Domestic Violence in Australia - an Overview of the Issues

Current Issues

Domestic Violence in Australia an Overview of the Issues

E-Brief: Online Only issued 7 August 2003, updated by Janet Phillips, September 2006

Dr Kerry Carrington, Analysis and Policy
Janet Phillips, Information/E-links
Social Policy Group


This e-brief is a guide to Internet resources and research on domestic violence in Australia. The e-brief includes a survey of Commonwealth Government programs and initiatives and an overview of the research on the prevalence of domestic violence, at risk groups and communities, the costs of domestic violence to business and the community, and policy approaches designed to prevent domestic violence. Also included are key journal articles, a list of references and links to domestic violence websites in Australia, both government and non-government.

Defining Domestic Violence

Domestic violence occurs when a family member, partner or ex-partner attempts to physically or psychologically dominate or harm the other. According to the Commonwealth s Office for Women (OFW), domestic violence can be exhibited in many forms, including physical violence, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, intimidation, economic deprivation or threats of violence. Domestic violence occurs in all geographic areas of Australia and in all socioeconomic and cultural groups, although domestic violence is a more significant problem for certain groups, such as regional and rural Australia and Indigenous communities.

What Do We Know About Domestic Violence?

As most incidences of domestic violence often go unreported, it is difficult to measure the true extent of the problem. According to a study conducted in 1998 by Carlos Carcach from the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC), Reporting Crime to the Police, most assaults against women where the victim knows the offender go unreported. The 2005 Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Personal Safety Survey, estimates that 36 per cent of women who experienced physical assault by a male perpetrator reported it to the police in 2005 compared to 19 per cent in 1996, and that 19 per cent of women who experienced sexual assault reported it to the police in 2005 compared to 15 per cent in 1996.

The best indicators available to date about the levels of violence against women in Australia are from the 1996 ABS publication Women's Safety Survey and the more recent ABS Personal Safety Survey 2005 that surveyed both men and women. The surveys asked women about their experiences of violence and found that:

  • 5.8 per cent of women had experienced violence in the 12 month period preceding the survey in 2005 compared with 7.1 per cent in 1996
  • 4.7 per cent of these women had experienced physical violence (this includes physical assault and threat of physical assault) in 2005 compared with 5.9 per cent in 1996, and 1.6 per cent had experienced sexual violence (this includes sexual assault and threat of sexual assault) compared to 1.5 per cent in 1996
  • Of the women who experienced sexual violence during the 12 months prior to the 2005 survey 21 per cent had experienced sexual assault by a previous partner in the most recent incident, and 39 per cent by a family member or friend
  • The 2005 survey also showed that of those women who were physically assaulted in the 12 months prior to the survey, 38 per cent were physically assaulted by their male current or previous partner. Of the women who had experienced violence by a current partner, 10 per cent had a violence order issued against their current partner and of those women who had violence orders issued, 20 per cent reported that violence still occurred.

There have also been studies of the relationship between domestic violence and homicides. In Homicide between Intimate Partners in Australia, 1998, Carach and James from the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) found that domestic violence plays a significant role in the lead up to lethal violence, accounting for 27 per cent of all homicides in Australia between 1989 and 1996. Another study by the AIC in 2002, Homicides Resulting from Domestic Altercations, found that the majority of female homicide victims were killed during domestic altercations. In a follow up AIC study, Family Homicide in Australia, Jenny Mouzos and Catherine Rushforth analysed the victim-offender relationships for almost 4500 homicides that occurred in Australia over a 13 year period from 1989 to 2002. The study found that:

  • on average there were 129 family homicides each year, 77 related to domestic disputes
  • that killings between partners/spouses accounted for 60 per cent of all family homicides in Australia, with women accounting for 75 per cent of the victims, and men comprising the majority of the killers
  • that a quarter of the intimate homicides occurred after the partners had separated or divorced.

At Risk Groups

Children and Young People

The 1996 ABS Women's Safety Survey and the Personal Safety Survey 2005 found that violence which occurs between partners may affect the children who also live in the home. The 1996 ABS Women's Safety Survey found that of the women who experienced violence by a current partner, 61 per cent (211 600) reported that they had children in their care at some time during the relationship, and 38 per cent (132 400) said that these children had witnessed the violence. Of the women who experienced violence by a previous partner, 46 per cent said that children in their care had witnessed the violence. The Personal Safety Survey 2005 found that 49 per cent of men and women who experienced violence by a current partner reported that they had children in their care and 27 per cent said that these children had witnessed the violence. Of the people who had experienced violence from a previous partner, 61 per cent reported that they had children in their care at some time during the relationship and 36 per cent said that these children had witnessed violence.

