Understanding partner violence against young rural women

By Dan Lander

Domestic violence

One in four Australian women over the age of 15 years has experienced violence at the hands of an intimate partner, and 92 per cent of women who report being assaulted by a male, know the perpetrator. 

They’re appalling figures, and while public awareness of the problem has improved in recent years, rates of assault remain unacceptably high, particularly in regional areas, with young women most at risk. 

Studies indicate higher proportions of rural women experience intimate partner violence (IPV) than urban women, but to date, most research has investigated abuse in urban environments.

The Australian Alliance for Social Enterprise, based at UniSA, has just released new research that examines the unique challenges facing young intimate partner violence victims in country locations.

Conducted in conjunction with Uniting Country SA and led by Dr Catherine Mackenzie, the study interviewed country women aged 16 to 24 years, along with other women who had experienced intimate partner violence when they were of that age.

“Young country women experience similar types of intimate partner violence to those reported by women in urban environments, including non-physical but deeply traumatising types of abuse such as social isolation and internet-based abuse,” says Dr Mackenzie.

“But there tend to be differences stemming from the interplay of environment, culture, prevalence of poverty, access to services and the often tight-knit nature of country communities.”

In rural and regional areas, workers in local legal and social services are likely to know the victim and perpetrator, which can make women hesitant to seek assistance.

“Young women who experienced this domestic violence described not recognising it at the time, particularly if the violence was not physical, and reported being unsure where to seek support,” Dr Mackenzie says.

“They also expressed concern about potential repercussions of seeking services, for example not being believed, or their boyfriend getting in trouble.”  

The research also suggests abusive behaviour damages all aspects of young women’s lives, including their digital interactions, with partners commonly controlling social media use and text messaging.

“They’re forming relationships in similar ways as young urban women, for example through social media, dating apps and messaging apps,” Dr Mackenzie says.

“But new technology was also the most common tool abusers used to control their partners. It’s part of a pattern of control that has simply moved along with the communication tools of the time.”

The study makes key recommendations for service providers, including the need for greater awareness among youth workers of signs of intimate partner violence; development of stronger informal support networks; and improved education, so that young women recognise abusive behaviour and understand their support options.

Dr Mackenzie says the research also emphasises the need for wider social change.

“We need to advocate for a cultural shift across country communities to change attitudes and reduce power imbalances between women and men, which tend to be more prevalent in country areas,” she says.

Tracy Holden, Uniting Country SA Executive Manager Services, notes the importance of the research.

“It will have a huge impact when working with young women in country regions,” Holden says.