I would like to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and paying my respects to their elders past and present.
I am very pleased to be here today to speak to you about the Australian Human Rights Commission’s work in relation to the elimination of violence against women, and how data and evidence are central to this work. I am going to cover three key issues:
1. The first is the importance of data in making and measuring progress towards gender equality.
2. The second is the need for improved data collection in relation to domestic and family violence-related homicides.
3. And lastly, I will provide an overview of the Commission’s work in this area, including some new findings from our examination of domestic and family violence related homicides in Australia.
As Australia’s National Human Rights Institution, the fundamental role of the Australian Human Rights Commission is to lead the promotion and protection of the human rights of all Australians.
The right to live free from violence is a fundamental and core human right, and yet it is one which is not currently realised for far too many women and girls in Australia.
As Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, addressing this violence is one of my priority areas of work.
It is simply unacceptable that almost 1 in 5 women in Australia will experience sexual violence at some point in their lifetimes, that 1 in 2 women will be sexually harassed and 1 in 4 women will experience violence perpetrated by an intimate partner.
And the fact is that gender inequality lies at the heart of much of this violence.
2 Importance of data
A question I am often asked is how we should approach an issue of this magnitude.
I strongly believe that gathering high-quality data and information about the scale and nature of discrimination faced by people in our community is a critical first step to addressing this problem.
Not only does a strong evidence base highlight what the issues are and who they affect, it enables us to monitor progress towards gender equality over time, identify successful initiatives as well as any barriers to progress for women.
The Australian Human Rights Commission has a significant history of gathering and reporting on evidence about human rights issues in Australia, particularly in relation to gender-based discrimination and violence.
We have produced national studies looking at the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace, pregnancy discrimination, sexual violence in universities and the treatment of women in the Australian Defence Forces.
Having this data and information to rely on provides a basis on which to advocate and make recommendations for change.
What is, of course, the necessary next step is that the evidence is listened to and acted upon. Where we know there is a problem – as we do in relation to violence against women – there is an obligation on governments and the broader community to take steps to address it.
It is also critical that these steps themselves are evidence-based.
The need to act on evidence – in both senses of the phrase – is something which has been recognised as being so important, it was enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, which urges states to exercise due diligence to prevent and investigate acts of violence against women.
One of the key principles underpinning the concept of acting with ‘due diligence’ is a duty to ensure that actions aimed at preventing violence against women are based on accurate empirical data.
In 2006, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women highlighted that, internationally, there was a ‘glaring need’ to establish reliable statistics and indicators concerning violence against women and the effectiveness of interventions designed to prevent it.
Australia is a world leader in terms of data collection in relation to gender-based violence, and gender equality more broadly. Examples of this are:
- the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Personal Safety Survey and the Gender Equality Indicators,
- the National Community Attitudes Towards Violence Against Women Survey, and
- the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s workplace gender equality indicators reporting.
Despite this, we are seeing no significant improvements in rates of violence against women. The Personal Safety Survey results released last year indicated that, despite a reduction in levels of violence overall, rates of sexual violence experienced by women in Australia had remained static over the past 10 years.
In fact, they had even increased slightly since the survey was last conducted in 2012.
The fourth wave of the Commission’s workplace sexual harassment survey is currently in the field and, although I do not yet know the results, I have no reason to expect a reduction in the rates of sexual harassment experienced by Australian women.
The evidence is telling us that our actions are not working.
One significant area where we require a reliable national data set is in relation to domestic violence-related homicides.
Although data from the Australian Institute of Criminology suggests that around one woman a week is killed by an intimate partner, in their most recent report, 20% of homicides occurring between 2012 and 2014 were unable to be classified because no information about the relationship between the victim and offender was collected.
This is a significant information gap.
The Australian Human Rights Commission has a long-standing interest in the area of domestic violence related deaths, having been granted leave to intervene in the Inquest of Andrea Pickett in Western Australia in 2012.
Andrea Pickett was killed by her former partner against whom she had a restraining order. He had repeatedly assaulted and threatened to kill her, and she was terrified of him.
On the night before her death, no safe place could be found for her and her children. She had seven of her 13 children with her – aged between one and sixteen years, and there was no refuge or accommodation service that would take all eight members of the family.
