Family violence policies must centre survivors’ experience, study says

By Melissa Coade

Monday September 6, 2021

The study draws on the unique advocacy profile of anti-violence campaigner Rosie Batty.
The study draws on the unique advocacy profile of anti-violence campaigner Rosie Batty.(AAP Image/David Crosling)

A new study from Monash University has highlighted the important role domestic violence survivors play in shaping effective services and public policy response, also calling for a shift in attitudes that challenges the systems which perpetuate violence and victimisation.

Drawing on the unique advocacy profile of anti-violence campaigner Rosie Batty, whose prominence rose at the most distressing time of her life — when her 11-year-old son Luke was murdered by his father, Greg Anderson, at cricket training — the study examines Batty’s profile as the ‘ideal victim’ in the sociopolitical context.

Since Luke’s murder and the tragedy of losing her son, Batty has been recognised as a driving force for family violence policy reform and for raising awareness of the failure of governments to address this serious social, legal, economic, and public health issue. 

The study interviewed Batty and policy makers to understand why not all victim-survivors receive the same public platform, and why it is that voices from diverse and marginalised communities are often given unequal attention.

BehaviourWorks’ doctoral researcher Lisa Wheildon led the group examining the power dynamics of using victim-survivors of family violence as agents of change. 

“The rise of powerful individual advocates, particularly those with lived experience of gender-based violence, is recent and not well understood,” Wheildon said.

The research concludes that as a result of Batty’s advocacy, there has been a marked interest in understanding, addressing, and preventing such violence and the issue of family violence was projected into public discourse in what the media labelled the ‘Batty effect’.

Wheildon said Batty was moved by a ‘powerful vision for a better future’ and desperately wanted to make something out of the tragedy she experienced so others would not have to go through a similar ordeal.

“On top of her impressive people skills, what we found made Rosie so influential was the power and urgency of her lived experience, which was able to overcome institutional divisions and ideological differences to build networks encompassing the expertise and institutional know-how required to achieve substantial family violence policy change,” Wheildon  said. 

“She was motivated by a powerful vision for a better future and desperately wanted to make something out of the tragedy she experienced so others would not have to go through a similar ordeal.”

Batty’s change-making impact continued to grow. After providing a witness statement to a royal commission, she was appointed 2015 Australian of the Year, chaired the Victorian government’s Victim Survivors Advisory Council, and established (the now closed) Luke Batty Foundation. This was on top of volumes of work assisting advocacy organisations, networks, and supporting a respectful relationships curriculum in schools. 

“In our analysis, we also recognised there were other contextual factors that contributed to Batty’s influence, including decades of work undertaken by the women’s movement to provide foundations for change, and a window of opportunity created by a change of government and the commitment of Victorian premier Daniel Andrews,” Wheildon added. 

But the research also recognised something Batty herself has acknowledged many times: the reason she was able to speak to so many people about her story was that she is white, middle class, well-educated and articulate.

“Because I experienced one of the worst public tragedies anyone had or could envisage, that public acknowledgement catapulted me into a victim advocacy that I think is different to a lot of other victims,” Ms Batty said in her interview to the Monash researchers.

Wheildon said Batty’s message underscored that family violence could happen to anyone. Yet despite the influence of Batty’s advocacy, not all victim-survivors are heard and the receptiveness policy makers have to other diverse and representative voices, particularly from marginalised communities, is limited.

“While it is critical that victim-survivors’ lived experiences help inform policy development, it is important to ensure this is not prioritised above other forms of knowledge, and governments must invest in developing specialist policy, research and evaluation expertise within independent organisations,” Wheildon said.

“Also, despite their influence, victim-survivors are in a subordinate role and it is one we need to support them to transition out of. We should be moving away from individual victim-survivor stories to focus on collective action and challenge societal systems and structures that enable violence and victimisation.”

The research, part of the work undertaken by the Monash Sustainable Development Institute, was co-authored by Professor Jacqui True, Associate Professor Asher Flynn and Abby Wild. 

According to the research group, the federal government’s National Summit on Women’s Safety this week has failed to centre the experience of victim-survivor advocates. None of the sessions on the program focus on hearing from victim-survivor advocates. This is a problem, they say, if the government is committed to making consultation the ‘cornerstone’ of activities.

“Engagement with victim-survivors must be ongoing. It should be built into each initiative under the national plan,” Wheildon said.

“Governments must also be careful to prioritise voices that are often marginalised, and to ensure the autonomy and independence of those voices.”


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