What is Domestic and Family Violence?
Domestic and family violence is a pattern of abusive behaviour that involves one person seeking to control and dominate another person. Domestic and family violence is not always physical – it can involve a range of different forms of abuse (see below) (The National Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence and Counselling Service, 2021; Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria, 2021a, 2021). Domestic and family violence is not the same as conflict.
“Family violence refers to a diverse range of abusive and controlling behaviours, physical and non-physical, that make a victim feel fearful, intimidated and often helpless. These behaviours establish and maintain a debilitating imbalance of power relations that violates victims, subverting their autonomy and constraining their lives” (Attorney-General’s Department, 2013).
Domestic and family violence can occur in a range of different relationships including relationships between family members and ‘family-like’ relationships, such as:
- Boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives and partners
- Ex-boyfriends, ex-girlfriends, ex-husbands, ex-wives and former partners
- Parents (or stepparents) and children
- People with disabilities and their carers
- ‘Families of choice’ for LGBTIQ people
- People within cultural kinship networks in multicultural and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities (The National Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence and Counselling Service, 2021; Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria, 2021; Domestic Violence Victoria, 2021).
A word about language
In this article we distinguish between family violence and domestic violence in the following way:
Family violence is as an umbrella term that incorporates any type of violence that occurs between family members, including violence between current and former intimate partners.
Domestic violence is a subset of violence that refers specifically to violence between current and former intimate partners. It is also referred to as ‘intimate partner violence’ (Mission Australia, 2021).
The term ‘family violence’ is used in recognition of the fact that violence can be perpetrated by and against any member of the family, including parents, grandparents, adult children and siblings. Furthermore, the Women and Children’s Family Violence Counselling and Support Programs (Grealy et al, 2008) states that: “the term ‘family violence’ is more culturally relevant to Indigenous communities in which close kinship relationships extend far beyond the nuclear (domestic) family model” (p. 11).
The term ‘domestic violence’ also recognizes that violence can be perpetrated by non-family members, such as carers of people with disability, in the home environment (Grealy et al, 2008).
Domestic and family violence is common in Australia and, indeed, across the world (Safe Steps Family Violence Response Centre, 2021). Globally, more than 640 million women aged 15 and over have experienced intimate partner violence (UN Women, 2021). The most recent statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2021) indicate the following:
- 1 in 6 women (17% or 1.6 million women) in Australia have experienced physical or sexual violence by a current or intimate partner since the age of 15.
- 1 in 4 women (23% or 2.2 million women) in Australia have experienced emotional abuse by a current or intimate partner since the age of 15.
- 1 in 16 men (6.1% or 548,000 men) in Australia have experienced physical or sexual violence by a current or intimate partner since the age of 15.
- 1 in 6 men (16% or 1.4 million men) in Australia have experienced emotional abuse by a current or intimate partner since the age of 15.
Victim or survivor?
People who experience domestic and family violence are often referred to as ‘victims.’ However, advocates see this term as disempowering; many people prefer the term “survivor of domestic and family violence” rather than “victim of domestic and family violence.”
A common term used within specialist domestic and family violence services is ‘victim-survivor.’ We also use the term ‘victim-survivor’ in this article. The term respects people’s choice to identify as either a ‘victim’ or a ‘survivor’ (or both) and also acknowledges that domestic and family violence is a process that involves victimization and survival (Domestic Violence NSW, 2020).
As the statistics above indicate, domestic and family violence is a gendered issue. This means that within intimate partner relationships and family contexts, violence is mainly perpetrated by men against women and children. Domestic and family violence has an unequal impact upon women, and it is the most prevalent form of violence experienced by women in Australia (Toivonen & Backhouse, 2018).
Domestic and family violence in Australia
In countries such as Australia, domestic and family violence was – up until recently – widely viewed as a private issue to be kept within the family. Many people in Australia believed that husbands had a right to ‘reprimand’ or ‘punish’ their wives.
Piper and Stevenson (2019) argue that a range of mainstream Australian values have made it difficult to address the causes of domestic and family violence in Australia. These include the idea that men need to be “physically and mentally tough” – and the valorisation of the “hyper-masculine man.” These ideas and values normalise male aggression. Male aggression has also been viewed as something that women are responsible for managing (Piper & Stevenson, 2019).
The Women’s Liberation movement played a key role in bringing attention to and raising awareness of domestic and family violence (Piper & Stevenson, 2019). During the 1960s and 1970s, women’s groups began to set up refuges for women seeking to escape violence.
Goldsworthy and Raj (2014) state that since the recognition of the concept of domestic and family violence in the 1980s, “the concept of domestic violence and its associated harms has evolved into a complex criminal justice issue” in Australia. Although it began by simply recognising physical violence within married relationships, domestic violence legislation now recognises different types of domestic and family violence within a range of different types of relationships, as well as the far-reaching and diverse harms of domestic and family violence.
