Understanding Domestic Violence

Understanding Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is a subject that most Australians prefer not to think about. However, for many women and children the threat or existence of violence inside their family is great – even more so than outside the family. It is important that the silence surrounding violence in the family be broken. No one deserves to be treated violently no matter what they have done. Everybody has the right to live their life without fear and in safety.

Evidence shows that there is a very high incidence of domestic violence in Australia and that the victims are almost always women. Nationally, it is believed that one in three women, at some time in their lives, will experience some form of domestic violence.


Domestic violence occurs in families from all socio-economic groups and in all cultures. Historically, women and children have been regarded as the property of men with the ownership of women being exchanged at marriage from fathers to husbands.

This social system, in which men have more power than women is described as a ‘patriarchal system’, and gave men the right to rule their ’castles’ and to treat women and children as their possessions. In this system, under the guise of protection, women and children were – and still are – often used and abused. Women were not allowed to own property, to study, to vote, to inherit money or property, and were not considered to have an independent adult legal status. English Common Law, on which Australian Law is based, gave husbands the right to ‘chastise their wives’. In the nineteenth century, British Law still stated that a man could discipline his wife by hitting her with any reasonable instrument, provided it was no thicker than his thumb. The term ‘rule of thumb’ originated from this law.

Today this is no longer acceptable. Women have equal status before the law, and women and children are not legally considered the property of men. However, there still persists a hierarchy of power in that men have more social power than women and adults have more power than children. Old attitudes still prevail. One of the most common examples is the tacit condoning of violence that happens in the home. Attitudes are expressed in statements like:

 ‘…a man’s home is his castle’

 ‘…families must stay together for the children’s sake’

 ‘…she must have provoked it’

‘…you shouldn’t interfere with the family'

‘…husbands have the right to have sex when they want it’

It is attitudes such as these that allow domestic violence, marital rape and incest to occur.

In Australia, the family has been seen as a private haven from the stresses of society. It is believed to be a place of safety and protection from harm to its members. It is also thought that any intrusion by the state authority, or other ‘nosey’ people was and is an invasion of privacy. The strength of these and other beliefs has led to women being reluctant to seek support and also people being reluctant to intervene when problems are occurring.