In December 1999, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly designated 25 November as International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in order to encourage international governments to raise public awareness of the levels of violence experienced by the world’s women. In Australia, this day is marked as White Ribbon Day by the White Ribbon campaign—a national, male-led anti-violence campaign involving various awareness raising events and programs conducted in schools, workplaces and the community.
A UN fact sheet on ending violence against women notes that up to 70 per cent of women globally experience violence in their lifetimes; that violence against women is not confined to any particular cultures or regions; and that this form of violence can harm families across generations. The fact sheet also identifies other forms of violence experienced by some women that can often be hidden and difficult to combat, such as forced female genital mutilation (FGM) or the violence often experienced by victims of human trafficking.
In 2013 the World Health Organization (WHO) published the first systematic international review on the prevalence of violence against women. During the course of the review the authors analysed and collated data from around the world, including Australia, on the prevalence of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence. The review found that violence against women is a violation of human rights affecting more than one third of all women globally. The review concluded that the prevalence of violence constitutes ‘a global public health problem of epidemic proportions, requiring urgent action’.
It is true that women in Australia are not exposed to the same levels of risk as other women in some parts of the world. For example, the 2013 WHO review estimated that 45.6 per cent of women in WHO’s African regional grouping and 40.2 per cent of women in the South-East Asia region experience physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner or a non-partner in their lifetimes. These estimates were much higher than the European regional grouping (27.2 per cent) and the Western Pacific regional grouping which includes Australia (27.9 per cent).
However, this is not to say that women in Australia are not at risk. While most incidents of domestic, family and sexual violence go unreported, making it almost impossible to measure the true extent of the problem, prevalence estimates conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) show that domestic, family and sexual violence in Australia is widespread across all cultures, ages and socio-economic groups and that the majority of those who experience these forms of violence are women. A recently published Parliamentary Library paper, Domestic, family and sexual violence in Australia: an overview of the issues, provides more information on the latest research and statistics around the forms of violence experienced by women in Australia. The overview includes information on the prevalence and the costs of violence against women to communities and to the economy. It also outlines the Australian Government’s policy responses and measures designed to prevent violence against women.
It is well established that the social and economic costs of violence against the world’s women are considerable, posing huge challenges for all governments and all societies, including Australia. The drivers behind the levels of violence experienced by women in Australia and elsewhere are complex and not fully understood, but there is general agreement that gender inequality is a key determinant. Many argue that until community attitudes that trivialise or condone this form of violence are challenged little progress will be made.