A survey published in 2001 by the Australian Institute of Criminology, Young Australians and Domestic Violence, found that up to one-quarter of the 5000 young people aged 12 to 20 from all states and territories surveyed between 1998 and 1999 had witnessed parental violence against their mother or step-mother. The major findings were that young people of lower socioeconomic status were about one and a half times more likely to be aware of violence towards their mothers or fathers than those from upper socioeconomic households. Indigenous youth were significantly more likely to have witnessed physical domestic violence amongst their parents or parents' partners.

In Economic Costs of Domestic Violence, 2002, Lesley Laing and Natasha Bobic explain the intergenerational dimension of domestic violence:

Child abuse is more likely to occur in families experiencing domestic violence. Children of victims are also at risk of continuing the violence with their own children and partners and at heightened risk of alcohol and drug abuse and delinquency in later life. Impacts can also extend to people not directly experiencing victimisation. Effects can flow on to other children not from families experiencing domestic violence, for example, the effects of bullying or aggression by children of victims. Domestic violence, as with any other form of crime or violence, can also extend to the wider community, for example, by contributing to increased fear of crime.

The 2005 Personal Safety Survey found that the proportion of women and men who experienced physical abuse before the age of 15 was 10 per cent and 9.4 per cent respectively. Women were more likely to have been sexually abused than men. Before the age of 15, 12 per cent of women had been sexually abused compared to 4.5 per cent of men.

The 1996 ABS Women's Safety Survey also found that younger women were more at risk of violence than older women: in the previous 12 month period, 38 per cent of women aged 18 24 had experienced an incident of violence, compared to 15 per cent for women aged 45 and over. In the 2005 Personal Safety Survey this gap seemed to have narrowed though the percentage of younger women experiencing violence had gone down, the percentage of older women had gone up (26 per cent of women aged 18 24 had experienced an incident of violence, compared to 25 per cent for women aged 45 and over).

Rural and Regional Communities

While the data is patchy, research suggests that domestic violence is a significant problem in remote and regional Australia. A report prepared in 2000 for the Commonwealth Department of Transport and Regional Services by the Women's Services Network (WESNET), Domestic Violence in Regional Australia, provides a literature review of some of this research. A Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics (BTRE) publication, About Australia's Regions, 2006, reported that domestic violence rates were highest in very remote Australia, followed by remote and outer regional localities. By contrast, major cities had the lowest rates of domestic violence.

The NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research records rates of Apprehended Violence Orders by Region. In 2004, the latest available statistics, the state average was 100.1 Apprehended Violence Orders (AVOs) per 100 000 population. When broken down into statistical divisions a striking regional discrepancy becomes apparent. Every one of the non-metropolitan statistical divisions in NSW registered AVO rates well in excess of the state average. By comparison, every one of the metropolitan divisions, barring inner-Sydney, had AVO rates considerably lower than the state average.

Indigenous Communities

Indigenous Australians are over-represented as both victims and perpetrators of all forms of violent crime in Australia. Statistics cited in the Australian component of the International Violence Against Women Survey (IVAWS) published in 2004, show that the rate of family violence victimisation for Indigenous women may be 40 times the rate for non-Indigenous women and that despite representing just over two per cent of the total Australian population, Indigenous women accounted for 15 per cent of homicide victims in Australia in 2002 03. However, the survey goes on to state that the current literature on the incidence and prevalence of family violence for indigenous women is limited, making it difficult to draw accurate conclusions.

In 2004 the Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault published a briefing by Monica Keel, Family violence and sexual assault in Indigenous communities. This paper includes some statistics and offers a comprehensive view of the difficulties Indigenous women often face. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission (HREOC) also published Ending family violence and abuse in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities: key issues: an overview paper of research and findings by HREOC, 2001-2006, addressing some of the possible solutions.

A paper from the National Crime Prevention Program, Violence in Indigenous Communities, 2001, outlines the common forms of Indigenous family violence and estimates that the rate of death from interpersonal violence in Indigenous communities is 10.8 times higher than for the non-Indigenous population. Some remote Aboriginal communities are particularly affected by high rates of family and domestic violence. Another report by the Queensland Government released in December 1999, The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women's Task Force on Violence Report, defines the forms of Indigenous violence, discusses the causes and makes recommendations for change. The Task Force consultations revealed that the level of violence in Indigenous communities is much higher than openly acknowledged or reported and that Indigenous victims of domestic assault are more likely to be seriously injured than non-Indigenous victims.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released a new report in November 2006, Family violence among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, outlining the extent of violence in Indigenous communities using information collected from surveys and administrative data collections.