Andrea did not want to be separated from her children because she feared for their safety. Even though there had been multiple breaches of the Violence Restraining Order and police and others were well aware of the danger Andrea was facing, there was no protection for her on the day she was murdered.
Because she was afraid to remain in her home, and had no other options, she stayed at a relative’s house where Mr Pickett was able to find her and stabbed her to death.
At the conclusion of the Inquest into Andrea’s death, the Coroner made a number of recommendations, including that accommodation be provided for women and children who are subject to threats of extreme violence.
Since the 2012 Inquest, the Commission has kept a watching brief on implementation of the Coroner’s recommendations in this case.
Some action has occurred over that period time. In 2015, the WA Government commenced construction of crisis accommodation for women in Perth. While this was a positive development, it came three years after the Andrea Pickett Inquest and six years after her death.
This case highlights the need for formal and timely responses to coronial recommendations to protect women and children from extreme violence.
Perhaps more concerning in recent years has been the proposed or actual withdrawal of funding from Women’s Refuges, Women’s Safe Houses and Aboriginal advocacy services across Australia. Given the findings in the inquest into Andrea’s death, this raises questions about the extent to which coronial recommendations are taken into account in funding decisions.
Domestic and family violence homicides reflect the most serious end of the spectrum of gender-based violence, with women making up the overwhelming majority of victims.
Historically, there has been a tendency to perceive these deaths as tragic, but isolated incidents.
In reality, they are usually preceded by a significant history of escalating physical and non-physical violence, a series of identifiable risk factors and, often, as in Andrea’s case, significant failures on the part of services to intervene effectively or at all.
Behind each homicide is a personal story of tragedy and loss. Examining these deaths collectively, as well as the factors and system failures which precede them, can teach us important lessons.
Currently, this is a function performed in some Australian states by domestic and family violence death review teams. The Commission has identified a need to expand this work to all jurisdictions and to report nationally on findings, to ensure greater awareness among government and policy makers of the particular factors and indicators around domestic violence related homicides.
3 What is domestic and family violence death review
The first domestic and family violence death review team was established in San Francisco in the early 1990’s after a 28 year old woman named Veena Charan was murdered by her ex-husband Joseph.
For over a year before her death, Veena had interacted with various services and agencies in San Francisco, making complaints to police, seeking restraining orders and custody orders. Joseph had repeatedly violated the restraining order and had also made attempts to kidnap the couple’s son.
A restraining order was in force when Joseph murdered her in front of their son at his elementary school.
The fact that this happened so publicly, and that Veena had been killed despite her repeated attempts to seek help, prompted the Commission on the Status of Women to conduct an investigation into service gaps which might exist in relation to domestic violence which might have prevented this case from escalating to a murder.
A review into the factors surrounding Veena’s killing highlighted that there were innumerable structural and systemic failures and barriers which preceded her death.
This review – entitled the Charan report – recommended the establishment of a domestic violence fatality review team which would evaluate responses to individual cases, submit responses and make recommendations for improvements.
Over the past nine years, we have seen the establishment of similar functions in Australia, with the first death review team being founded in Victoria in 2009.
Teams have since been established in most jurisdictions, with the exception of the Northern Territory, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory.
Although the death review teams vary in size and operate slightly differently in each jurisdiction, they share a common function.
They view domestic violence deaths ‘as a connected group’ rather than isolated events.
They operate with the philosophy that recommendations for improvement in systems and services provide opportunities to prevent similar deaths occurring in future.
Death review is a forensic investigation into the complex array of factors leading to domestic and family violence deaths. Death Review Teams look at the circumstances leading up to the death, including the history of service engagement and interactions with government and non-government agencies.
They examine the ways in which systems and services performed when they were most challenged.
Death Review Teams are the only entities to collect data on all domestic violence deaths within a jurisdiction. Using a common definition of domestic and family violence death, they collect categories of data about a range of characteristics.
The Teams review deaths regardless of whether there has been a coronial inquest or not.
Although there is some national data collected and reported on by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Australian Institute of Criminology, neither of these agencies has access to the depth of information that death review teams do.
Death reviews identify patterns of deaths and can detect vulnerable groups or lethality factors. If there are clusters of deaths amongst a cultural group or located in a geographic area, the death review can distinguish trends and recommend action to target services and support to these areas.
For example, available data shows us that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are five times more likely to be homicide victims than non-Indigenous women. Likewise, women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds have particular vulnerabilities in relation to domestic violence.
