Rosie Batty joins family violence experts' calls to prioritise preventing coercive control

© Provided by ABC NEWS Rosie Batty is joining a coalition of family violence organisations and advocates calling for prevention to be at the heart of national solutions to coercive control. (One Plus One)

A coalition of family violence organisations and survivor advocates in Victoria is calling for prevention to be at the heart of national solutions to coercive control — regardless of whether or not it is criminalised. 

For the past two years there has been fierce and at times ugly debate over whether Australian states and territories should introduce laws against coercive control, an ongoing pattern of behaviour abusers use to dominate, isolate and entrap victims and a predictor of severe and fatal violence. 

The debate has frequently spilled across social media, especially after a NSW parliamentary committee in June recommended criminalising coercive control, which it described as a “silent, hidden and deathly pandemic” of “domestic terrorism”.

But some experts are worried another crucial question has been overlooked: How can coercive control be prevented? 

Now Respect Victoria is leading a campaign to help communities better understand what coercive control is and ensure enough is being done — particularly in the next National Plan to end violence against women and children — to stop it from happening in the first place. 

As part of the push, which is being backed by several family violence services as well as former Australian of the Year Rosie Batty, the agency has released a discussion paper that avoids taking a position on legislative change. However, it argues criminalisation alone “will not prevent coercive control as it is an inherently reactive approach”. Primary prevention, it says, is the only way to reduce the overall prevalence of family violence. 

“The key thing that’s missing in this puzzle is prevention,” said Amy Prendergast, acting chief executive of Respect Victoria. “And we think the really interesting part of the conversation about coercive control is: What’s driving so many people to feel so entitled to behave in this way?”

In general, governments focus most of their effort and funding for family violence at the “response” end, Ms Prendergast said — responding to the huge numbers of victims in crisis, holding perpetrators to account. But this can mean primary prevention work — longer term strategies for addressing gendered drivers of violence like social norms and inequality — becomes an “afterthought”. 

“This is not an ‘either/or’. If we don’t have a long-term gaze on prevention, we’re going nowhere fast … we’re going to be in exactly the same situation in 10 years’ time,” she said. “By addressing the attitudes and behaviours that sit behind coercive control — including sexism, ableism, homophobia and colonisation — we can ultimately prevent family violence and violence against women.”

‘It’s almost like you’re in a web’

For Rosie Batty, whose son Luke was brutally murdered by his father at a Tyabb cricket ground in 2014, awareness and education is vital. Even though more Australians now get that family violence is not just physical, she said, few understand what coercive control is — including many victims themselves. 

“Did I truly understand what coercive control was? Possibly not,” Ms Batty said. “And so I think it’s an incredible leap for people who are not specialists in this space, who are still grappling with the reality of family violence, still blaming women, still underestimating how much of an issue this is across our society, still not drawing the link between gender inequality and violence towards women.”

It was only through counselling that she began to identify her ex-partner Greg Anderson’s abuse as coercive control. He punched walls above her head, smashed photo frames, threatened her while she was feeding Luke and was sexually abusive, she said. “But I never really understood the danger I was in, let alone Luke. It took counselling for me to understand I was experiencing violence because he had never hit me.” 

In Ms Batty’s experience, people tend to think of coercive control as another form of violence. “But actually, it’s not another form of violence. It’s almost like you’re in a web … that uniquely ties you to the abuser. And it’s an invisible web, no one else can see it,” she said. “The thing that I learned was … unless there is intervention, and a willingness from the perpetrator to change their behaviour, the violence will continue to escalate, as they continue to tighten their control over you.” 

Ms Batty isn’t “opposed” to the idea of criminalising coercive control, she said. “But at the end of the day, legislation in itself doesn’t fix the problem. There will still be a woman that gets murdered next week, one in three women over 15 will still experience physical violence. And unless we invest in prevention — calling out harmful attitudes, changing behaviours — we will continue to have the same outcomes.”

That’s not to say she doesn’t understand why many Australians believe it should be a crime. “I recognise why many victims of family violence would want this kind of legislation because for them, it’s an acknowledgment of their reality,” she said. “But I also recognise the concerns of organisations working on the front lines … who understand the power of the state, the failings of the justice system, the attitudes of the police.” 

New laws could potentially have serious “unintended consequences”, she said, such as women being misidentified as perpetrators — a particular worry for Aboriginal women, who are already experiencing a national incarceration crisis. “I do think people get impatient — they want results, and they think legislation gives them that,” she said. “But … in my opinion, it won’t have the effect that people hope for, it won’t immediately change our statistics.”

