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Issue #1685      May 20, 2015

Budget 2015-16

Shelters axed as murder rate soars

Sydney mother Linda Locke was the 34th woman murdered during a domestic violence incident in Australia this year. A woman is hospitalised every three hours because of these attacks, and in NSW nearly half the state’s murders are related to domestic violence.

Despite the rapidly rising rate of violent incidents, the Abbott government’s funding cuts have forced many women’s shelters into full or partial closure, and have crippled the operations of other organisations dedicated to protecting women.

The federal government is considering using location based technology to track frequent domestic violence offenders. It has also reversed a previous decision to cut funding for homeless services. However, the budget’s only positive move was the contribution of $16.7 million to a $30 million domestic violence awareness campaign.

Although welcome, that initiative does nothing to fill the enormous financial gaps left by funding cuts to organisations that run men’s behaviour programs, primary prevention initiatives and crisis and counselling hotline services, as well as community legal centres and organisations providing special services for people from Indigenous and other cultural backgrounds.

Last year the federally-funded phone counselling service 1800RESPECT received about 55,000 calls for help, but 18,631 of them went unanswered because of inadequate resources. Karen Willis, executive officer of Rape and Domestic Violence Australia, which runs the service, has estimated that at least $2 million in extra funding would be required for all the calls to be answered.

Fifteen women’s shelters in NSW are now closed at night because of lack of funding. Many women seeking protection from domestic violence will no longer have access to shelters that specialise in helping victims of domestic violence, and will have to resort to institutions offering shelter to homeless men and women.

And the resources of those institutions are already stretched to the limit. Community group Fair Agenda says that because of funding cuts more than 400 people seeking shelter were turned away every night in the 2013-2014 financial year, and approximately 150,000 people were denied help at community legal centres.

Four shelters in Sydney are now run by Christian charity services. They include Elsie, Australia’s first women’s shelter, which was established in the inner Sydney suburb of Glebe in 1974 and has now been taken over by St Vincent de Paul.

The situation has eliminated the secular and independent character of the shelters, and the religious emphasis of the new management tends to deter some victims who hold other religious views from those seeking their protection.

A number of other support organisations are now depending on the Abbott government’s wafer-thin promises of assistance. Others have closed down or are no longer providing services to domestic violence victims. Staff redundancies are widespread.

The Abbott government offered none of these organisations any help in the recent budget.

Moreover, under the budget restrictions half the nation’s new mothers will lose paid parental leave benefits, and access to childcare benefits will be more restricted. This will add to the financial penalties involved in leaving an abusive domestic environment.

Despite the government’s lip service to addressing the problem, under the current budget arrangements the outlook for victims of domestic violence has become bleaker than ever.

Background to the crisis

The NSW Domestic Violence Committee includes within its definition of domestic violence verbal and psychological abuse, sexual assault, the withholding of money and other resources for support, and the prevention of contact with family or friends. The overwhelming majority of victims are women.

The rate of violent incidents has risen partly because of involvement of the drug “ice”, which can induce particularly savage behaviour in users. However, it also indicates we are only now beginning to understand the extent of the problem.

A spokesperson for 1800RESPECT commented that the rate had risen every year since it started operation in 2010, and that “we have never caught up”.

But there are other reasons for domestic violence. One is the general glamourisation of violence evident in sport, video games and the mass media.

The feudal notion that women are the property of men persists because of the marketing of commodities which depict women as inferior and naturally subordinate to the sexual demands of men, and/or incite violence against women and suggest that sensitivity towards them is unmanly.

Businesses which cater to this market not only respond to the abuse of women, they also contribute to it. And they include some of Australia’s biggest retailers.

After a recent campaign by domestic violence workers and sex workers, Target Australia and K-Mart removed from their shelves copies of the video game “Grand Theft Auto” V, which depicted sex workers being used and then killed to avoid the “heroes” having to pay for their services.

Coles and Woolworths now face protests over their sale of Zoo magazine, which uses photos of young girls lifted from porn sites, and runs promotions for the best shots of the breasts of their male readers’ girlfriends. The magazine offers young men hints about how to ply a girl with liquor and “separate her from the flock”. It suggests: “Then how about you let her know she’s being f***ed? … She’ll like you taking charge like a real man!”

But will the Abbott government take effective steps to stamp out domestic violence at its roots? Don’t hold your breath. The closing of women’s shelters and the effective forcing of women back to abusive households actually suits the outlook of the most reactionary members of the federal coalition, i.e. that a woman’s place is in the home, and in the most servile relationship.

And you can judge Abbott’s position by his remark that “…this idea that sex is kind of a woman’s right to refuse to absolutely withhold, just as the idea that sex is a man’s right to demand … both need to be moderated, so to speak”.

In other words, women don’t have an absolute right to refuse to engage in sex, and in some situations a man may be within his rights to demand it, even against the woman’s wishes.

A good step to tackle domestic violence would be to dump Abbott and the coalition as soon as possible.

Next article – Our Common Asks – What the Federal Budget can deliver for Australia

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