More research needs to be done to map the trends and patterns of these vulnerabilities. Death reviews can map demographic patterns as well as lethality or ‘risk’ factors.
Recommendations made by Death Review Teams can be directed to all government and non-government agencies with a role in preventing or protecting against domestic violence death.
Some recommendations are published in Coronial findings, public reports and in some jurisdictions, recommendations are tabled in Parliament.
4 Why domestic and family violence death review needs to be national
While Coroners operate in Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory, these jurisdictions do not have established entities to collect death review data on all domestic and family violence deaths.
It is therefore not possible to compare deaths Australia wide.
There is good reason to collate data nationally. Domestic violence does not always fall within jurisdictional borders and families cross borders to escape violence. In an encouraging development, since 25 November 2017, all domestic violence protection orders are automatically recognised and enforceable across Australia.
Death review data that is national in scope may eventually be able to assess the coherence and communication of systems across jurisdictions.
The national picture is also important because federal agencies have contact with victims and perpetrators. Without a federal body, there are limitations on monitoring coronial or death review recommendations made to agencies such as the Federal and Family Courts or Government Departments such as Centrelink.
It may also encourage jurisdictions to learn from one another. For example, where a systemic failure is identified in relation to a death in New South Wales, other states and territories might examine their own policies and procedures to identify whether similar issues exist in their jurisdiction, giving them the potential to address these issues before a homicide occurs.
All of this information is extremely valuable for decision-makers with influence on policy, law, procedures and funding allocations. It has the potential to significantly improve outcomes for victims of family and domestic violence.
Over the past two years, work has commenced to report nationally on this data.
The Australian Domestic Violence Death Review Network was established in 2011 and is made up of members from each of the jurisdictions with a death review function.
To date, the Network has developed a set of principles that underpin the effective functioning of the death review process. In order to create a consistent national approach, newly established Death Review Teams or functions should be guided by the same principles.
They have also developed a Homicide Consensus Statement which defines the inclusion criteria adopted by the Network for domestic and family violence homicide as well as a Data
Collection Protocol for use in establishing a national data set.
The Network will publish a report later this year with the first results of their national data set. This is important work and the Network are to be commended for this.
However, they do this work in addition to their existing death review functions, and receive no additional funding or support to perform this function, which impacts on the capacity to report in a regular and timely manner.
5 Recommendations from Commission’s phase one report
In 2016, the Commission released our first report on this issue, which made a total of ten recommendations.
We recommended that the domestic violence death review function be expanded to the jurisdictions where it does not currently exist – the Northern Territory, ACT and Tasmania.
We also recommended that efforts be undertaken by the government to ensure that meaningful national level data is collated so death prevention measures are based on empirical evidence, including evidence from domestic violence death reviews.
In relation to the monitoring of recommendations made, the Commission recommended that the Government establish an entity with a mandate and function to monitor and report on national domestic violence deaths and the implementation of coronial recommendations made to federal agencies.
6 Second phase of the work
In light of these recommendations, the Commission has been asked by the Federal Department of Social Services to conduct a second phase of this work which:
- Brings together and analyses all existing data and recommendations made in relation to domestic violence deaths, and
- Makes recommendations about options for:
- expanding the Death Review function to all eight jurisdictions,
- establishing a national function to collect and report on data and monitor recommendations made.
This work has been funded by the Department under the Australian Government’s National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children.
Over the past 12 months, the Commission has been working with death review teams and conducting research to determine the best way of approaching a national system of death review.
In order to bring together our second report on this topic, we have conducted a desktop review of available coronial findings relating to domestic and family violence related homicides and analysed key themes and recommendations which emerged.
We have done the same for all data and recommendations made in existing death review reports.
We have also identified other existing sources of data about domestic violence deaths from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Australian Institute of Criminology and the National Coronial Information Service.
It is by no means a comprehensive view of the issues. However it is the first attempt to bring together this information to provide a national picture of domestic and family violence related homicides, and contains some important findings.
7 Key findings in relation to domestic and family violence related deaths
I thought I might briefly highlight some of the key findings and system gaps which have been identified as a result of our review.
As I said at the start of this speech, women make up the overwhelming majority of victims of domestic and family violence related homicide.
However, what has also been identified is that the majority of murders of women in Australia can be attributed to family violence related homicides.
