What They Are Saying…
FYI: I found this in a newsletter of the “Women’s Health Action Trust”, Dec 2006.
Note that it claims women are overwhelmingly the victims of violence. It doesn’t mention that overall in society men are more often victims of violence, and of course it fails to mention at all the many cases of domestic violence victimizing men.
Violence Against Women
As the headlines become swamped with more harrowing tales of violence across all aspects of society it appears that we have lost the focus on violence against women. Father’s rights groups grab attention by blaring music, honking horns, protesting against judges and tell us that they are the victims.
Meanwhile the policy discussion has shifted from domestic violence to family violence taking in an even greater array of violence issues including child and elder abuse. Television and media focus attention on the women who lash out in violence. Violence against women is no longer seen as an issue of power and control but is framed in the discourse of relationships. Fixing the relationship will also fix the violence. It’s time to refocus on the violence perpetrated against women.
Are women no longer victims?
The data shows that women are still overwhelmingly the victims in situations of violence. More than 90% of applicants for protection orders under the Domestic Violence Act 1995 are women and most respondents are men. A recent survey of 2674 ever-partnered New Zealand women revealed that 33-39% have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from their male partner in their life-time. A third of New Zealand men admitted to using at least one form of violence against their female partner at some time in their lifetime. This is supported by overseas data such as the extensive US National Violence Against Women Survey which found that women reported significantly more intimate partner violence than men. Twenty-five percent of women had experienced rape and/or physical assault during their lifetime as contrasted with 8% of men.
Personally and anecdotally those involved in all aspect of the domestic violence field know this to be true. Judge Peter Boshier, principal family court judge, noted that ‘family court judges know that violence is first of all perpetrated by men against women’. The level of violence between partners is stark, it is most often women who are killed. The critical incidents’ reporting that comes through the courts overwhelmingly shows that more severe violence is performed at the hands of men. About half of all murders in New Zealand are domestically related.
Relying on media reporting alone however you may question men’s violence. The media seems to feel the need to mention at every turn that women are capable of being violent towards men. Although we have no doubt that this may occur and that all forms of violence should be condemned, it shifts the dynamic of the debate and makes it more difficult for a woman to receive the protection she needs.
In recent local press coverage of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (White ribbon day) almost all of the coverage came with the caveat that ‘top health researchers accused the Families Commission of ‘being ideologically driven’. This included a full article on David Fergusson and Richie Poulton’s accusations. It appears nearly impossible to mention violence against women without being accused of bias. In the end of 2005 and beginning of 2006 a sharp dialogue erupted in the New Zealand Medical Journal over Janice Giles examination on research claiming women’s violence is equivalent to men’s, prompting a series of replies to the journal.
Ferguson and Richie cowed Families Commission chief executive Paul Curry to back down from his statement on White Ribbon Day in 2005 that ‘almost all family violence is carried out by men on women and children’. His office now says he made a mistake and they have limited the statement by drawing attention simply to the fact that the worst domestic violence is perpetrated by men. It is absolutely shameful if we are not allowed to state the obvious.
The rise of fathers rights groups
Part of the public pressure that diminished the focus on violence against women comes from men’s rights or fathers’ rights groups. Groups such as Jim Bagnall’s Union of Concerned Fathers protest outside of the courts and conferences and turn up at judges homes hounding them and harassing their families to respect ‘father’s rights’. Anne Morris of the University of Adelaide quite rightly points out that these tactics reflect the tyrannical behaviour that many of these same men are accused of domestically. Charlotte Cummings, wife of a family barrister who had the protesters at her house earlier this year commented that they behave like playground bullies. The success of this bullying behaviour is sobering. If an individual’s response to accusations of threatening or harming their partner is to immediately threaten and harass those responsible in the courts it should tell us quite a lot about their modus operandi.
In an attempt to influence court outcomes men have been encouraged to affix blue dots (small stickers) onto all of their court documents so that everyone handling them is aware that they are members of the Union of Concerned Fathers. The September 2001 MENZ newsletter says: ‘We urge all fathers filing anything with the Family Court to place a blue dot on each page which signals that you are not alone and that you are working with others and the court’s handling of your case will be observed.’
Internationally fathers’ rights movements have been successful in capturing media attention through dramatic stunts such as the UK’s Father’s 4 Justice who dress as superheroes and climb prominent sites like Buckingham Palace. The father’s rights movement often accuse the courts and the media of bias in favour of women. The harassment of members of the family court has become a common occurrence in New Zealand. In November [a lawyer’s wife] was charged with assault after spraying the protesters at her home with a hose and throwing rocks at them. In press release she said ‘you left me hugging my sons, and they me, in shock, fear, tears and disbelief. You all have no idea how much pain and ruin the above mentioned had impacted on our lives’
Impact on the courts
Wendy Davis, a family lawyer, has examined the influence of fathers’ rights groups on the Family Court. She contends that these groups have exerted undue influence with frequently unfounded claims. Davis observes that between 1998 and 2004 it became increasingly difficult for women to obtain protection orders without notice.
This reflects the increased pressure and presence of father rights groups since the turn of the millennium. Despite the argument that women use the family courts as a way to extract revenge, Davis notes that very few applications for protection orders fail because of lack of credibility. The claim that large numbers of fathers are being denied access to their children is completely inaccurate. Loss of access after protection orders are generally temporary and very few completely suspend access.
In 2003 the Law Commission suggested that the threshold for the provision of temporary protection orders be raised from ‘harm’ and ‘undue hardship’ to involve ‘substantial harm’ and further that protection orders be put on notice ‘whenever possible’. Davis raises concern that this may result in fewer applications for protection orders. The number of without notice applications which were changed to proceed on notice doubled from 12% to 24% between 1998 and 2001.
In Towns and Scott’s research participants noted the increased influence of fathers’ rights groups on the courts. One men’s programme provider commented ‘I would say that the kind of men’s rights movement has influenced the judiciary, how they look at the orders’. In their interviews with key informants Towns and Scott find that women requesting protection orders are positioned differently then in the past. The request for a protection order is an issue of safety. However, in response to the discourse that has depicted these women as simply vindictive, consideration of protection orders now examines the woman’s motivation.
Much of the slippage in women’s access to protection has been in the shift in discourse from one of power and control to the discussion of relationships. The changing attitude toward protection orders is one by which men have argued that the key issue is the break down of a relationship rather than the abuse of power within that relationship.
In a presentation to the Taking Action to Overcome Violence Conference, Peter Bosher expounded on the benefits of Family Group Conferences. These are meetings that include the perpetrator, the victim and the family or community members thought to be able to influence them. Presumably this would work because the family or community exert peer pressure or shame the perpetrator into better behaviour. Heather Henare, of the National Collective of Independent Women’s Refuges, quickly responded to this idea saying that such a meeting serves to further victimise the woman.
Putting violence in the context of relationship ‘difficulties’, takes the focus off the issues of power, control and violence against women. Too often, it introduces unrelated issues such as the mother’s parenting or domestic abilities.
Where to now
The focus must be brought back to gendered nature of this violence. If we fail to recognise the dynamics of power behind domestic violence we have little chance of addressing the root causes and turning the tide on the 63,000 domestic violence incidents recorded in New Zealand a year.