Can We Save These Two Lives?

Very moving scenes from this morning's candlelight vigil in Canberra to save the lives of Andrew Chan and Muyuran Sukumaran. Some have lamented the amount of media attention these men are getting. "If only we paid this much attention to women killed by domestic violence." I for one am glad of the attention Chan and Sukumaran are getting - the face of a united Australia may be the best chance to convince the Indonesian government to save their lives.

But it's not a zero sum game; I also wish this much media attention was given to violence against women. The deaths of women at the hands of their partners is an unspeakable tragedy in Australia that we must start speaking about - 17 so far just this year; the latest the mother of a week-old baby allegedly killed with an axe by her ex-partner the day after she sought court protection from him (I'm a pretty hardened type and it takes a lot to shock me, but dear God).

So, how can we save the lives of the next two women who will be killed by their current or former partners - and the lives of all the women who will tragically follow?

We know almost nothing about these women. We don't know their education levels, income, whether they live in the city or rural or regional Australia, their ethnic background, their occupation, their religious affiliation. That's the thing about domestic violence; it cuts across all these factors, discriminating by absence against no group in society. We do know that these women have an average age in their 30s, and are more likely than the general female population to be pregnant at the time of their deaths. We can ask why they didn't leave, if they were so afraid, when in fact the act of leaving a violent relationship is the most dangerous time.

We don't know their names, we can't look at their photos, can't read of their accomplishments and the impact their lives have made on those around them; and that makes it that much harder to rally against the upcoming deaths of these women. We don't know if their deaths will come as the result of a stunning, unforeseen act of violence from a "lovely guy" who "just snapped"; or whether they are the culmination of years of terror, of court orders, of refuge stays, of police visits, of lives disrupted, of interstate moves to escape, of being followed, of despair that it will never end, of final moments of horror that it will end like this.

 But we know not a one of these deaths was in any way deserved. And we know, if we are to hold on to our vaunted status as a society of equality and value for human life, we have to prevent them. We have to try.

We are just starting to take this problem seriously as a community. The government announced it is funding a $30 million domestic violence awareness campaign; domestic violence campaigner Rosie Batty named as Australian of the Year.

But does awareness do anything to stop the deaths. Where do we start with prevention? By addressing our violent culture - that we don't have an alcohol problem as much as we have a violence problem? Starting at the very beginning of the life cycle, by making it illegal for parents to hit their children, ending the very underpinning of our society that it is okay for the bigger, stronger person to hit a smaller, weaker person who disobeys and displeases them? (The latter has been something I have advocated for many years - and if you study the debates that were taking place around the time it became a crime for a man to hit his wife, the same objections were made as the objections we hear against banning smacking today - it is a private matter, it is my right, discipline, keeping society under control). Stiffer penalties? Measures designed to help victims, such as the Victorian law of defensive homicide, intended to be used in cases of sustained domestic violence that ended up being used largely by perpetrators, not victims?

I don't have all the answers. There is no repository of all the answers. We can but say "Do more. Try harder. Start now". There can be research grants, laws, a royal commission. In the meantime, women we don't know will die. I wish I could end on a note of hope. There may even be a final slim hope for Chan and Sukumaran, but can we save the lives of the women we never knew.

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