The murder of five women within 10 days in Australia, allegedly by men they knew, has left Manuela Whitford feeling “numb.”
“We’ve become so conditioned … you hear it all the time, I’ve just become so numb,” she said. “But on the other scale, I go, ‘Oh, my God,’ I’m doing a good thing for the people that I can help.”
Whitford is the founder of Friends with Dignity, a Brisbane-based charity that gives families fleeing domestic violence everything they need to feel at home in emergency accommodation.
They’re mostly mothers with children, who leave with few possessions but carry the weight of fear and worry about where they’re going and how they’re going to cope.
“They are so isolated. This is years of conditioning people that you’re not good enough, you’re not worth it, you’ve got no value,” Whitford said from the charity’s warehouse south of Brisbane.
Tucked at the back of an industrial park, the warehouse shelves are piled high with household goods, boxes of toys, and mattresses washed, stacked and ready for delivery to apartments secured by welfare agencies.
It’s hoped the donations will help save lives, but it’s the women who were unable to escape allegedly violent men that made headlines in Australia in recent weeks.
The five women killed in 10 days include a 21-year-old water polo coach who had reportedly recently split up with her suspected killer, and a 65-year-old woman whose elderly husband has been accused of murder.
They’re now numbers on a national count that’s at 43 so far this year, according to Counting Dead Women, a research project started by feminist group Destroy the Joint, which takes its name from an insult hurled in 2012 by an Australian shock jock who accused women leaders of “destroying the joint.”
5 dead women
The most recent alleged murder was discovered on Monday, when security staff at the Crown Towers hotel in Perth, Western Australia, received a phone call from worried family members of Alice McShera, a 34-year-old lawyer.
They checked a room and found McShera’s body, WA Police Inspector Geoff DeSanges told reporters on Tuesday. A 42-year-old man found in the same room with suspected self-inflicted injuries was later charged with murder.
Last Sunday, 46-year-old Analyn Osias, known as Logee, suffered fatal injuries in a house in Kangaroo Flats, according to Victoria Police. A 44-year-old man has been charged with murder.
Days earlier, Lilie James, a 21-year-old water polo coach, was found dead with head injuries in the gym toilet of a private school in Sydney, according to New South Wales Police. The body of her 24-year-old former partner was later discovered at the bottom of a cliff after his suspected suicide.
The same week, 65-year-old Thi Thuy Huong Nguyen was found with multiple stab wounds in her kitchen in Canberra, ACT Policing said. Police arrested her 70-year-old husband, who also had injuries. He fronted court from his hospital bed to face a murder charge.
Two days earlier, the body of 38-year-old Krystal Marshall was recovered from the charred remains of her home after a house fire in South Australia, according to SA Police. A 48-year-old man was later charged with murder.
The number of women killed by violence in Australia has ranged between 43 and 84 each years since Counting Dead Women began tallying deaths in 2012.
Whitford started Friends with Dignity in her garage in the same year. Since then, she said she’s noticed a change in the way people, including the police, respond to domestic violence.
“It’s believing, it’s listening to the victim,” she said.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), the proportion of Australian women reporting domestic violence by a partner in the previous 12 months fell between 2016 and 2021-22, from 1.7% to 0.9%.
However, the most recent National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey (NCAS) in 2021 showed 23% believe domestic violence is a normal reaction to day-to-day stress.
And 91% believed violence against women was a problem in Australia.
A national plan
Repeated cries for help have been made to the government, which last year launched its National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children 2022-2032.
The First Action Plan 2023-2027 was released in August, and top of the 10-point list is advancing gender equality.
Australia may be a modern, wealthy nation, but sexist attitudes persist in a culture where women do more unpaid domestic work and earn less over their lifetime than men, according to the United Nations.
Boardrooms and many positions of power are still dominated by men, as is Parliament – the country has only ever had one female prime minister, Julia Gillard, who famously delivered a searing speech on misogyny that’s since racked up millions of views on social media.
A 2022 survey by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, which Gillard now chairs, found Australian men consider misogynistic comments more acceptable online than the global average.
The First Action Plan includes 3.5 million Australian dollars in funding ($2.24 million) for a three-year trial of the healthy masculinities project to find what works to counter harmful messaging targeting men and boys on social media.
His name is not mentioned in the government press release, but experts cite the example of Andrew Tate, the self-described misogynistic internet influencer soon to face trial in Romania on charges of human trafficking and rape.
For more than 20 years, Andrew Lines has been working to counter Tate’s style of dangerous, misogynistic messaging through “The Rite Journey,” a program that works with schools in Australia, New Zealand and further afield to teach students how to find positive role models.
He says it’s getting tougher to cut through the negative messaging that children are seeing on their cellphones – from abusive, disrespectful comments to easily accessible hardcore porn.
“The hateful rhetoric that they are reading, I would have never been exposed to as a kid,” said Lines. “It doesn’t even have to be an inflammatory post. You can go and read comments in a whole lot of threads and there is hateful, judgmental stuff.”
Lines says many men are taking a more active role in fatherhood than previous generations, but family dynamics have also changed, meaning parents are spending less time with their children.
On the flipside, overparenting – taking too much of an active role – can create problems of its own, he said.
“If kids haven’t learned to deal with failure and rejection in the small stakes experiences through childhood, and it gets to the biggest stakes experiences, I think there’s an issue,” he said.
But until those lessons are learned, state authorities are strengthening their responses to domestic violence.
In July, NSW Police launched the country’s first Domestic and Family Violence Registry to record repeat offenders, and last week the WA government said it wanted more perpetrators to be fitted with electronic tags.
Until there’s significant change, people like Whitford from Friends with Dignity will be doing what they can to support those affected.
Every Tuesday, volunteers gather at the charity’s warehouse to assemble personal care kits and fill orders from agencies for people in need. Businesses are also getting involved by sending staff on away days as part of their social responsibility programs.
A housing shortage means fewer apartments are available for the charity to furnish, so they’re supplying more essential items to women who can’t leave abusive households.
Whitford says it takes the community to come together to prevent more women becoming victims of domestic violence.
“A lot of people don’t ask you if you’re okay, because they don’t know what to do with the answer,” she said. “So, get educated, find out what resources are in your area.”