Gendered violence and safety: barriers to justice and possibilities for change
At our November 2020 Quarterly opening plenary, we heard from five speakers on the topic of gendered violence and safety. Christine Robinson, Shannon Oates, Isobel McGarity, Arlia Fleming and Thea Deakin Greenwood all addressed the question: What needs to change in the justice system to improve safety for victims of gendered violence?
Our opening plenary at quarterlies was a powerful discussion about what needs to change to deliver justice and safety for victim-survivors of domestic, gendered and sexual violence. Drawing upon their decades of experience supporting clients – particularly women – who have experienced harm, the speakers shared with us a myriad of systemic barriers to justice, as well as possibilities for healing and change.
Isobel McGarity (Refugee Advice and Casework Service) spoke to the specific issues faced by refugee and migrant women. The deliberate lack of government support for refugees in social welfare and housing exacerbates the impacts of gendered violence. Left without a safety net, refugee and migrant women, who are often dependant on partners for visas and financial support, can be forced into a life-threatening bind: stay in a violent home, or leave and face homelessness. Isobel ended by calling for greater recognition of the unique issues faced by refugee and migrant women, greater community legal education, a holistic approach to service provision, training for court staff and government workers, and critically, access to funded services like Medicare, housing and social security.
Christine Robinson (Wirringa Baiya Aboriginal Women’s Legal Service) spoke about the need for Aboriginal women to have culturally safe, sustainably funded, and community-based services that they can turn to when they are experiencing violence. Aboriginal women are 32 times more likely to be hospitalised due to domestic violence. However, colonisation and racism are alive in the police force and hospital system, which often exhibit a lack of responsiveness, racially profile or disbelieve Aboriginal women, and deny them the support that non-Indigenous counterparts would receive. Christine told us that community-based organisations who are able to think outside of the square – rather that government bureaucracies – are best-placed to centre victims’ desire for safety and build trusting relationships with local communities.
Shannon Oates (Warra Warra Legal Service), who is based in Broken Hill, provided a vital perspective on the unique difficulties that Aboriginal people in rural, regional and remote areas face. Alcohol and drugs are at the centre of most cases that Warra Warra Legal Service deal with, yet the closest rehab centre is in Port Augusta – a 6 hour drive away, in South Australia. Echoing the previous panellists’ concerns, safe housing, local rehab clinics in regional centres, and maintaining communication between services is also vital. As Shannon said, ‘there is no quick fix’, and restorative justice approaches that link people who perpetrate harm up with community mentors, counselling services and proper addiction support offer avenues to address underlying causes of harm.
The panel finished with a thought-provoking presentation from Thea Deakin-Greenwood and Arlia Fleming on restorative justice (Central Tablelands and Blue Mountains Community Legal Centre). The pair spoke about how the criminal justice system continually fails to protect people who have experienced child sexual assault and domestic violence. Particularly for criminalised women, engaging with the police and courts can be a traumatising and stigmatising process that rarely offers healing. Rather than waiting for the current system to change, Thea and Arlia shared with us their vision for The Cicada Project: a survivor-oriented, restorative justice response to sexual violence. The project is guided by a consent-based (non-coercive) model, and begins with a simple question: 'What is it that victims need?' Restorative justice models seek to provide people harmed by sexual and family violence with meaningful justice, accountability and healing; it offers survivors a chance to reclaim control over their lives, and communities a process through which to redress and address harm collectively, so that everyone is safe in the future.
In different ways, every speaker told us that gendered violence is complex, and rigid systems or one-size-fits-all approaches do not adequately address its underlying causes, nor prevent further harm. With the system failing too many women, we all have to get creative to facilitate meaningful justice, healing and safety.