Domestic and family violence in Australia is now widely recognised as a significant social problem with serious and harmful effects. Governments at the Commonwealth, state and territory level have implemented legislative and non-legislative measures to respond to domestic and family violence (Attorney General’s Department, 2021). Issues relating to domestic and family violence are acknowledged in the Family Law Act (1975) and the Commonwealth and states/territories share responsibility for laws in place to address domestic and family violence (Higgins & Kaspiew, 2011; Parliament of Victoria, 2021).
A cornerstone of Commonwealth and state and territory governments’ response to domestic and family violence is the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children (2010-2022) (The National Plan), which was endorsed by Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in 2011. The 12-year plan, due to end in 2022, has been delivered through four three-year action plans.
Among the general public in Australia there is also much greater public acknowledgement of the existence and harmful impacts of domestic and family violence than there once was.
“Whilst Family Violence is still happening behind closed doors, the conversations aren’t. We are now having deep, confronting conversations, the ones we really need to have. In the home, workplace, and amongst our political parties.” – Rosie Batty, 2015 Australian of the Year.
Greater attention to domestic and family violence in print and broadcast media, especially in relation to high profile cases of domestic and family violence, continue to draw attention to the existence and reality of domestic and family violence in Australia (Sutherland et al, 2016). Prominent victim-survivor advocates such as Rosie Batty have played a key role in shifting the discourse surrounding domestic and family violence in Australia (Hawley et al, 2017).
Community attitudes towards domestic and family violence are also changing. The latest National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey (NCAS) survey indicates that Australians are less likely to hold attitudes that support violence towards women when compared to 2013 and 2009. Knowledge about domestic and family violence also improved between 2013 and 2017. However, there are also some concerning trends. For example, the latest NCAS survey (published in 2017) indicated that four in ten Australians mistrust women’s reports of sexual violence (Minter et al, 2021).
The increased focus on domestic and family violence will hopefully lead more victim-survivors to seek out support. Therefore, it is important that counsellors are aware of the many different complexities involved in this topic.
Editor’s Note: AIPC soon be releasing an Upskill Micro-Credential on Recognising and Responding to Domestic and Family Violence. AIPC also offers the Graduate Diploma of Relationship Counselling which contains three units about making safety plans, counselling those affected by domestic and family violence, as well as managing responses to domestic and family responses.
- Attorney General’s Department. (2021). Family Violence. Retrieved from: Website.
- Domestic Violence NSW. (2020). Good practice guidelines for the domestic and family violence sector in NSW. Retrieved from: Website.
- Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria. (2021). What is domestic violence? Retrieved from: Website.
- Domestic Violence Victoria. (2021). About Family Violence. Retrieved from: Website.
- Goldsworthy, T., & Raj, M. (2015). We must ensure that domestic violence awareness yields results.
- The Conversation. Retrieved from: Website.
- Grealy, C., Humphreys, C., Milward, K., and Power, J. (2008). Practice guidelines: women and children’s family violence counselling and support program, Department of Human Services, Victoria. Retrieved from: Website.
- Hawley, E., Clifford, K., & Conkes, C. (2017). The ‘Rosie Batty effect’ and the framing of family violence in Australian news media. Journalism Studies, 19(15). doi: 10.1080/1461670X.2017.1343096.
- Higgins, D., & Kaspiew, R. (2011). Child protection and family law… Joining the dots (NCPC Issues No. 34). National Child Protection Clearinghouse, Australian Institute of Family Studies. Retrieved from: Website.
- Minter, K., Carlisle, E., & Coumarelos, C. (2021). “Chuck her on a lie detector” – Investigating Australians’ mistrust in women’s reports of sexual assault (Research report, 04/2021). ANROWS. Retrieved from: Website.
- Mission Australia. (2021). Types of domestic violence abuse. Retrieved from: Website.
- Parliament of Victoria. (2021). Chronology of current family and domestic violence legislation in Australia (Research Note No. 5). Retrieved from: Website.
- Piper, A., & Stevenson, A. (2019). The long history of gender violence in Australia, and why it matters today. The Conversation. Retrieved from: Website.
- Safe Steps Family Violence Response Centre. (2021). Family violence myths and facts. Retrieved from: Website.
- Sutherland, G., McCormack, A., Pirkis, J., Vaughan, C., Dunne-Breen, M., Easteal, P., & Holland, K. (2016). Media representations of violence against women and their children: Final report (ANROWS Horizons, 03/2016). Retrieved from: Website.
- The National Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence and Counselling Service. (2021). Domestic and Family Violence. Retrieved from: Website.
- Toivonen, C., & Backhouse, C. (2018). National Risk Assessment Principles for domestic and family violence (ANROWS Insights 07/2018). Sydney, NSW: ANROWS.
- UN Women. (2021). Facts and figures: Ending violence against women. Retrieved from: Website.