Underlying causes and lessons learned: Australia’s family and domestic violence crisis


Amy Mehrton

Mayura Ashok

Family and domestic violence (FDV) continues to be a significant issue in Australia with wide-reaching impacts. Experiences of FDV negatively affect the health and wellbeing of individuals and families, perpetuating intergenerational trauma and the erosion of community resilience. It is an urgent crisis that disproportionately impacts women and children. 

FDV has significant intergenerational impacts on children who are exposed. Research reveals that FDV is the leading cause of homelessness amongst children in Australia, which increases the prevalence of anti-social behaviours and disengagement from schools.[1] Children exposed to intimate partner violence by the age of 10 are two to three times more likely to develop psychiatric disorders and behavioural issues.[2] Importantly, one in two people who experience FDV during childhood go on to use violence in the home during adolescence and into adulthood[3]

Governments throughout Australia have recognised the need to address the drivers of FDV in order to reduce current rates. The Victorian Government announced a Royal Commission into Family Violence in 2015, with the then Premier noting it was “the most urgent law and order emergency occurring in our state and the most unspeakable crime unfolding across our nation.”. The Queensland Government held the Independent Commission of Inquiry into Queensland Police Service responses to domestic and family violence in 2022. Most recently, the South Australian Government announced the establishment of a Royal Commission into Domestic, Family and Sexual Violence in December 2023.

The ongoing attention from governments reinforces that FDV is a pervasive and profoundly complex issue that we must address as a society. 

Cultural and systemic drivers of FDV

The causes of FDV are complex, interlinked and deeply entrenched in social structures. Research shows that FDV predominately plays out as gender-based violence, with women disproportionately impacted. 

FDV is perpetuated through cultural drivers such as community attitudes, behaviours and expectations around gendered norms and roles in society. Entrenched gendered expectations lead to normalising perpetrators’ use of FDV, constraining victims’ ability to report on experiences of FDV and undermining public responses to FDV.[4] 

Cultural drivers of FDV are reinforced by a range of systemic inequalities experienced by women. The prevailing gender pay gap, unequal distribution of labour and systemic power hierarchies within contemporary institutions prevent women’s access to resources and opportunities for equitable participation within society. This leads to entrenched economic dependency and exposure to violence from partners who may be perpetrating FDV.[5] 

Have we managed to shift the dial?

Despite positive shifts in attitudes regarding gender equality over the last two decades; the complex interplay between cultural and systemic drivers of FDV continues to influence how we frame, perceive and engage with questions of violence against women and children. 

The 2021 National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey (NCAS) reported that 25 per cent of the population believe that women who do not leave their abusive partners are partly responsible for violence continuing – an attitude that normalises victim blaming. 34 per cent agreed it was common for sexual assault accusations to be used as a way of getting back at men, indicating a lack of trust and respect for women’s voices. 19 per cent agreed that sometimes a woman can make a man so angry he hits her without meaning to, minimising the need for perpetrators to be held accountable.

As at the end of April 2024, 28 women had already died this year – roughly one woman every four days – as a result of violence against women, according to Counting Dead Women Australia. This is s a stark reminder of how much more work there is to be done. 

The role of attitudes in driving violence

Our recent work in violence prevention demonstrates there is a relationship between the normalisation of violence in the private sphere of the family with the use of violence in the public sphere – highlighting that the pervasive nature of FDV can exacerbate other forms of violence within society. Recent events such as the 2024 Bondi Junction stabbings, Sydney church stabbing and murder of Molly Ticehurst in Sydney have shifted the discourse on violence in Australian society – with a growing interest in understanding the root causes that contribute to different forms of violence.

Attitudes that normalise violence are at the heart of the issue, regardless of the format in which violence is enacted. Violence doesn’t occur in a vacuum – it is enabled by the norms that condone, sanction and support (either explicitly or implicitly) the associated behaviours. Attitudes that connect violence as a proxy for strength contribute to the acceptance of violent behaviours. Norms that associate masculinity with control, dominance and aggression have also been linked to rates of violence against women.

