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7 December 2015 | Roseanna Bricknell, Intern, Australian National Committee for UN Women

Eliminating violence against women is everyone's business, including the business community

In Australia alone, a woman is subjected to domestic or family violence every four minutes,(1) and a woman is killed as result of that violence every week.(2) Of women over the age of 15, one in three has experienced intimate partner violence, one in five has experienced sexual violence, and one in four has experienced emotional abuse.(3) A silent, widely underreported crime, these numbers likely only tell part of the whole story.

Violence against women can take many forms, including physical, sexual, verbal, emotional and financial abuse. The problem is undeniably a gendered one:(4) women are over three times more likely than men to experience violence;(5) the overwhelming majority of violent acts committed in Australia are perpetrated by men;(6) and people of both genders are more likely to be subject to violence of any kind at the hands of a man than at those of a woman.(7)

In fact, violence is the leading contributor to death, disability and illness of women aged 15-44.(8) That is, merely being a woman is a more significant risk factor for a person's health than, for example, smoking or obesity.

This violence, especially at the scale of 'epidemic' proportions in which it is occurring in Australia,(9) is a failure of the rule of law to ensure the equality of women with men in our society and protect women's basic rights.

Regardless of the iteration in which it occurs, violence against women is not only illegal, but a violation of international human rights, particularly those enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.(10) It flies in the face of domestic and family violence legislation operating in all Australian States and Territories,(11) as well as criminal prohibitions on assault, sexual crime and murder.(12) In addition, it offends the spirit of state and federal anti-discrimination and equal opportunity laws.(13)

If Australia's domestic laws and obligations under international treaty so clearly state that the perpetration of an act of violence against a woman is repugnant, why do such acts continue to occur, and why are they happening with such egregious prevalence?

Domestic violence is the gravest human rights abuse happening in Australia today.
- Elizabeth Broderick, Former Sex Discrimination Commissioner

There clearly has been a failure in Australian society to uphold the rule of law. Perpetrators are permitted to break the law with impunity - and all Australians need to join the effort to bring justice to their victims.

Violence against women is everyone's business. But it is especially the business of business - because violence against women is a workplace issue. It occurs not just behind closed doors, but everywhere and even in the workplace. It is also an issue that affects every workplace: most men who perpetrate violence against women are in paid work, as are most women who are victims of violence.(14)

The biggest predictor of whether a woman will be able to escape a violent domestic situation is her economic security.(15) For the majority of victims, the financial power to leave is contingent upon the ability to remain in paid employment. The workplace may also be one of the first places that signs of violence will manifest, or the place that a victim discloses their violent circumstances.

How a workplace responds to the issue of violence against women is therefore a major factor in the safety and survival of any victims in their employ. Workplaces are often a safe haven for women suffering violence, and are best placed to provide immediate and indispensable support.

On a practical level, this could include policies such as family violence leave entitlements, safe disclosure training, provision of security assistance, provision of child care, or any number of additional measures that enable an employee to escape a violent situation while ensuring their safety and ability to remain in employment.

Our institutions need to do better. Governments, churches and large corporates can all work to identify and prevent family and domestic violence.
- The Hon Marise Payne MP, Federal Minister for Defence

In addition to providing responsive support to women who are victims of violence, it is the responsibility of business, as part of the Australian community, to join the effort to eliminate violence against women altogether. And what's more, business has the power to make a real difference.

That is because a big part of the problem in preventing violence against women is the nebulous concept of 'culture'. Hard to pin down and even more difficult to change, culture is effectively the attitudes and behaviours of a critical mass of people.

Currently, Australian culture undervalues women - the evidence is in the numbers. Not only are a third of women subjected to unlawful domestic or family violence, but the workforce participation rate for women is only 65.1 per cent compared to 78.3 per cent for men;(16) the gender pay gap is 17.9 per cent;(17) and women make up only one in five directors of ASX 200 boards.(18) These numbers reflect our attitudes: only one in six men say they would say or do something to express their disapproval if a man told a sexist joke about a woman at work.(19)

Ultimately, it is culturally entrenched gender inequality that creates an environment where men feel that they can abuse women. This inequality itself is contrary to the egalitarian spirit of the rule of law.(20)

Disrespecting women does not always result in violence against women. But all violence against women begins with disrespecting women.
- Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister of Australia

The mechanism by which this occurs was perhaps most eloquently stated by Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull when launching a package of initiatives to combat violence against women earlier this year: that '...disrespecting women does not always result in violence against women. But all violence against women begins with disrespecting women'.(21) He followed it up with an expression of the goal of cultural change, calling for gender inequality and a lack of respect for women to become 'un-Australian'.(21)

This is where business comes in. Work is where most Australians spend many of their waking hours,(22) and workplace policies and practices foster the attitudes, behaviours and values of those who work there.