‘Laws alone cannot stop violence’

The topic of coercive control featured prominently in last week’s National Summit on Women’s Safety, with some panel discussions exploring the merits and potential harms of making it a criminal offence. The resulting statement from delegates stressed the need to improve legal responses to coercive control, and urged that the principles of the next National Plan focus on coercive control as “a whole of system” issue. 

But Ms Prendergast said the next National Plan needs to include a “dedicated focus” on prevention. At a “practical level”, she said, that means investing in research to explore who experiences and perpetrates coercive control; creating education and awareness campaigns to improve public understanding of the harms it causes; and developing prevention programs that address the drivers of coercive control in specific communities — First Nations women, LGBTIQ+ people, people with disabilities and those from migrant and refugee backgrounds.

“Primary prevention is a universal approach — it’s about changing the attitudes, beliefs and behaviours that sit behind violence,” said Tania Farha, chief executive of Domestic Violence Victoria and the Domestic Violence Resource Centre, which doesn’t support the introduction of a coercive control offence at this stage

“Irrespective of what happens in the criminalisation space, this is a real opportunity for us to work in primary prevention to stop this behaviour from emerging in the first place,” Ms Farha said. “It’s where we can have a really long lasting impact.”

Of course, it is possible to do both. In its final report, the NSW parliamentary committee that recommended coercive control be criminalised “with safeguards” also recommended the government develop a comprehensive strategy to prevent it. There was broad agreement among inquiry participants, it said, that “Laws alone cannot stop violence against women, and it cannot be left to the police and criminal justice system to address”. It also recommended that targeted awareness campaigns be rolled out “as a priority” — regardless of whether or not a specific coercive control offence is created.

All of this is why Ms Batty has focused her advocacy so determinedly on primary prevention initiatives — programs like Respectful Relationships education, for example, which is being delivered in public schools at the recommendation of the Royal Commission into Family Violence. She has spent years trying to poke holes in the culture of victim blaming, and explaining why victims don’t “just leave”. 

“I think for me, it’s a recognition that, like we did with smoking, we need a long-term strategic plan for how we educate communities,” she said. “Ultimately, coercive control isn’t another form of violence that we’ve just invented … it isn’t because of drinking, it isn’t because of mental health. It’s a combination of tactics used for power and control. So we still need to educate people and understand [that] most of the time … using violence is a choice.”

First Nations, migrant women uniquely vulnerable

While some Victorian family violence organisations and academics are supportive of criminalising coercive control, many are hesitant about or completely against the idea, arguing the potential risks of new laws outweigh the benefits. Some, like Women’s Legal Service Victoria, have noted coercive control is already included in the state’s legal definition of family violence and is a “centrepiece” of the policy environment and reform agenda.

One of the key concerns is how a criminal offence could affect First Nations women, who are much more likely to experience domestic violence than non-Indigenous Australians but less likely to report abuse for a range of complex reasons. Many advocates fear criminalising coercive control would lead to Aboriginal women — who police frequently misidentify as perpetrators — becoming even more enmeshed in the criminal justice and prison systems and even less likely to seek help.

“The conversation around coercive control must be broadened beyond criminalisation,” said Antoinette Braybrook, chief executive of Djirra, which supports Aboriginal people experiencing family violence. “Early intervention and prevention is the solution. Instead of pouring more money into a failed criminal justice system, we want to see investment in community-led responses that we know keep our women safe.”

Djirra has “for years” been advocating for measures that will reduce barriers to reporting violence, Ms Braybrook said, and runs several early intervention and prevention programs.

“Aboriginal Community Controlled family violence specialist programs, such as Djirra’s Young Luv, support young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to understand healthy relationships and recognise coercive and controlling behaviours,” she said. “They also strengthen connections to culture and community, which we know are protective factors against family violence.”

For Adele Murdolo, executive director of the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health, primary prevention is not just about “changing attitudes” that allow violence to flourish, but also making “systemic and structural changes” that increase women’s access to meaningful employment, affordable childcare and housing security.

Some of the migrant women her organisation supports are more vulnerable to coercive control and other forms of violence, she said, because for the first two years after they arrive in Australia, they are ineligible for government support, which means they’re often financially dependent on their partner or family. And many new migrants struggle to find work and build social networks, which can also make it harder for them to leave abusive relationships. 

“So I think one of the things we need to be looking at is, what is it about the systems and structures we’ve placed around migration that makes women more dependent and vulnerable than others,” Dr Murdolo said. “This is really long-term work — it’s whole-of-community, it’s making long-term changes to systems and removing barriers, changing attitudes – and it does take a long time for all those things to come together.

“But unless governments commit to long-term, ongoing, adequate funding for primary prevention … we’re going to continue seeing the same rates of violence and women will keep dying.”

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