On being asked if she felt responsible for her behaviour in her relationship, Mary* made this comment: “I have a brain, I choose to act the way I do. But there is only so much a person can take. Everyone has a breaking point.”
When Mary smashed a window, her husband called the police and she ended up in a group program targeted at women who use force.
But the story behind these sparse details is far more complex.
Mary’s husband was highly controlling, and this was the latest incident of many when he had locked her out of the house. At the time, she was intoxicated – using alcohol to help with the fear and anxiety she felt so often.
The Australian Personal Safety Survey reports that, overwhelmingly, domestic and family violence (DFV) involves men abusing and controlling women and children – women are far more likely than men to experience violence.
Where ‘mutual violence’ has been identified, that violence is often asymmetrical, with men more controlling and coercive than women.
The fight to achieve recognition of men’s violence against women is based on an understanding that DFV is gender-based.
Legal, policy and welfare responses to gender-based violence have created a clear distinction between victims and perpetrators, as a way of countering the many ways in which men who use violence discredit and maintain control over their victims.
But in recent years it has become increasingly clear that a black-and-white victim/perpetrator distinction does not work in the best interests of those women who do not conform to the community’s conception of how a victim behaves.
Women who act in defence of themselves and their children, who assert their own sense of dignity or are seen to behave in socially unacceptable ways, often face severe societal consequences.
They are often judged harshly on their actions with little attention paid to the context in which they took place.
Our new research has pulled together what is known about this group of women, showing that the ways in which women use force do not fit the categories that have been developed to understand men’s use of violence.
In the context of family relationships, women who use force generally do so because they want power rather than because they have power.
They wish to assert their personal autonomy from a partner, rather than exercise personal authority over a partner (coercive control).
Most women identified as using force are themselves victim-survivors of DFV, although many do not describe themselves in this way. In fact, there is strong evidence that women who use force have experienced high rates of DFV and childhood abuse or victimisation.
Women use more psychological, verbal and emotional force than other kinds of violence. Physical force, when used, is more likely to be minor or moderate, rather than severe.
Motivations for the use of force by women most commonly include self-defence, retaliation, anger and stress.
The Department of Social Services has released the first Australian research to examine women who use force.
Our research program – led by Dr Margaret Kertesz and Professor Cathy Humphreys at the University of Melbourne, and Professor Donna Chung and Dr Robyn Martin at Curtin University, collaborated with the not-for-profit organisations, Baptcare and Berry Street.
The research includes a literature review, a study of workforce knowledge and understanding of this group of women across Australia, an international review of existing interventions, the evaluation of a group-based intervention, and a framework outlining key principles of intervention with this group of women.
Our work highlights the urgency of increasing community understanding of women’s experiences of trauma, abuse and violence, and how these experiences shape women’s relationships and conflict-resolution skills.
Professionals in a range of sectors report that they regularly encounter women who use force and identify it most commonly because women are upfront about their behaviour.
As illustrated by Mary’s comment, women commonly see themselves as responsible for their actions, and often for their relationships as well. In contrast, men do not, blaming others rather than themselves. Interventions for men who use violence focus on helping men take responsibility for their behaviour.
However, the workforce survey showed us that there is a wide range of views about women’s use of force. Professionals vary in their understanding of what motivates women to act in this way, and the extent to which women’s use of force differs from men’s violence.
A small number of programs have emerged in Australia in the last decade that specifically respond to women identified as using force, providing an intervention tailored to their needs.
One of the first, Positive SHIFT, is a groupwork-based intervention developed and run in Victoria by Baptcare in collaboration with Berry Street, two organisations providing services to families affected by domestic and family violence.
Many of the participants value the program for: helping them understand how their life experience shapes their actions, and learning strategies to deal with the difficult relationships in their lives.
“It was a bit more about knowing yourself… you control yourself better and you just make better choices I think.”
But this is not one simple story. Women identified as using force are a diverse group.
Their use of force must be understood in the context of their experience at all levels - individual, family, institutional, cultural, community and societal.
This acknowledges their life experience rather than simply condemning their actions.
While professionals can listen with empathy, advocate and facilitate healing, women are experts in their own situation and can work to evaluate and develop safe and viable alternatives to their use of force.
As we continue the work to prevent men’s violence against women as the most prevalent form of domestic and family violence in our community, we must always be sensitive to the nuances of experience in the lives of those using force or violence, whoever they are.
If you or anyone you or anyone you know needs help or support, you can contact 1800 Respect on 1800 737 732.
* names have been anonymised