Community members unite to end domestic violence in the Murraylands

What was striking at a forum in Murray Bridge was not just the scale of the problem, but the number of people committed to finding solutions.

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Committed to solutions are Scott Denny, Suzanne Fuzzard, Abi Catchlove, Belinda Michalik, Lee Prestwood, Linda Martin, Val Braendler, Annette Korzeba and many others. Photo: Peri Strathearn.

High school poet Breanna Hobbs-Dunning’s words stopped time for a few minutes last Thursday in Murray Bridge.

I had to learn how to grow up living in a war that’s called home, never knowing just where to turn for shelter from the storm.

(It) hurt me to see the fear across my mother’s face every time your fists would scare her into her place.

You left your mark in the walls to remind us of those times.

Hearing all the yelling, I would cry in my room, hoping it would be over soon.

Her poem To My Father illustrated vivid, painful reality during a day of action planning by about 80 local campaigners against domestic violence, social and community workers.

Val Braendler’s eyes welled up as she read the poem in the poet’s absence.

The room fell silent.

Almost one in four women in Australia has endured physical violence and/or emotional abuse from a partner since the age of 15, according to Our Watch.

Twenty-eight Australian women have died as a result of domestic violence this year.

SA Police have indicated that they are called out to about three domestic incidents every day in the Murraylands, and that virtually every perpetrator is male.

Local advocates have made it clear, again and again, that this is a problem we need to solve.

How do we solve it, though?

Below are some of the suggestions which came up on Thursday.

Suzanne Fuzzard: Change men’s attitudes

Suzanne Fuzzard, the manager of Murray Bridge youth mental health centre Headspace, said domestic violence stemmed from men’s disrespectful attitudes towards women.

A community-wide attitude shift would take power away from the men who felt like they could take liberties with women’s health and safety, she suggested.

Yes, standing up to misogyny or inappropriate comments was difficult – but it was easier for adults than children.

“(Young people) actually need us to do that,” she said.

“When we hear it, when we see it … actually name it, call it out.

“For young people, it’s healing for them to witness an adult make a stand, for an adult to say ‘that’s not okay, that’s not on’.”

More and more young men were seeking help from Headspace, distressed that their partners had threatened to leave them, she said.

That was an opportunity, she said: not just to help those young men recover their wellbeing, but to help them change their ways.

She called on governments to fund more men’s behavioural programs, as well as emergency accommodation for youth.

Scott Denny: Target repeat offenders

Superintendent Scott Denny, the Murray Mallee district’s top cop since February, said Murray Mallee police would take a zero-tolerance approach to offences against women and children, and would come down particularly hard on repeat offenders.

Crime statistics did not paint a true picture of the problem, he said, but many of the assaults and other offences which appeared in SA Police figures related to domestic abuse in some way.

However, he said he had not seen such commitment to eliminating domestic violence anywhere else in South Australia.

“Everyone’s on the right page,” he said.

“As a policing organisation, it makes our job a lot easier knowing that we’re not working in this space alone.”

He expressed a hope that more survivors of domestic violence would grow confident enough to report their experiences to police, so that offenders could be taken to court.

However, he warned that a lack of available housing meant police were not always able to remove perpetrators from their families – “I can’t just throw someone out on the street”.

He also lamented the closure of the Victim Support Service’s Murray Bridge branch last year.

Katrine Hildyard: Change the law

MP Katrine Hildyard, the state opposition’s spokeswoman for the prevention of family violence, said she was “frustrated, saddened, tired and angry” that it was still a problem in society.

“Women, sadly, continue to be judged for where they are, who they are with, what they are wearing, and continue to feel and be unsafe when they walk to their car, in our parks, at school, and sadly, too often, in their homes,” she said.

She saw legislative reform as one answer, including:

  • Tougher penalties for repeated intervention order breaches

  • Making coercive control a crime

  • Electronic monitoring for people charged with serious domestic violence offences

  • Prohibiting discrimination against anyone experiencing domestic violence

  • Possible changes to the laws around sexual consent

She compared the campaign against domestic violence to the campaigning of the suffragettes who fought for the vote for women more than a century ago.

Now, as then, she said, tireless effort, clear articulation, collective voices, relentless support for one another and deep commitment were required.

Collaboration will keep working on a complex issue

Other presenters spoke about intervention orders – “it’s better to have them than not” – as well as the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme, through which anyone can find out whether a current or former partner has a history of offending; and domestic violence in Aboriginal and migrant contexts.

The forum at the Bridgeport Hotel was organised by the Murray Bridge Regional Collaboration on Violence Against Women and Children.

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