The data also indicates that intimate partner homicides make up the majority of homicide deaths which occur in a family or domestic violence context.
Men are, overwhelmingly the perpetrators of intimate partner homicides.
A key finding which highlights the dynamics around violent relationships is that while women who were killed by an intimate partner were most often the primary domestic violence victim in the relationship, in cases of intimate partner homicide where the victim was a male, the deceased was more commonly the perpetrator of domestic violence in the relationship.
A key risk factor in intimate partner homicides was recent separation, or an intention to separate.
We have also examined available data on domestic violence homicides of other family members. Devastatingly, children under the age of 18 are the most likely victims of this category of homicide.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are overrepresented as victims of family and domestic violence homicides. In Western Australia, for example, where 3.3% of the population are Aboriginal, they made up 35% of people who died in domestic and family violence homicides between 2012 and 2017.
Domestic and family violence homicides are also more likely to occur in rural and regional areas – possibly highlighting issues in relation to service gaps and provision in those areas.
Reporting from death review teams can also highlight the presence of particular risk factors prior to a death. Threats of suicide, controlling behaviour and jealousy over a new partner have all been found to be behaviours often exhibited by perpetrators before committing intimate partner homicides.
Our review of recommendations made by coroners and death review teams has highlighted some key systemic failures.
- It is clear that individuals dealing with domestic and family violence victims – such as police, health professionals and even domestic violence workers – do not always have a deep knowledge and understanding of family and domestic violence issues, which can lead to inadequate support being provided to victims.
- It is also evident that sharing of information between services and government departments is often poor, meaning that there is no agency or agencies with a holistic understanding of the nature of violence being experienced.
- The complexity of the legal system can weigh very heavily on victims of domestic violence, who are often relied upon to enforce protection orders in that they are usually the ones required to call the police in the event a breach.
We have all read of the individual stories of these homicides. For example Zahra Abrahimzadeh, who left her husband after more than 20 years of violence and abuse, and just a year later was stabbed to death in front of 300 witnesses inside the Adelaide Convention Centre.
In 2014, Greg Anderson killed his 11-year-old son, Luke Batty, at a cricket ground in Victoria.
In September 2015, a young woman named Tara Brown died of catastrophic head injuries inflicted by her estranged partner and only weeks later on the Gold Coast, Karina Lock was shot and killed by her husband in a restaurant in front of 30 people.
In January this year, British backpacker Amelia Blake was killed by her partner in a murder-suicide in their apartment in inner Sydney.
And just last week we heard reports of what appears to be a horrific family violence homicide in Margaret River, involving the murder of six family members and the suicide of one other.
These are the stories that haunt us, that galvanise public opinion and that prompt political leaders to take action.
These stories also focus public attention on the issue of domestic and family violence homicides and filicides in Australia.
However, it is clear that national data and reporting are key to providing law and policy makers with the information they need to better target services and interventions.
What our review has identified is that many of the service gaps and failures that exist in Australia today echo the findings of the investigation into the murder of Veena Charan in San Francisco almost 30 years ago.
I also think it highlights the importance of undertaking more prevention work to address the attitudes and inequality underpinning this violence.
In 2016, Judge Greg Cavanagh held an inquest into the unrelated deaths of two Aboriginal women, Wendy Murphy and Natalie McCormack, who were killed by their intimate partners in the Northern Territory. Reading his comments, Justice Cavanagh’s frustration is apparent. He said:
Domestic violence is a contagion. In the Aboriginal communities of the Northern Territory it is literally out of control. As a Local Court Judge I witness it most days. As the Coroner I see the terrible lives these women endure and their horrifying deaths.
We are now into the third quarter of The National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010 – 2022.
However, any positive impact on domestic violence in the Aboriginal community is difficult to detect. It is time to take stock. To re-evaluate the strategies dealing with domestic violence in Aboriginal communities.
We must have a national evidence base on which to base actions to address domestic violence homicides.
The Government’s investment in this issue is a recognition of the vital work that coroners and domestic and family violence and child death review teams have done to improve our understanding of domestic homicide.
However the evidence we do have is telling us that what we have been doing is not having a significant impact on the outcomes for women and children who experience domestic violence.
It is critical that we learn the painful lessons arising from past tragedy in order to prevent avoidable deaths in the future.