Consequently, there is a growing recognition of the importance of community attitudes to different forms of violence. As an example, recent research by Rottwiler, Clemmow and Gill (2024) demonstrates that while not all violent extremism is driven by gender-based issues, there is a relationship between willingness to engage in interpersonal violence, increased support for violence against women and violent extremist intentions.

Given work has been underway to address these attitudes through FDV prevention for some time, what can be learned – both in terms of what has worked, and what has not?

Sustained investment

Attitudinal change is essential to reducing violence in the community. Changing attitudes is an intergenerational endeavour that needs sustained government investment. Education departments across the country are funding respectful relationships education which has been shown to help prevent young people from developing attitudes that normalise violence. Our multi-year evaluation of the Victorian Respectful Relationships program has demonstrated that these initiatives are incredibly important in driving change, but require long-term support in order to deliver on the required changes for both young people and adults.

Whole-of-community approach

Addressing violence requires a whole-of-community response that stops the attitudes that normalise violence, supports victim-survivors and holds perpetrators accountable. Siloed approaches – targeting one part of the community, a single demographic or an individual policy portfolio – are unlikely to be effective. As an example, young people often find themselves in challenging positions where their attitudes contradict other influences in their lives, like that of their parents or other family members. Expecting young people to be ‘upstanders’ – those who will actively stand up against harmful behaviour – places an unfair responsibility on children to drive change for adults. Driving change at the speed needed means initiatives are required for adults and young people alike, in all areas of society. 

Targeted investment in building healthy masculinity 

Preventing violence relies heavily on shifting the attitudes of men. The social services minister, Amanda Rishworth, recently noted that without an attitude shift by men, any progress made in reducing violence against women would “go backwards in the next generation.”. Historic attitudinal change programs have focused on gender equality and respect more broadly. Recent research points to the importance of programs that provide alternative, healthy role models for young boys and men. The targeted approach can more effectively engage men in a conversation about the challenges they face in order to recognise that gender stereotypes negatively impact everyone. Governments need to consider how to mainstream healthy masculinity, while also providing positive spaces for girls and non-binary students. 

Address challenges in social media regulation

While we’ve been investing in improving existing systems and structures, the availability of online environments has rapidly expanded. New mechanisms have emerged that allow for rapid and widespread sharing of extreme material condoning violence. Social media platforms have grown exponentially and showcase influencers that promote gender stereotypes and normalise violence. These spaces are largely unregulated, with limited intervention from private industry in controlling their content – despite the harm it can cause. The refusal of X (formerly Twitter) to remove video footage of the Sydney church stabbing demonstrates the difficulty in regulating social media platforms and limiting access to extremist material. 

What is the way forward? 

In the face of ongoing tragedy, the urgency to address Australia’s FDV crisis cannot be overstated. It is evident that there are several levers in place to influence and change how we view, engage and respond to FDV as a society. 

While the unique impact of FDV cannot be understated, the recent upsurge of reporting around extreme violence of different forms across the country presents a stark reminder of the work yet to be done to confront the attitudinal root cause that perpetuates violence in our homes and communities. There is an urgent need for more assertive action at a community-wide level to tackle the core issue to deliver on primary prevention of violence of all forms.

[1] Campo, M. (2015). Children's exposure to domestic and family violence: Key issues and responses. Journal of the Home Economics Institute of Australia, 22(3), 33.

[2] Gartland, D., Conway, L. J., Giallo, R., Mensah, F. K., Cook, F., Hegarty, K., ... & Brown, S. J. (2021). Intimate partner violence and child outcomes at age 10: a pregnancy cohort. Archives of disease in childhood, 106(11), 1066-1074.

[3] Fitz-Gibbon, K., Meyer, S., Boxall, H., Maher, J., & Roberts, S. (2022). Adolescent family violence in Australia: A national study of prevalence, history of childhood victimisation and impacts. Australia's National Research Organisation for Women's Safety.

[4] Royce, E. (2015). Poverty and power: The problem of structural inequality. Rowman & Littlefield.

[5] Kuskoff, E. (2022). From aims to actions: A critical analysis of government intervention in cultural drivers of domestic and family violence. Australian Journal of Public Administration, 81(1), 111-126.