The Role of Trauma History, Social Support, and Years of Experience’, Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 21(6), 646-664; and Finklestein, Michal, et al (2015). ‘Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Vicarious Trauma in Mental Health Professionals’, Health & Social Work, 40(2), 25-31. There are many other informative studies and a vast body of literature on this topic, but I have found these articles to present helpful frameworks for thinking about my own lesson planning.

[6] This is not a comprehensive list of strategies and mechanisms (further guidance is outlined here in the Rosey Project, part of Glasgow and Clyde Rape Crisis). Some of the strategies that I have been consulting were created with the idea of public disclosure in mind, including sensitivities to different gender identities as well as students who face a range of social barriers in relation to disclosure. The point of consensus of this varied literature is to acknowledge the disclosure and not to ignore or ‘brush it off’. Simply being aware of these mechanisms means preparedness, and by extension mitigating potential re-traumatisation. A great article that address types of disclosure in an academic setting and makes suggestions for responses is: Branch, Kathryn A. et al (2011). ‘Professors’ Experiences with Student Disclosures of Sexual Assault and Intimate Partner Violence: How “Helping” Students can Inform Teaching Practices’, Feminist Criminology, 61(1), 54-75.

[7] This obviously varies institutionally; and you may have suggestions that go beyond the institutional structures such as non-profits, community and youth organisations, and other support systems.


DAY THIRTEEN: Opening the Pandora’s Box: Dilemmas in a Course on Family Engagement

In this engaging piece, Monimalika Day writes about encountering pedagogical dilemmas and ethical decisions when listening to oral histories of GBV in the classroom.

Monimalika Day

Featured image: ‘Group of Three Girls’ by Amrita Sher-Gill, source: Wikimedia Commons

A course on families in the department of education is usually designed to enable educators to begin to understand the structures, functions and perspectives of families from various backgrounds. Discussion on developing partnerships with families often focuses on issues of trust, respect, reciprocity and responsiveness.

As a faculty in the field of education one attempts to follow the principles of critical pedagogy “read the word” and “read the world” (Shor & Freire, 1987, p.135). In India and many other parts of the world, the majority of the students in education discipline are women. As our students grapple with these concepts of respect and trust, often stories, memories and narratives of gender violence slowly begin to emerge. A range of experiences are shared, with variations in the degree of violence, the relationship with the perpetrator, the nature of oppression, the site of the violence, each a powerful testimony of dehumanization. However, this approach often challenges the instructor to move beyond the well-defined space of a syllabus and explore uncharted waters.

The instructor introduces students to some of the key terms related to engaging with families and encourages them to reflect on their experiences to make sense of the words.

Respect refers to an acknowledgement and acceptance of the boundaries that exist between persons. Boundaries are markers that simultaneously connect and distinguish one from others…When these boundaries are crossed without permission, that person feels disturbed or even violated. When boundaries are acknowledged and crossed with permission, trust and connection are supported

Shor & Freire, 1987, p. 43

As students grapple with these concepts of respect and trust, often narratives of gender violence slowly begin to emerge. A range of experiences are shared, with variations in the degree of violence, the relationship with the perpetrator, the nature of oppression, the site of the violence, each a powerful testimony of dehumanization.

Is family a safe space?

Family is often assumed to be a safe space, a nurturing environment supported by a network of trustworthy relationships and yet it is the site for many of these violent incidents. One disclosure concerned a woman in her early twenties, who had repeatedly been molested by a cousin in the extended family. Her efforts to fight this had met with failure to find someone willing to support her. An uncle who visits the family found opportunities to molest her too in her home. Issues of gender and economic security interact to create a vulnerable situation. Her circumstances are complicated by the fact that her mother is a widow and does not have a source of income.  So she encourages her daughter to remain silent for fear of facing social isolation, extreme poverty and perhaps a life worse than what they have. This narrative highlights the long struggle of a woman trying to live with dignity in the family in which she is born.

