Women in regional and rural areas of Australia experience higher rates of violence from partners and spouses than women living in major metropolitan centres, my new research has found.
Colleagues and I examined data from more than 14,000 women participating in the Australian Longitudinal study of Women’s Health (ALSWH).
While one in five (20%) women living in major metropolitan centres reported having been in a violent relationship with a partner or spouse at some time in their adult life, these numbers rose to one in four women from regional (24%) and rural (26%) areas.
Past research has shown that living in rural and remote areas increases women’s vulnerability to partner violence.
Compared to metropolitan areas, people living in Australian regional and rural communities have higher rates of alcohol misuse and increased access to firearms, both of which have been shown to increase the risks of partner violence in international studies.
Living in rural and regional areas also restricts women’s ability to leave violent relationships. Country women are more likely to be isolated and have to travel greater distances to get support from family and friends, and to access formal police and domestic violence support services.
Access to medical assistance, health services and counselling services are all reduced in rural areas compared to major cities.
Offenders or victims may be widely known in rural or regional communities. This can act as a barrier to reporting partner violence and seeking help. This is especially true if the perpetrator of the violence holds a respected position, or if victims have many roles within the community.
Type of abuse
Our study also compared the type of partner abuse women living in metropolitan, regional and rural areas faced over a twelve month period. Using detailed answers, we noted the proportion of women experiencing physical, emotional, sexual abuse or harassment behaviours.
Overall women from metropolitan, regional and rural areas reported the four types of abuse at very similar rates. In the past 12 months:
- 12.5% of respondents reported emotional abuse
- 2.5% reported physical abuse
- 2.8% reported harassment
- 0.6% reported sexual abuse.
Some women reported multiple types of abuse simultaneously.
Experiencing partner abuse has serious negative physical and mental health effects. These health conditions can remain even after the abuse has stopped, through ongoing problems with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Access to support
The reduced availability of support services in non-metropolitan areas means women may have to leave their community and travel to another town to find safety or to access the help they need. This can increase the distress already present from an abusive relationship.
It can have other serious effects such as loss of employment, reduced contact with family and friends, lower probability of accessing medical services, and disruption to the schooling and emotional stability of children.
One specific area of concern in regional and rural areas is the lack of crisis and longer-term affordable accommodation for victims of intimate partner violence who are forced to leave their homes to escape from a violent partner. Lack of suitable, affordable accommodation for women, especially those with children, is one of the main barriers to women leaving abusive partners and can also be a main reason for women returning to an abusive partner.
So not only are women in regional and rural areas more likely to experience partner violence than their city counterparts, it’s more difficult to remove themselves from violent relationships and re-establish a life for themselves and their families.
The Staying Home Leaving Violence scheme is one current program in New South Wales that helps victims of intimate partner violence remain safely in their home while the perpetrator is removed. This means less emotional upheaval for the victims and their children.
The program involves police, legal and community services in firstly removing the perpetrator of the abuse and then assessing the risk of further violence from this person. It also provides practical and emotional support to victims including security devices in the family home and information on safe responses to violence and abuse.
It’s encouraging to see this scheme is being expanded to four more regional and rural areas with funding from the recent NSW state government initiative against domestic violence. It should be expanded to more sites across Australia.
As the Australian government begins to allocate A$100 million of funding to the issue of partner violence, policymakers must ensure adequate funding for domestic violence services in rural and regional areas. This is especially important in the areas of accommodation, counselling and support services.
The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.
This research was funded through the Collaborative Research Network for Mental Health and Wellbeing in Rural and Regional Communities at the University of New England.
Authors: The Conversation Contributor