The recent murders of Hannah Clarke and her three children at Camp Hill demonstrate once again the persistence of Australian experience of domestic violence. The very familiarity of the middle-class, suburban setting for the extreme violence of this killing has provoked a conversation about a pattern of intimate partner control and victimisation that frequently acts as a pathway to murder. The courageous, early public exposure by Hannah’s family of their daughter’s gradual recognition of the extent of her abuse has pre-empted the often frustrating wait for the outcomes of police and coronial investigation.

Violence against women is one of the modern world’s most intractable problems. It is an expression of women’s inequality. In the Clarke case, it demonstrates their continuing vulnerability in spite of the otherwise general decline in inter-personal violence.

In a widely recognised trend in modernising societies, homicide declined not just steadily but often swiftly. But this decline in violence is not shared equally. European empires that witnessed remarkable declines in violence in their home countries in the nineteenth century inflicted excessive violence on the people they colonised. And even within those societies showing a decline of violence, the benefits were more likely to be felt by men than by women.

Our research suggests that long-term homicide trends in Australia replicate this pattern. In the early to mid-nineteenth century, homicide rates in the Australian colonies were much higher than they were a century later. Men are still killed in greater numbers than women by the late twentieth century, but the decline in risk of homicide was invariably far greater for men than women. So great was the change that by the inter-war years the rate of homicides per 100,000 women was greater in some years than that for men. The reasons for these changes – especially men’s declining risk – are inevitably complex. But for women, a disturbing reality continued. Not only did their risk of homicidal death remain constant – they were always much more likely to be killed by an intimate partner than were men.

The reality of this picture has long been disguised by our preferred response to violence – through law and policing, and a focus on offenders. Official statistics on murder rarely counted the age and gender of those killed, or their racial background. The reality of domestic murder, and the risk of being killed by a family member, was hidden away in official ‘cause of death’ statistics. In mortality data, a murder is a rare event, its incidence drowned out by the volume of other causes, natural and otherwise. But the emergence in recent decades of a focus on the victims of violence has enabled us to understand anew the scale of a problem first recognised in the nineteenth century – the perils of the domestic environment for women and children.

We need to find ways to ensure that women’s equality means just that in a place where it continues to be most threatened, the home and the family.

The Australian experience is no different to that internationally. If we compare contemporary homicide rates across countries, those with low general homicide rates have higher proportions of female victims, as the decline is fed mostly by a decline in male fatalities (and male-on-male homicides).  Latin American countries with extremely high homicide rates have a much higher proportion of mostly young male compared to female victims. Yet as men’s risk of being a homicide victim has declined there has been little change in the risk of women’s victimisation.

Let us face these facts another way. Over time, in Australia as elsewhere, male-on-male homicide rates are susceptible to change that brings them down, and male-on-female violence is not: in contemporary societies like Australia with low homicide rates, women’s risk of being a victim of homicide is close to that of men. It does not follow that there are no changes in women’s risk of homicide between societies – the general social conditions that contribute to higher or lower rates of violence in different societies are also related to significant differences in women’s risk of homicide over time and place. And within places like Australia with its history of colonialism, dispossession and protracted disadvantage of Aboriginal people, these patterns are replicated. The proportion of Aboriginal women dying at the hands of an intimate partner is much higher than for the general community.

The intractable persistence of domestic violence leaves a legacy in discourse, in the ways in which these crimes are understood and spoken about. Historically these acts of violence have unsettled familial ideology in the social and political world. Either the event was minimised as an expression of a particular pathology – of drink, of madness, of a degraded moral state – or excused as the perpetration of an exceptional event by a man who was otherwise a good father, or even one whose so-called love for their victims was used to explain their violence. Traces of these attitudes can be seen in the controversial comments last week that sought to excuse or understand or ‘balance’ a murderer’s actions, to look for what ‘drove him to it’. Their widespread condemnation shows the influence of a contemporary social movement that expresses women’s demand for equality and seeks to refute these long-standing responses to intimate partner violence.

What we already know about Hannah Clarke’s case confirms in a most chilling way the pertinence of Jess Hill’s 2019 insistence that we talk not just about domestic violence, but about its seed-bed, domestic abuse. We need to find ways to ensure that women’s equality means just that in a place where it continues to be most threatened, the home and the family. Law and policing have long proved weak remedies to a seemingly intractable problem that demands more imaginative and sustainable solutions including primary prevention, ensuring women’s economic security and supporting effective men’s behaviour change programmes.

Mark Finnane (Griffith University), Andy Kaladelfos (UNSW), and Susanne Karstedt (Griffith University) are researchers in criminology and history. Drawing on data in the Prosecution Project they are investigating inter-personal violence in Australia with the support of an Australian Research Council grant (DP190100322), ‘Australian Violence: Understanding Victimisation in History’.

This piece was first published in the Australian Women's History Network.