Other narratives focus on the new relationships that women forge through marriage. With great anticipation, a newlywed woman travels with her husband to a secluded resort in the forests for her honeymoon. Her dreams turn into a terrible nightmare as she is tied up and raped by her husband and his friend for three days. She is shocked, dazed and unable to recall the details of this ordeal, which the judicial system demands of women like her. Upon returning to her husband’s home she manages to run away and get support from an ageing father.

However, seeking justice is a long, uncertain and tiring journey. For eight years she struggled to simply get a divorce. No action could be taken against the husband or his family as he lived abroad and managed to exploit the loopholes in the justice system. This was perhaps the most violent narrative that emerged in class. The narratives are uncomfortable both for the instructor and the students, and pose several teaching dilemmas.

The instructor and the students remained silent for a long period of time, no one moved when this story was shared. One could only hear the uncontrollable sobbing of the narrator, and sniffles of other students as they tried to desperately control their tears. It was as if a dark and heavy cloud had settled in the class, and infused a deep sense of helplessness, frustration and anger. The class was extended by an hour but no one left. As the instructor struggled to find words to end the class, the teaching assistant spontaneously began to sing and was joined by others “Ruk jana nahi too kahin haar kei, kato pei chalke milenge saare jahan se” (Do not stop when you face failure, walk on the bed of thorns to meet the world), a popular Hindi film song. Perhaps one can find a voice in the world of arts when the rational world of words fail.

Occasionally, the narratives follow one after another, as the instructor struggles to reflect on the boundaries of the classroom space and her role in facilitating learning. Neither her training, nor a long teaching career has prepared her to process these texts of violence. Critical pedagogy is guided by the principle of “Read the word and read the world.” The instructor attempts to help students make sense of the class readings by connecting it to their lived experiences.

However, sometimes, apparently simple words such as respect and trust open a pandora’s box and the answers to uncomfortable questions about human relationships cannot be found in the class readings. The overarching question that emerges in relation to the course is: Can we assume that family is a safe space? Can we assume any relationship to be safe?

Routinely the instructor refers these students to the counselling centre hoping to hide her feeling of inadequacy. Sometimes they seek counselling and at other times they do not continue therapy. However, often students return to the instructor to continue sharing their challenges and victories. Perhaps the relationship between a teacher and a student provides a safe space for such dialogues to continue as they struggle to have faith in themselves and others. The dialogues and the relationship continue even after students graduate and the frequency only fades with time.

Author’s Bio

Dr. Monimalika Day is Associate Professor, School of Education Studies, Dr B R Ambedkar University Delhi and currently Deputy Director, Centre for Publishing. She has provided technical assistance to various states in India through the Center for Early Childhood Education and Development and has supervised research projects. Her research interests focus on early stimulation, quality of early childhood programmes, preschool education, inclusion of children with disabilities, teacher education and collaboration between schools and families.


DAY TWELVE: ‘It Takes a Global Village to End Gendered Violence’ – Looking back at the ‘International Conference on Violence, Abuse and Women’s Citizenship’

Moment in the making of a global feminist anti-VAW movement – Charlotte James Robertson reflects on The Brighton conference in 1996 and how far the movement has come.

Charlotte James Robertson 

[1]: ‘It Takes a Global Village to End Gendered Violence’

‘Never Give Up’ 

In November 1996, 2,500 people from 137 countries converged on Brighton, England, for the ‘International Conference on Violence, Abuse and Women’s Citizenship’.[1] Those who attended the conference recall it as the remarkable culmination of two decades of feminist activism against gender-based violence. The Chair of the conference’s Steering Group, Jalna Hanmer, described it as ‘emotionally demanding, physically exhausting and exhilarating all at once’.[2] Al Garthwaite, pioneer of the Reclaim the Night movement, described it as ‘one of the most significant weeks in my life.’[3] The Brighton conference covered a multitude of issues effecting women and girls, including rape, sexual assault, harassment, domestic violence, child abuse, forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

International conferences are slowly becoming a possibility again but what are the benefits of this? What did the participants of the Brighton conference value about the experience and how successful was the conference at including the voices of all women working on gender-based violence?  

The Final Programme, Book of Abstracts and Final Conference Report for the International Conference of Violence, Abuse and Women’s Citizenship (1996). The slogan of the conference was ‘Never Give Up’ taken from the cartoon of a girl jumping into the air by Jacky Fleming.
‘A City Full of Women’

Angela Beausang, then chairwoman of ROKS, the National Organisation of Battered Women’s Shelters (refuges) in Sweden, recalled the conference thus: 

‘A city full of women and feminists as well, it was a dream come true. It took me a couple of days to get the hang of finding time for as much as possible… you had to plan your participation very carefully!’[5]

Beausang captured how overwhelming yet exciting it was to share a space with so many passionate women. Learning about what others had achieved gave women a renewed sense of possibility for what could be done in their home countries. As explained,

‘it is conferences like this, where networking on the global level gives women the impetus to persevere in their own communities’.[6] 

Helene Rosenbluth, Radio Documentarian

Another reason for planning participation carefully was the emotionally challenging content of papers and sessions. For example, the effect of armed conflict on women was a significant theme. Testimony from women living in the ‘Former Yugoslavia’ and Afghanistan highlighted war crimes against women, whilst many participants were moved when two women, one Palestinian and one Israeli, took to the stage to discuss their joint refuge provision project. 

An example page from the second day of the conference, demonstrating the range of countries that speakers travelled to Brighton from and the plethora of issues being discussed.
Inclusivity and Protests

The conference programme shows that this was a truly international event that included a diverse range of activist and academic voices. There were panels dedicated to discussing violence experienced by lesbian and disabled women as well as papers that considered the impact of race on experiences of gender-based violence. Patricia Connell, who was a PhD student at the time working on African-Caribbean women’s experiences of domestic violence, noted that the conference speakers and participants tried to widen the scope of the movement and to recognise the diversity of women’s positionality globally.[7] Connell recalled anti-violence advocate and criminologist Beth Richie’s paper, which called for a more contextualized and intersectional analysis of gender-based violence, as a highlight of the conference.

However, while the public memory of the conference is overall a positive one, there is also evidence that some women’s voices were marginalised. For example, there were two protests at the conference, one by a group of Black women and one by a group of disabled women, who felt their concerns were not being adequately addressed. Irish feminist activist Ailbhe Smyth also reported that there were no Black keynote speakers from Britain.[8]

Therefore, while there were discussions of issues affecting marginalised groups, it was disempowering that these were largely in the workshops rather than the keynote papers. It is also revealing that the recollections of the conference I have been able to find all come from European or North American women.

‘A Global Village’

These voices of appreciation and protestation are both important aspects of the way this conference should be remembered. Moreover, these were not binary experiences. Some women who voiced criticisms of the conference still appreciated the opportunity for debate and knowledge exchange. Challenging one another and grappling with uncomfortable issues are important aspects of creating transnational solidarity. The knowledge that there were other people campaigning around these issues could be incredibly reviving for activists who often had little recognition for their work.

Reflection on the more critical perspectives voiced is especially valuable in examining how much progress we have made on these issues since 1996. It is true that intersectionality is a key analytical approach adopted by many activists and academics working on gender-based violence in the present day.

However, LGBTQ+ people, women of colour and disabled women continue to be disproportionately affected by gender-based violence and there is still much work to be done. While the buzz of an in-person conference cannot be replicated, social media and video conferencing have made it easier for people to access and create transnational spaces of exchange. These are important tools for listening to and centring a more diverse range of voices in future projects on gender-based violence.[9]

Author’s Bio

Charlotte James Robertson is a doctoral researcher at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Gender History. Charlotte examines the feminist movement to establish women’s refuges and other services for victims/survivors of domestic abuse. Her thesis is entitled “‘Towards Sisterhood?’ Women’s Aid in Britain and the women’s refuge movement as a transnational endeavour, 1971-1996” and is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Charlotte holds an MA in History from the University of Glasgow and an MSc in American History from the University of Edinburgh. She is the convener of the Hufton Postgraduate Reading Group. Her research interests include transnational and intersectional approaches to the history of feminism, the history of Women’s Aid and oral history. She also works part-time for the National Library of Scotland. You can tweet her @CharJamesR or get in touch: charlotte.jamesrobertson@glasgow.ac.uk 


[1] Title taken from radio documentary created by Helene Rosenbluth. ‘Active Resistance: Domestic Violence Globally’, Hungry Mind Recordings, radio documentary produced by Helene Rosenbluth. (1996). http://www.hungrymindrecordings.com/ProductListing.aspx?Id_Category=44

[2] Postcards from Brighton’, TroubleandStrife, (Summer 1997). 

[3]  Jalna Hanmer, ‘Message of Thanks’, Final Report: Violence, Abuse and Women’s Citizenship, Brighton, UK, 10-15 November 1996, ed. Val Balding, Julie Bindel and Catherine Euler, p.3.  

[4] Al Garthwaite, Postcards.

[5] Angela Beausang, Postcards.

[6] Helene Rosenbluth, ‘Active Resistance: Domestic Violence Globally’, Hungry Mind Recordings, radio documentary produced by Helene Rosenbluth. (1996). http://www.hungrymindrecordings.com/ProductListing.aspx?Id_Category=44


[7] Patricia Connell, Postcards.

[8] Ailbhe Smyth, Postcards.

[9] The women-led volunteer organisation FiLiA have recently won funding to digitise and share audio recordings from the conference https://filia.org.uk/latest-news/2021/1/7/7th-january-2021?rq=brighton

DAY TWELVE: A ‘National Disgrace?’: Notes from a history of domestic violence in Australia

Three Australian researchers are working to understand the significant changes over time in public discourse, legal frameworks and activism to combat domestic violence

Ann Curthoys, Catherine Kevin and Zora Simic

Since at least 2015 in Australia, domestic violence has been a highly visible issue when bereaved survivor of domestic violence, Rosie Batty, was appointed Australian of the Year, and the Royal Commission into Family Violence in the state of Victoria was launched. The Commission’s March 2016 report recommended a multi-faceted approach which prioritises advocating for cultural change around violence. Historical understanding is an essential facet of this cultural change.

We are three historians researching the first national history of domestic violence against women. We begin our project in the mid-nineteenth century when marital cruelty began to feature in changes to separation and divorce laws across the Australian colonies (starting with South Australia in 1857) and we will end with the current ‘shadow pandemic’.

As the feminist historians who first opened up this topic to historical investigation in the 1980s recognised, the prevalence of domestic and family violence is impossible to quantify in both the past and the present given it’s a mostly behind closed doors phenomenon and associated with shame and secrecy.

Silences haunt histories of gendered violence. Yet what is striking is that across the 170-year-period, the most common form of domestic violence – men’s violence against their female partners – has always been visible in some form, including in public discussion about whether it was (and is) a peculiarly ‘national disgrace’.

In the nineteenth-century, the widely used terms ‘wife-beater’ and ‘wife-beating’ placed the stress on the ‘blow’ or the ‘wallop’, and the excessive drinking of the assumed working-class perpetrator or ‘husband’. Sometimes there was recognition that violence could occur in more ‘respectable’ families, and commentators pondered whether ‘wife abuse’ was more rampant in the colonies, or whether, as one 1870 editorial declared, that it was a ‘scandal to all English lands’.

Men wrote about other men under the auspices of condemning ‘wife-beating’ as an uncivilised practice, and a taint on any colonizing and civilising claims – but with scant recognition of the violence of colonialism itself, including against Indigenous women.

Image above: Mary Leunig (1992). [Domestic violence]. Source: https://trove.nla.gov.au/work/179890465?keyword=mary%20leunig. Reproduced with permission.

The terms ‘wife-beating’ and ‘wife-beater’ remained in common usage well into the twentieth-century, maintaining an emphasis on physical violence and the stereotypical ‘wife-beater’, a category which by the post-war period included the ‘migrant wife-beater’. But for some recently arrived migrants from Europe, ‘wife-beating’ appeared distinctively common in Australia – as one German woman told a reporter in 1953, ‘I am often surprised by what Australian women have to bear’.

In Australia, as in the UK and elsewhere, it was women who had experienced gendered violence who brought it to the attention of the Women’s Liberation movement in the early 1970s. Australian feminists were amongst the first to develop the term ‘domestic violence’, inaugurating an enormously generative cultural shift in comprehending its causes, prevalence and features, as well as an entire sector dedicated to addressing it. Yet from its inception, ‘domestic violence’ has been an evolving and contested term, including among feminists. At the first national conference on domestic violence in 1985, refuge worker Dawn Rowan referred to the ‘Criminal assault of women in their homes (euphemistically called domestic violence)’, while Vivien Johnson lamented that the ‘spurious neutrality of “domestic violence”’ distanced the issue and avoided the critique of marriage contained in ‘wife bashing.’

Another speaker at the 1985 Conference, Beverley Ridgeway, represented the ‘Aboriginal women’s viewpoint’. She argued that while on the surface, domestic violence within the Aboriginal community appeared to ‘resemble that within the non-Aboriginal community’, it could not be interpreted or responded to in the same way. As it was an issue, she argued, ‘which traditionally did not exist we can only assume it was another destructive element perpetrated on us by the non-Aboriginal community’. The support she sought was assistance to reduce domestic violence in a ‘manner which is appropriate to us.’ By the 1990s, a clear preference emerged within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities for the term ‘family violence’, encompassing that it does extend family and kinship relations.

For decades now, various data has shown that First Nations women experience family violence at alarmingly higher rates than average.

For at least as long, Indigenous women have drawn attention to the extent of the problem and offered powerful intersectional analyses concerning the consequences of colonisation and the intergenerational trauma that has resulted.

As a recent open letter by Associate Professor Hannah McGlade, Professor Bronwyn Carlson, and Dr Marlene Longbottom made clear, the lack of outrage about the victimisation of Aboriginal women and children signals the ongoing normalisation of this violence. In current discussions surrounding the development of a new National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, First Nations women have called for their own separate National Plan, led by them, as opposed to being included as ‘afterthoughts’ in processes which have thus far failed to deliver.

Australia now faces a paradox that while there has been a significant increase in public awareness of and scholarly knowledge about domestic violence, there has been no reduction in the rates of domestic, family, and sexual violence, even while overall rates of violence have fallen. One of our central tasks as historians is to help account for this situation by taking a long view. We need to understand the significant changes over time in public discourse, legal frameworks, and activism to combat domestic violence as well as just how and why domestic violence has wreaked such enormous damage on women, children, and the society as a whole from the 19th century to the present.

Authors’ Bios

Professor Ann Curthoys (Sydney University) has researched, taught, and published on many aspects of Australian history, and also on questions of feminism, cultural studies, and historical writing and theory. Associate Professor Catherine Kevin (Flinders University) teaches and researches in the fields of Australian history and feminist history, particularly Indigenous-settler relations, the politics and experience of the reproductive body and gendered violence. Dr Zora Simic (UNSW) teaches and researches past and present feminisms, especially but not only Australian; twentieth century Australian history, especially gender history and migration history; and histories of sexuality. This research is part of 2021-2024: ARC Special Research Initiative (SRI) SR200200460, ‘A History of Domestic Violence in Australia, 1850-2020’