11 April 2021
That Australia has a problem with violence against women is not news to any of us. The ABS estimate that one in three women has been a victim of physical or sexual violence since the age of thirteen by someone they know, and according to the Australian Institute of Criminology, one woman dies close to weekly at the hands of a partner or former partner.
Both the Australian Government and White Ribbon Australia acknowledge that this monumental issue affects certain groups disproportionately, and that resources should therefore be targeted towards those most at need. For example, the White Ribbon Policy and Research Series- a range of papers developed by academics and policy makers- focus on different aspects of the issue including the prevention of violence towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, immigrant and refugee communities, the youth, and in relation to the workplace and gender equality.
The Australian Government also recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as a target group in its five-point National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children, with the other four priority areas more general and operationally focused such as “Primary Prevention.”
Astonishingly, the social group that suffers the highest rates of sexual assault and violence is not identified by either- women who are homeless. A Sydney study, for example, found 48% of homeless people interviewed had been the victim of an assault in the past year, compared to 5% of the housed population. Many women reported concurrent physical and sexual violence while sleeping rough, both at the hands of a partner or random attacks from members of the public (i).
So why does it matter that homeless women are not recognised as a priority group? There are two reasons, the first being that put simply, that’s where the money goes. Government resources are allocated to causes that are known and spoken about, and very little Australian research has been done on incidences of violence against women on the streets. Secondly, these areas of priority are reflective of societal attitudes that underpin the decisions about who is worthy of help.
Attitudes are a key factor in the way we consider the experience of homelessness. The prevalence of violence in this community may not be shocking considering the vulnerability and exposure of women sleeping rough. But do we even consider it a real crime, if the victim was “just a homeless person?”
Walking through a tunnel outside of Central Station the other day, I saw a woman of at least sixty curled up on the ground. One of her eyes was completely covered by gauze roughly taped to her face. Passersby hurried off on their commute, and I wondered how many people had walked straight past her that day. Hundreds? Thousands?
Why don’t we see women like her as legitimate victims? Is it because we assume (often wrongfully) that the attack was committed by another person sleeping on the street, and is therefore somehow not our business or responsibility? Or is it an underlying belief that, in the words of Wessler and Melnick (2005), “…homeless people are somehow deserving of violence because of their risky lifestyles”?
Or do we just think it, well, doesn’t matter? Their lives are terrible already. Bad things have probably happened to them in the past, and will happen again in the future, so what’s one more rape or bashing? They must be used to it by now.
I’d argue that all of these attitudes influence the government’s treatment of homelessness as an exclusively economic concern, and its focus on early prevention both in relation to homelessness and violence. The government cites extensive research to back up an early prevention approach in its National Plan to Reduce Violence. However as discussed, this research does not adequately consider the experiences of women who are homeless, so how can we know its findings apply to them? I’m no expert, but it would seem likely that there are strategies more immediately helpful to women sleeping rough than awareness campaigns.
Every person at risk of sexual and physical violence is a worthwhile recipient of assistance to live safely. And given the extent of the problem, there probably aren’t nearly the amount of resources needed. But directing some of that funding to the provision of more emergency housing for women sleeping rough could not only ensure their safety, but go some way to breaking the self-perpetuating cycle of homelessness and violence and give them the chance at a better future.
Because women who are homeless aren’t to blame for their scars, they aren’t beyond help, and they do have futures. It’s up to us whether or not they’ll have a future free from violence, as every person deserves.
i. Catherine Robinson ‘Rough Living: Surviving Violence and Homelessness’ Public Interest Advocacy Centre (2010) UTS Press
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