“My family knows all too well the consequences of a culture that victim-blames”

Having emerged as an impassioned advocate for gender equality and healthy masculinity following the murder of his 23-year-old sister, Nikita, in 2015, Young Australian of the Year Finalist Tarang Chawla reflects on what’s missing from the domestic violence conversation in Australia.

My family knows all too well the consequences of a culture that victim blames or downplays the seriousness of violence against women. When my 23-year-old sister, Nikita, was killed by her partner in 2015, we received a torrent of online abuse further dehumanising her and blaming her for her murder. Niki was killed, as many women are, in the while in the process of separating from her partner. Someone wrote to me days after she was killed: “What did the dumb bitch think he would do? She deserved to get her throat slashed.”

With each new budget the government indicates the worth they place on a woman’s life. This time, the Victorian state government has taken decisive action, committing a record $1.9 billion over four years to fund family violence reforms and service delivery.

Meanwhile, the Federal government has moved to restore $55.7 million funding to the community legal sector, helping to keep women and children safe by abandoning cuts outlined in previous budgets. [Eds’ note: compare that figure to the $50 billion big business tax cut the government did manage to find for the budget…]

Naturally this is welcome funding, but frontline services are only one part of solving Australia’s family violence problem. In a nation where one woman a week is still being killed by a current or former partner, it’s a sad fact that cash alone won’t change the cultural attitudes necessary to keep women and children safe.

In the nine days leading up to Anzac Day, four women were allegedly killed by men they knew, and one remains in hospital in a critical condition. The last of the women who died was a Wangaratta woman, terrorised by her partner as he chased her and her children to a neighbour’s house before killing her with a high-powered rifle.

The Mayor, Ken Clarke, responded to the woman’s death, “We can do without it, especially on the most important day for the city every year – Anzac Day.” Others commented that the man’s violence was “out of character” – except that when men murder women known to them, it’s very rarely their first act of intimate partner violence.

Tara Brown’s murder by her estranged partner Lionel Patea in September 2015 was a chilling example. Ms Brown approached Southport Police seeking a domestic violence protection order, yet she was not taken seriously and the two police officers who handled her initial request have been disciplined for their handling of the matter. Her killer has been sentenced to life in prison.

Attitudes like the ones from Cr Clarke and the police who initially responded to Ms Brown continue to minimise, downplay and evade the seriousness of men’s violence against women. Such comments imply that not all lives are equal and that a woman’s demise under horrific circumstances is no more than an inconvenience on an important day.

To be part of the solution, it’s vital that the media steps up its reporting and challenges these attitudes. In fact, research by Our Watch and Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) about the nature of reporting of violence against women in Australia in 2015, confirms that 15 per cent of reporting implied the victim was in some way responsible for the violence inflicted upon her.

Left unchecked, this culture empowers Cr Clarke to make such comments. Harmful attitudes feed a culture that continues to mistreat women. Lesser pay. Sexist jokes. Street harassment. These upstream factors are the building blocks of more serious forms of violence against women.

The way out from this culture is clear and cash alone won’t ever solve that problem: it’s our collective responsibility to challenge attitudes that condone or perpetuate gender inequality at every level. The longer attitudes such as Cr Clarke’s are normalised, not challenged and called out for what they truly represent, no amount of money will ever be enough to ensure the safety of women and children.

Follow Tarang at facebook.com/thisistarang and on Twitter @tarang_chawla.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.