The murder of Brisbane women Hannah Clarke and her three children by her estranged husband has cast a pall of grief over the nation.
Coupled with the grief is an anguished question that women are tired of asking:
How many more women and children must die at the hands of a violent husband or male partner before there is a concerted move to stamp out male violence in the home?
The nation was stunned by the horror and brutality of this calculated act of murder, when on Wednesday morning a murderous coward set fire to his family – Hannah, 31, and their children Aaliyah, 6, Laianah, 4, and Trey, 3 – as they sat in their car in the Brisbane suburb of Camp Hill.
Hannah, still ablaze, made it out of her car and according to reported accounts yelled at horrified neighbours who had begun to gather that “he’s poured petrol on me” and that her “babies” were still in the car. The flames prevented neighbours from reaching the children.
We know from Friday’s heartbreaking interview with Hannah’s parents and brother on Nine’s A Current Affair that at the scene of the ambush Hannah, with burns to 90% of her body, gave police a detailed account of what had occurred. We simply cannot comprehend the strength of will and body to make such a statement in the throes of death, but it gives us a measure of the woman.
Hannah lived to understand the horror that had been inflicted on her children by her estranged and abusive husband and she made sure that he was held to account. Hannah died later in hospital.
At some point, at the scene of the carnage, the murderous husband and father killed himself with a knife, a craven release from having to face the devastation he had wrought upon his family.
These are the bare facts as we know them; a coroner’s report will in time record the precise details of that awful morning.
But in the meantime, we do know one thing for sure: a man, unable to accept that his marriage was over, incensed that his wife and three children had fled the family home and sought sanctuary at the nearby home of her parents, responded with murder.
Living in state of constant siege
Hannah left the family home late last year. We know that her husband was possessive, abusive and controlling. Brisbane police have confirmed that there was a history of domestic violence and that a restraining order had been issued to prevent her husband from approaching her.
It beggars belief that in 2020, there are still men who believe that they are entitled to demand the inviolability of a relationship – unless they choose to end it – which of course is another way of expressing their entitlement to possess a woman, and by extension, to control a woman.
For many women this manifests itself as unrelenting, unremitting, incessant violence, both physical and mental.
Somehow men seem unable to imagine what it must be like for a woman to live in a state of constant siege in her own home. If they could there might be more sympathy for women who plead for an end to domestic violence.
When tragedies such as the deliberate incineration of Hannah and her children occur the cry goes up: “It’s not all men”.
The problem may not be all men, but it is a problem about men. It is a problem about men who still see women as inferior and inconsequential, of ornamental value but not to be taken seriously, as subservient to the needs of men; as partners they are seen as chattels.
For women, expressions of these male attitudes are manifest in almost every facet of their lives: in the workplace, in social settings, in public places and at home. Women are abused, molested, assaulted, raped or murdered by men based simply on the fact that they are women.
Is it any wonder women demand change? Or more to the point, is it any wonder that women are fed up with having to demand change?
But how is such change to be affected? Hannah’s killer was 42 years old. He was the beneficiary of a more enlightened education system; he was exposed to the many and various campaigns seeking a fair go for women; he would have read media stories and watched films that presented women in a modern light.
We have barely moved the dial
Women know that the message is not getting through. It didn’t take the death of Hannah and her children to know that. This was just the latest instance of an estranged husband and father murdering his children or his entire family. Most of us can probably bring several instances to mind.
So what can be done? Attitudes need to change, but as a society we have barely moved the dial, and what appears to be change for the better is more often than not lip service.
There is still a body of people, male and female, who believe men are the head of the household and that women, by their actions or lack of deference, incite violence upon themselves.
Many people still look at domestic violence as none of their business. In fact, it is everyone’s business. It goes against the grain of modern living, but it may well be that we must become our neighbour’s keeper and our community’s guardian, because it is obvious that a less connected society provides too many blind spots in which bad things happen.
Again and again the education system has clearly been found wanting. How many more videos of boys and young men from elite private schools chanting sexist and misogynistic songs in public do we need to see to understand that not even a privileged education is changing attitudes?
Apologists for the status quo argue that it’s not up to schools to change social attitudes, that these are matters for the home. This is a bogus argument. Schools have always incorporated values, civics and a basic moral schema. The proposition that promoting gender equality is “social engineering” is the kind of obstinacy that enables social dysfunction. If society is failing women – and it plainly is – then surely it is not unreasonable to expect primary and high schools to do their part.
A thorough examination of how the legal system and law enforcement is failing women – if necessary a royal commission – is crucial. It says everything we need to know about the current conservative climate in Australia that instead of such a review what we have is the Morrison government appointing Pauline Hanson to conduct a review of family law. Hanson has openly stated that her agenda is to expose how family law unfairly advantages women over men when it comes to custody and how women are gaming the system. We can be sure of two things: that almost every word uttered by Hanson in the conduct of her “review” is going to be offensive and, worse still, that many Australians will agree with her.
One obvious failing of law enforcement in how it deals with domestic violence is the use of restraining orders: Hannah had such an order in place against her husband. It is almost too trite, and yet entirely accurate, to say that these orders are not worth the paper they are written on.
Surely, if someone is dangerous enough to warrant a restraining order he is dangerous enough to warrant an electronic ankle bracelet that will enable authorities to follow his movements?
When all is said and done, I am simply throwing questions into the ether. The solution to domestic violence is not to be found in my words. But we owe it to Hannah, Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey, and the many victims of domestic violence before them, to acknowledge that society is failing women (and their children) and that we must redouble efforts to stamp out the scourge of male violence against women.
It seems so little to ask.
Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher