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Charting Landscapes of Violence Against Rural Women
22 / 11 / 2014
This month the Centre for Rural Regional Law and Justice (CRRLJ) of Deakin University released Landscapes of Violence: Women Surviving Family Violence in Regional and Rural Victoria [PDF]. The report details experiences of and outcomes for women and children survivors of family violence in regional and rural Victoria. Funded by the Alfred Felton Bequest, ed this report builds on and extends a 2013 CRRLJ study, funded by the Geelong Community Foundation, which explored Women’s Experiences of Surviving Family Violence and Accessing the Magistrates’ Court in Geelong, Victoria.
Report authors Amanda George and Bridget Harris have provided this summary of their work for Sheilas readers – many thanks to them both for contributing this important research and work.
By Amanda George and Bridget Harris
Full Report (PDF) available here.
In Landscapes of Violence we explore women’s contact with and perception of government agencies (including Victoria Police, the Victorian magistrates’ courts and the Department of Human Services) as well as private and community advocates (legal actors and services, women’s and family violence services) and healthcare professionals. The scope of the report was wider than originally anticipated, but necessary given the ways violence affects all facets of a woman’s life, the many barriers she might encounter and potential channels of assistance she might seek. Indeed, as we advocate, future responses to family violence must be holistic, incorporating a host of government and non-government agencies and the broader community.
Critical to all future responses is consideration of spatial issues, understanding of the impact of location in regards to both the incidence and effects of and responses to family violence. Some of our recommendations require further resources; this is necessary given the incidence, harms and costs of family violence. Family violence impacts the wellbeing, safety and rights of survivors and should, we maintain, be framed as violating legal and social human rights conventions. Using a larger framework to understand family violence, academics and advocates have argued that family violence should actually be understood as a form of ‘intimate terrorism’ and responded to with the same urgency as ‘terrorism’.
Many of our recommendations do not require additional resources, but rather practical and ideological shifts. Videoconferencing technology could be used to connect survivors with Family Violence Liaison Officers, Aboriginal Liaison Officers and Multicultural Liaison Officers not available in their areas. Agricultural Liaison Officers ‘AGLOs’ who already perform community outreach work in rural areas could incorporate family violence into their portfolio. Appreciating the trauma associated with disclosing family violence, particularly in small communities where survivors and perpetrators are more likely to be known by those they seek assistance from, officers could ensure they meet with survivors in private spaces at the station. Ensuring that new magistrate appointments be made with consideration of skills and experience in family violence work that the court undertakes and with an aim to address the lack of gender and cultural diversity in the magistracy is also key to effecting change. It would also align with as opposed to contradicting current government policy in regards to appointments to government boards, statutory bodies and committees. The court event is one of risk for women and children, but the use of remote witness technology as well as staggering FVIO court hearings throughout the Family Violence day list could potentially serve to decrease trauma and increase safety. Many changes that we outline could be easily implemented using existing resources; requiring ideological as opposed to resource commitments.
We elected to use a feminist legal methodological approach in this project; an approach which endeavours to respectfully capture the lived experience of female survivors. Thirty semi-structured interviews with survivors were conducted and researchers acknowledge – not apologetically – that the voices of survivors have been openly privileged. In the past the voices of women who have experienced violence have not always featured in research or inquiries and indeed as women in our study discussed, their voices can be silenced in many ways and spaces, for instance during criminal justice responses. Survivor’s accounts have much to teach us about how violence features in and impacts women’s lives and survivors have strong ideas about how we, as a society, can better prevent and respond to violence. The voices of those involved with preventing and responding to family violence also feature in the report. Researchers conducted semi-structured interviews with nineteen lawyers, twenty-four family violence workers and three magistrates throughout Victoria.
While our study focused on survivors in five (unidentified) regional and rural areas, an extensive consultation phase ensured that the report has state wide and indeed national relevance. A host of government and non-government agencies involved with responding to family violence reviewed draft findings and recommendations. Researchers received oral and written submissions from these organisations – authored and anonymous, formal and informal – which informed the report as well as final recommendations. Contributing organisations have much to offer but their voices do not necessarily feature in public discussions. They are typically over-burdened and under-resourced and so, as they explained, they do not necessarily have the time or the freedom to contribute to such critiques. For these reasons the consultation phase was imperative and, researchers hoped that it has helped to garner support for report recommendations.
The majority of women in our study experienced what we termed ‘lifetimes of violence’. That is, they experienced violence both as children and / or later, as adults in one or more long-term interpersonal relationships. In the context of their lives, violence was frequently normalised; sometimes expected or, women felt it might be warranted. Women and workers suggested that normalisation could lead to a reluctance to seek support because, as survivors explained, ‘[m]y whole life has been domestic violence. I thought that’s what happened in families’; ‘[w]here do you go? … you are used to it’.
