News Coronavirus Hiding phones, cutting off family: The push to make coercive control illegal
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Hiding phones, cutting off family: The push to make coercive control illegal

Anti-domestic violence groups want 'coercive control' to be criminalised in Australia. Photo: Getty
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Australia must make it illegal for an abusive partner to threaten self-harm or monitor their spouse’s phone and eating habits, domestic violence groups have said.

Their campaign to criminalise this type of behaviour – known as coercive control – was launched in Sydney on Monday amid record-high domestic violence incidents during the coronavirus pandemic.

Examples of coercive control can include deleting all the male contacts from a partner’s Facebook account, demanding they eat certain foods, banning them from working, or threatening violence if the relationship ends.

In one recent case, a woman told a counsellor at men’s referral service No To Violence that her partner doesn’t let her leave the house without him.

The woman, who is on a tourist visa and has no friends or family in Australia, said he monitors her every movement at home – even when she uses the bathroom.

These tactics, designed to chip away at a partner’s self-esteem and make it harder for them to leave, have long been recognised by domestic violence groups as a precursor to physical assault.

Now, a group of anti-domestic violence campaigners, led by Are Media’s Australian Women’s Weekly and Marie Claire magazines, are fighting to make this type of manipulative behaviour a crime so that authorities can act before it’s too late.

Members include Women’s Safety NSW, White Ribbon Australia, Small Steps 4 Hannah, Women’s Legal Service Queensland, Women’s Community Shelters, Doctors Against Violence Towards Women and author of Look What You Made Me Do, Jess Hill.

Australian Women’s Weekly editor-in-chief Nicole Byers, anti-violence campaigner Nithya Reddy, author Jess Hill, Doctors Against Violence Towards Women founder Dr Karen Williams, Marie Claire editor Nicky Briger and Women’s Safety NSW CEO Hayley Foster.

The group is calling on all state and territory governments to take immediate steps towards criminalising coercive control by July.

Steps may include seeking input from frontline organisations and domestic violence survivors, or committing to boosting police training to help officers enforce the new law.

The eight steps before men commit murder

In Australia, one woman a week on average is killed by her current or former partner, boyfriend or husband.

To the general public, it may seem like these murders happen out of the blue, or that the killer was a good family man who simply snapped. 

But they are rarely isolated incidents.

In nearly every case, it later emerges that the perpetrator had a long history of psychological abuse and controlling behaviours.

Brisbane woman Hannah Clarke and her three children were murdered in a car fire in February by former abusive partner Rowan Baxter. Photo: Facebook

Data from NSW’s Domestic Violence Death Review Team found 77 out of 78 perpetrators used coercive control on their partner before killing them between 2017 and 2019.

In an attempt to understand why so many men choose to kill their current or former partners – and it is nearly always men killing women – British researchers reviewed 372 intimate partner homicides in the UK to see if they could find any patterns.

They discovered many of these violent men followed an eight-stage process before committing murder:

  1. They have a history of coercive control or abusive behaviour
  2. Their new relationship with a partner develops rapidly and is usually very intense, though it does not start out as abusive
  3. They begin using coercive control, which may include banning their partner from leaving the house or controlling what she wears
  4. They feel their partner slipping away and seek to regain control
  5. Their controlling behaviours escalate and become more frequent or hurtful
  6. They make a decision about how they’re going to deal with their loss of control. They may leave the relationship and find a new victim, go back to Step 3, or decide to kill someone
  7. They begin planning the murder
  8. They kill.

England and Wales were the first countries to outlaw coercive control in 2015, followed by Ireland with similar legislation in 2018.

Last year, a new offence came into effect in Scotland that has been described as the new “gold standard” of domestic abuse laws.

Speaking at the Australian campaign launch on Monday, author Jess Hill said “coercive control is not just something that happens inside our homes – it extends through our systems, the same systems that we trust to protect us”.

“A critical part of this campaign must be to reform these systems as we change the laws,” she said.

“I believe this change in law will help drive the reform that victim-survivors so badly need.”

Hayley Foster, CEO of Women’s Safety NSW, said criminalising coercive control in Australia, with support for police and the courts, would be a “pivotal step in our nation’s effort to reduce violence against women and prevent domestic violence homicide”.

“It’s time the law recognised the most dangerous and damaging aspect of domestic and family violence,” she said.

To sign the petition calling on the government to make coercive control a crime, visit www.coercivecontrol.com.au

If your wellbeing is threatened by staying home and you are living under Melbourne’s coronavirus lockdown, you can travel more than  five kilometres to find safety.

If you or someone you know is affected by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au.

In an emergency, call 000.