House of Representatives

For over a century, International Women’s Day has recognised and celebrated the achievements of women. And we should celebrate. Women have come so far in spite of the cultural and institutional barriers holding us back. We get a step closer to equality with each year.

But this year I’m not in the celebrating mood. The horrific murders of Hannah Clarke and Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey by their husband and father makes platitudes about female empowerment ring hollow.

At the candlelight vigil held here in their honour last week, we sang Amazing Grace. When words fail, sometimes there is only song. And there were no words that could properly condemn those terrible crimes.

The deaths of Hannah and her children are just one example of this epidemic in our society. As a nurse and midwife, I met countless women experiencing family violence. One in six Australian women has experienced physical or sexual violence by a current or previous partner. Since I last spoke in this place about violence against women exactly two months ago, 24 women have been killed, according to Counting Dead Women Australia researchers. One woman is killed every 9 days. Family violence is as regular as clockwork, and what makes the news is only the smallest tip of the iceberg.

‘Why didn’t she just leave?’ people ask. But for people experiencing family violence, leaving may not feel like much of an option. She might have nowhere to go. She might work part-time or not at all, and her income isn’t enough. Her family might not believe her, and he’s gaslit her into sometimes not believing herself. He’s threatened to post that video, or kill the dog. Leaving can be a risk that involves weighing up the odds on your own life.

If she does leave, there can be a huge financial cost. It costs money to change the locks, break the lease, repair property damage, pay off joint credit cards.  She might need to pay a lawyer, or try her luck with an understaffed and underfunded free service.

Maybe she’ll go to the police. She might wait hours in court, in a queue of women in the same boat, for a scrap of paper meant to protect her. And this is just the beginning. Family violence can have long-term impacts on health, wellbeing, education, relationships and housing.

In my electorate of Indi, we have a fantastic network of services to support women escaping abuse. Their hallmark is their collaborative partnerships which provide a holistic, trauma-informed and client-centric safety net. The Hume Riverina Community Legal Service has embedded a Family Violence Lawyer, Jodie Wells, within the Centre Against Violence in Wangaratta and Wodonga, to help women and children with legal issues including family violence protection orders, family law, property, child support and victims of crime applications.

Other services working hard to support women include Women’s Health Goulburn North East, Ovens Murray Integrated Family Violence Network, Upper Murray Family Care, Gateway Health, Albury Wodonga Aboriginal Health Service, Intereach, YES Unlimited, and Women’s Centre, as well as government agencies, the Courts and Police

The demand on these services is immense. The Family Violence Lawyer is funded for only 2 days per week and she’ll see 20 clients per day. Legal Aid fees are so low that private lawyers lose money doing family violence cases. Without a Victoria Legal Aid office in my electorate, Hume Riverina Community Legal Service is the only provider of on-site free legal advice. Each year they turn away hundreds of people due to capacity and conflict issues. And the number of people accessing services due to family, domestic and sexual violence continues to rise.

Properly funding these services that support women fleeing family violence is absolutely critical. No woman should be turned away, especially given what it takes to get her there. If there’s somewhere to go that can help when they need it, deciding to leave is made easier.

Women have come so far. Only 28 years ago, rape in marriage was still legal in South Australia. Only 15 years ago, the defence of provocation still allowed a man to escape conviction for murdering his wife. Only three years ago, the Me Too movement swept the world.

But the most dangerous place for women is still in the home. I call upon the Government to properly fund these services to improve Australian women’s safety and physical security, and give us something to really celebrate.

[March 2, 2020]

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