Pregnant Women

The 1996 ABS Women's Safety Survey and the 2005 Personal Safety Survey found that pregnancy is a time when women may be vulnerable to abuse. Of those women who experienced violence by a previous partner, 701 200 had been pregnant at some time during their relationship. While 42 per cent of these women experienced violence during the pregnancy (292 100), 20 per cent experienced domestic violence for the first time while they were pregnant. In the 2005 Personal Safety Survey, 59 per cent (667 900) of women who experienced violence by a previous partner were pregnant at some time during the relationship; of these, 36 per cent (239 800) reported that violence occurred during a pregnancy and 17 per cent (112 000) experienced violence for the first time when they were pregnant.

In 2004 Deborah Walsh and Wendy Weeks published "What a smile can hide: a report on the study of violence against women during pregnancy". This survey of pregnant women at the Royal Women s Hospital in Melbourne found that 20 per cent of women experienced violence during their pregnancy. The report includes international and Australian prevalence studies and research, plus a literature review.

Costs of Domestic Violence

Domestic violence directly affects the victims, their children, their families and friends, employers, co-workers, and has repercussions for the quality of life in a local community. There can be far-reaching financial, social, health and psychological consequences. The impact of violence can also have indirect costs, including the costs to the community of bringing perpetrators to justice or the costs of medical treatment for injured victims.

Economic Costs

While the human impact of domestic violence is difficult to calculate, in a report published in 2000, Impacts and Costs of Domestic Violence on the Australian Business/Corporate Sector, staff absenteeism and replacement costs alone were estimated to cost employers over $30 million per annum while the total cost (including direct and indirect costs) to the corporate/business sector was estimated to be around $1 billion per annum.

In a another study, Economic Costs of Domestic Violence, 2002, Lesley Laing and Natasha Bobic examined the relevant literature, defined the terminology and compare the estimated costs of domestic violence both nationally and internationally. The value of an economic perspective, as this report demonstrates, is that it provides a powerful angle from which to view the consequences of domestic violence and to argue for social policies to improve services and support victims.

In 2004, Access Economics, commissioned by the Office for the Status of Women, released The cost of domestic violence to the Australian economy. This key report estimated that the total annual cost of domestic violence to the Australian economy in 2002 03 was $8.1 billion. The largest contributor was pain, suffering and premature mortality at $3.5 billion. The remaining costs totalled $4.6 billion. The largest part was consumption costs, of which the largest component was lost household economies of scale. The next largest categories were production and administration at $484 million and $480 million respectively.

Social and Health Costs

In Economic Costs of Domestic Violence, 2002, Lesley Laing and Natasha Bobic discuss some of the indirect social and health consequences of domestic violence. These include:

Social and psychological consequences described for victims include anxiety, depression and other emotional distress, physical stress symptoms, suicide attempts, alcohol and drug abuse, sleep disturbances, reduced coping and problem solving skills, loss of self esteem and confidence, social isolation, fear of starting new relationships, living in fear, and other major impacts on quality of life. Immediate impacts often described for children of victims include emotional and behavioural problems, lost school time and poor school performance, adjustment problems, stress, reduced social competence, bullying and excessive cruelty to animals, running away from home, and relationship problems.

Other consequences listed in this report:

  • 69 per cent of the group of Northern Territory domestic violence victims interviewed reported being physically and emotionally exhausted, stressed and depressed to the point of having to stop work for periods ranging from three months to two years and seven per cent were too ill or too exhausted to work permanently.
  • all of the women in the group of Tasmanian domestic violence victims interviewed who had worked during the violent relationship noted they were unable to separate the trauma of their personal life from their work life, resulting in either lost work days or poor performance.
  • all of the group of Northern Territory domestic violence victims interviewed who had worked at some time during the violent relationship reported the high anxiety and feelings of worthlessness greatly affected the quality of their work performance; 97 per cent could not concentrate or performed poorly at work and 93 per cent made more errors at work; seven per cent lost a job because of poor performance due to the violence.
  • in 40 per cent of cases, friends and family of the group of Northern Territory domestic violence victims took time off work to accompany the women to court, to hospital, or to mind her children.
  • four women had in excess of 100 sick days as a result of direct violence or other injuries; one had a year of sick leave due to a back injury caused by her partner; another missed 288 days (over a 16 year period) due to stress caused by the relationship.