Business must bring this issue into the open and exercise courageous leadership to build robust, non-violence-accepting cultures. Over time, leadership from the business community on violence against women will become business as usual, and so drive national change in Australian cultural narratives around the roles of men, women and gender in society.

This leadership might manifest in any number of ways: it might look like a 'no-just-joking' policy on sexist comments at work, or providing bystander training for all staff. It might include making referral information for at-risk males available. It might even be non-domestic-violence-specific policies that are geared at promoting female leadership and participation.

As a key point of contact for victims of domestic violence, and a powerful arbiter of cultural standards in the community, business has a significant role to play in eliminating violence against women and upholding the rule of law.

A world without violence against women is a world where women are treated as equals, at work and at home; a world where female contribution enhances global productivity and leads to the flourishing of economies; and a world where the rule of law is strong.

As a critical point of contact for victims of domestic violence, and a powerful arbiter of cultural standards in the community, Australian business has a significant role to play in realising a violence-free nation where disrespecting women is un-Australian and unheard of. Join the charge.


* Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the Australian National Committee for UN Women.

Acknowledgement: This article would not be possible without the opportunity to attend the Australian National Committee for UN Women's 2015 Gender Equity in the Workplace Summit, hosted by the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.

  1. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 'Personal Safety, Australia' (Cat No. 4906.0, 2012).
  2. Tracy Cussen and Willow Bryant, 'Domestic/Family homicide in Australia' (Research in Practice Paper No. 38, Australian Institute of Criminology, May 2015).
  3. Australian Bureau of Statistics, above n 1.
  4. United Nations Population Fund, United Nations Development Fund for Women and Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, 'Combating Gender-Based Violence: A Key to Achieving the MDGs' (March 2005). The United Nations Population Fund and UN Women have recognised that women are disproportionately affected by violence, and that this stems from gender-based disparities of power relationships within families and communities.
  5. Australian Bureau of Statistics, above n 1.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, 'The Health Costs of Violence: Measuring the burden of disease caused by intimate partner violence' (VicHealth, 2004) 10.
  9. Australian Human Rights Commission, 'International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women' (Media Release, 25 November 2014).
  10. Universal Declaration on Human Rights, GA Res 217A (III), UN GAOR, 3rd sess, 183rd plen mtg, UN Doc A/810 (10 December 1948); Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, opened for signature 18 December 1979, 1249 UNTS 13 (entered into force 3 September 1981).
  11. See, eg, Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act 2007 (NSW); Family Violence Protection Act 2008 (Vic); Domestic and Family Violence Protection Act 2012 (Qld); Family Violence Act 2004 (Tas); Domestic Violence and Protection Orders Act 2008 (ACT); Domestic and Family Violence Act 2007 (NT); Restraining Orders Act 1997 (WA); Intervention Orders (Prevention of Abuse) Act 2009 (SA).
  12. See, eg, Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) Part 3. Substantially similar prohibitions operate in all Australian states.
  13. See, eg, Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) s 3; Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic) s 3.
  14. Scott Holmes and Michael Flood, 'Genders at work: Exploring the role of workplace equality in preventing men's violence against women' (White Ribbon Research Series - Preventing Men's Violence Publication No. 7, White Ribbon, 2013) 8.
  15. Kristy McKellar, 'Violence Against Women' (Speech delivered at the 2015 Gender Equity in the Workplace Summit, Sydney, 6 October 2015).
  16. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 'Gender Indicators, Australia' (Cat No. 4125.0, August 2015).
  17. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 'Average Weekly Earnings, Australia' (Cat No 6302.0, May 2015).
  18. Women on Boards, Boardroom Diversity Index (2015): 19.9% of directors of ASX01-200 companies are female.
  19. Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, 'More than ready: Bystander action to prevent violence against women in the Victorian community' (VicHealth, 2012).
  20. See, eg, Paul Gowder, 'The Rule of Law and Equality' (2013) 32 Law and Philosophy 565.
  21. Malcolm Turnbull, 'Women's Safety Package to Stop the Violence' (Speech delivered at Joint Press Conference with Senator the Hon Michaelia Cash, Melbourne, 24 September 2015).
  22. Ibid.
  23. Holmes and Flood, above n 14, 6.