Normalisation of violence is not necessarily unique to regional and rural survivors. Neither are difficulties that women identified, in identifying non-physical forms of violence. The Family Violence Protection Act 2008 (Vic) outlines the many forms that violence can take (incorporating, for instance, emotional, psychological and economic abuse) but women and workers alike believe that sometimes police and magistrates did not understand or validate the occurrence and impacts of non-physical abuse. Survivors with disabilities also reported experiencing other forms of violence, including neglect and maltreatment by family members who provided disability support. While again, this is not unique to survivors in metropolitan areas – women with disabilities are more likely to experience violence regardless of their geographic location – like all regional and rural women, they encounter further barriers to seeking support and assistance purely because of where they live.
In addition to causing lingering physical effects, family violence causes emotional and psychological tolls. Survivors often have to continue to associate with their abuser in regards to ongoing family violence and family law matters and matters pertaining to the dissolution of their relationship. Furthermore, family violence can impact mother–child relationships; a mother’s ability to parent; and the health, wellbeing, security and development of a child. The notion of ‘escaping’ violence is, for many, tenuous at best.
Perhaps the most significant hurdle facing regional and rural women is ‘isolation’. Geographic isolation: the distance between a survivor’s residence and police, medical and informal and formal support services exacerbates risk and reduces opportunities for survivor’s to receive assistance. Beyond the cityscape public transport networks are limited and fragmented, private transport services where they exist are often expensive, and we heard that is not uncommon for abusers to control access to vehicles.
Survivors also talked about ‘social isolation’ as a disincentive to disclosing or formally responding to violence. They spoke of ‘conservatism’, a concept which seemed to be linked to constructs of tradition and patriarchy and unequal power relations that can support the subjugation of women. One survivor talked about her abuser framing his controlling behaviour – his control over finances and who she associated with – as ‘taking care’ of her in an ‘old fashioned’ manner. Workers discussed women being pressured by family and friends to accept abusive behaviour and prioritise ‘keep[ing] the family together’. Such attitudes and constructs of gender are by no means unique to rural communities but can have distinct features and meanings in rural landscapes.
Visibility is a concern for survivors in small communities. Survivors and abusers are more likely to be known by those they seek assistance from and so confidentiality is not assured. It is confronting for survivors because ‘[y]ou keep it [the violence] hidden for years and then going from that to going public is hard’. ‘[I]t’s easy to find women in the country’ and when survivors are more visible to their abuser and people in their abuser’s network, their safety is also less assured. Firearms and homemade weapons are more like to be present in rural locations and as survivors discussed, pose covert and overt threats to women.
There are many reasons it is difficult to leave abusive partners and in regional and rural areas practical obstacles are greater. There are fewer education and employment opportunities and women involved with jointly running small businesses (such as farms) can feel pressured to remain in the home, particularly if leaving is said to jeopardise the survival of the business and financial security and life opportunities of children. The scarcity of alternative and crisis accommodation (and accommodation which is culturally appropriate and tailored for survivors with disabilities) is by no means exclusive to non-metropolitan areas, but is certainly exacerbated in these places.
Unsurprisingly, there is less access to support, health and legal services than in metropolitan places. Specialist services (for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and CALD survivors and survivors with disability) are even harder to access. Advocates have showed great ingenuity in outreach and in connecting with survivors through information communication technologies, although their reach can be limited by resources, catchment areas and the ‘digital divide’.
Technology has great potential for advocates yet it complicates the ways women experience and can respond to violence. In this study, the majority of survivors experienced technology-facilitated abuse and a significant number experienced technology facilitated stalking. These forms of violence are incredibly invasive; survivors are exposed anywhere they access their phone, tablet or computer and so it is spaceless. On a whole, survivors felt police and magistrates failed to adequately recognise or respond to technology-facilitated abuse and stalking which was, for many, a failure of justice. Compounding the issue, because of geographic isolation survivors experiencing this violence are exposed to greater danger and, if frustrated with criminal justice responses they may elect to disengage from information communication technology, losing potential contact with informal and formal supports and extending their social isolation.
In general survivors in regional and rural locations are encounter further challenges when seeking assistance and access to justice and are exposed to greater risk than women in metropolitan locations. We need to understand these boundaries and barriers in order to overcome them.
For more information, check out the full report here.
Amanda George and Bridget Harris (on either side of group) are researchers with the Centre for Rural Regional Law and Justice at Deakin University. They have just released an incredibly comprehensive and important report: Landscapes of Violence: Women Surviving Family Violence in Regional and Rural Victoria. They provide this report summary for Sheilas readers, but we encourage you to download the report in full, here (PDF).