In an article in the Medical Journal of Australia, Domestic Violence in Australia: Definition, Prevalence and Nature of Presentation in Clinical Practice, 2000, the authors found domestic violence to be a major public health problem, common in women attending clinical practice.

The 2004 Access Economics report, The cost of domestic violence to the Australian economy, also includes data on the health and social consequences and costs of domestic violence.

Commonwealth, State and Territory Domestic Violence Programs and Strategies

Division of Responsibilities between the States and the Commonwealth

The Commonwealth's role in addressing domestic violence commenced formally with the National Agenda for Women consultations in 1986. Following this in 1987 the Office of the Status of Women (OSW) commenced a three year public education campaign, along with a national survey to gauge community attitudes to violence against women. A follow up survey, Community Attitudes to Violence, was conducted in 1995. The role of the Commonwealth has grown over time, through the implementation of the 1992 National Strategy on Violence against Women, the 1996 Women's Safety Survey, the 2005 Personal Safety Survey, and the Partnerships against Domestic Violence and the Women s Safety Agenda programs detailed below.

The Commonwealth has a role in leading the standard approaches to policy and legislative reform in the states and territories. It also sponsors interagency, as well as interstate and territory cooperation in the development and implementation of best practice models for addressing and preventing domestic violence. The states, not the Commonwealth, have the law enforcement responsibilities in relation to policing and prosecuting instances of domestic violence. Each state jurisdiction has its own laws and policies for responding to domestic violence.

Partnerships against Domestic Violence Strategy

The Commonwealth's Partnerships against Domestic Violence (PADV) initiative, launched at the National Domestic Violence Summit in November 1997, was the main Commonwealth program aimed at addressing the issue of domestic violence (see Prime Minister's Press Release, 7 November 1997) until it was replaced by the Women s Safety Agenda in July 2005. The government committed $50.3 million to funding this initiative, which was released in two stages. The PADV strategy was initially allocated $25.3 million over three and a half years, from 1997 to June 2001. This amount was topped up with another $25 million and the project extended to June 2004 (see Senator Newman's Press Release, October 1999 for details). The 2003 budget, revised the forward estimates, extending the time frame for the project by another year to 2005, to be funded with unspent monies from previous years: $4.3 million in 2001 02 and $7.5 million in 2002 03. This initiative was designed to encourage the Commonwealth, states and territories to work together on various priority themes relating to domestic violence.

National Initiative to Combat Sexual Assault (NICSA)

In the 2001 02 Budget the Commonwealth Government announced funding of $16.5 million over four years to be administered by the Office of the Status of Women (OSW), to facilitate a national approach to combat sexual assault against women. The National Initiative to Combat Sexual Assault strategy established partnerships with states and territories to develop strategies to address the incidence of sexual assault in the community. An additional $6.7 million was appropriated to NICSA in the 2004 05 Budget for the National Elimination of Violence Campaign (Violence against women Australia says no). Funding for this program came to an end in June 2005. In 2005, however, it was announced that funding for 2005 06 (and 2006 07) would be re-phased to meet the contract requirements for the ABS Personal Safety Survey.

The Women s Safety Agenda

In the 2005 Budget the Australian Government announced that the Partnerships against Domestic Violence initiative had come to an end to be replaced by the Women s Safety Agenda program at a cost of $75.7 million over four years.

According to the Women s Safety Agenda website, the initiative addresses four broad themes: prevention, health, justice and services. Together they aim to decrease the impacts of domestic violence and sexual assault upon the community by building on the achievements of the Partnerships against Domestic Violence initiative and the National Initiative to Combat Sexual Assault, increasing attention on preventing violence and early intervention and support for those affected by violence.

The Women s Safety Agenda program continues to fund the Australian Domestic and Family Violence Clearinghouse originally funded by PADV. This clearinghouse publishes research on key issues in family violence policy, practice and research. It aims to meet the information needs of government agencies, generalist and specialist service providers, researchers and interested members of the public.

The Way Forward

Prevention or Intervention

An article in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, Preventing Sexual Violence, argues that the last 20 years of policy development has been characterised by a persistent focus on 'tertiary' levels of intervention providing sympathetic and victim centred care after the assault, reducing further harm. Apprehended violence orders, law reform, the provision of refuges, health, accommodation and domestic violence services, the refinement of policy and procedures for the care of victims of sexual and domestic violence post-assault are all examples of tertiary intervention. The authors argue that while these policies are important, especially in reducing further harm and showing care for victims, they do not prevent violence against women, as intervention occurs after the violence has occurred. Only recently have social policies started to look at ways of intervening to prevent violence against women from occurring in the first instance.

In An impossibly ambitious plan? Australian policy and the elimination of domestic violence, Suellen Murray argues:

While there have been significant shifts over the past thirty years in relation to both policy and practice around domestic violence, its elimination is not within sight. Recently released research on the disease burden of domestic violence suggests that there is a need to increase efforts in the area of primary prevention (VicHealth 2004) and this work must be undertaken within the context of unequal gendered distribution of power and resources. If the elimination of domestic violence is not to be an impossibly ambitious plan then there is still much more to be done.

A literature review undertaken for the PADV program, Current Perspectives on Domestic Violence, identified three ways forward to prevent violence against women:

  • working with young people to break the intergenerational cycle of violence
  • working with victims and perpetrators to break the cycle of violence
  • working with communities to educate against violence

Perpetrator Programs

Men who use violence against women have only recently begun to receive attention by researchers and policy makers. Programs aimed at re-educating violent offenders now exist in the UK, Australia, North America and New Zealand. A literature review, Responding to Men Who Perpetrate Domestic Violence, provides a comprehensive overview of the controversies surrounding the development of programs focused on men, seen by some to divert resources away from victims. A National Crime Prevention report, Ending Domestic Violence: Programs for Perpetrators, provides a comprehensive overview of perpetrator programs in Australian states and territories. The study found that policy development with a focus on men as perpetrators has been ad hoc. A key unresolved policy issue is whether these programs should be mandatory for offenders, as they are in the United States, or voluntary, based on self referral as they tend to be in Australian jurisdictions. The Northern Territory Prison Referred and Community Based Indigenous Family Violence Offender Program is a substantial resource manual tailored for working with offenders of family violence in Indigenous Communities, produced by the Northern Territory Government with the aid of the PADV perpetrator program models.

Early Childhood Prevention Programs

Working with Children and Young People was a report of the PADV initiative, which provides an overview of the successful ingredients of education programs designed to disrupt the intergenerational cycle of abuse by targeting children and young people. Education programs in schools have consistently been identified as a key strategy for reducing violence in society. The assumption is that by exposing children and young people to non-violent alternatives, providing them with conflict resolution and anger management skills alongside a respect for others and tolerance of diversity, violent behaviour in adults will be prevented.

Community Awareness Campaigns

The PADV program committed $10 million in funding for national community awareness campaigns as part of its overall strategy to eliminate violence against women. As a result, an array of community education resources were sponsored by the Commonwealth and made publicly accessible through the PADV publications website. As part of this community awareness campaign, the Commonwealth launched the National Elimination of Violence Campaign (Violence against women Australia says no) in June 2004. The campaign includes awareness-raising through TV, cinema, magazine and washroom advertising, a 24 hour helpline and curriculum resources for secondary schools. The original funding for this initiative of $6.7 million was appropriated to the National Initiative to Combat Sexual Assault (NICSA) initiative in the 2004 05 Budget. Funding for this program under NICSA came to an end in June 2005. Further funding for the campaign is now provided as part of the Australian Government's Women s Safety Agenda.

States and territories also sponsored public education campaigns about domestic violence, sexual violence and child abuse. Community education campaigns using pamphlets, resource kits, facts sheets, posters, billboards, radio and television commercials, have all been used. Most have not been evaluated and whether they actually prevent violence against women is unknown.


A common theme throughout the research is that there is a need for a more long-term integrated response to domestic violence in Australia, which aims to prevent domestic violence in the first place with a view to reducing existing levels of violence. Pilot programs such as those funded under the PADV initiative have certainly contributed to our understanding of effective solutions to domestic violence in our community. The challenge is in the provision of on-going programs in order to address on-going problems and to achieve longer-term goals. International studies on domestic violence also point to a need to:

  • improve domestic violence data collection
  • improve evaluations of intervention, public awareness and education programs
  • improve cost estimates, including incidental economic consequences such as loss of income, child care costs, housing costs and legal or court costs
  • include indirect and non-economic costs of domestic violence to the community, such as educational disruption, restriction of occupational attainment, the impact on individual self-esteem and the long-term social, educational and psychological impacts on women and children
  • include intergenerational effects of domestic violence such as the development of life cycles of abuse from one generation to another


Key Electronic Journals

Available online through the Proquest database

  • Journal of Family Violence
  • Journal of Interpersonal Violence
  • Violence Against Women

Key Sites

New South Wales




Western Australia

South Australia


Northern Territory

Australian Capital Territory


For copyright reasons some linked items are only available to Members of Parliament.

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