Human rights

COVID-19 lockdown worsens violence against women

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Hannah Clarke was killed in horrific circumstances by her husband earlier this year (screenshot via YouTube).

The scourge of domestic violence has intensified during the lockdown period and the Prime Minister and religion must strongly condemn it, writes Dr Ray Barraclough.

WE RECEIVE ALMOST daily reports by Prime Minister Scott Morrison as to how Australia's response to the virus – and its consequences – is experienced.

There are graphs showing the changing features of the pandemic. But there are two features of the experience that the Prime Minister never addresses.

The first feature is that those involved in dealing with domestic violence against women had predicted that the incidence of this scourge would increase during this time of the pandemic lockdown.

 Amidst the briefings, there needs to be a tracing of these incidents.

As the ABC has reported

'Social services organisations have already reported a rise in family violence rates since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic … As a rise in family violence due to the coronavirus crisis is set to strain an already critically overstretched social support system, some abusers are reportedly using COVID-19 as a psychological weapon.'

The second feature is that the current state of domestic violence presents a challenge, relevant both to the Prime Minister himself and to those church leaders deeply committed to inculcating that women submit to "male headship".

“Male headship” undergirds the practice of domestic violence. The word “headship” is similar to such words as “authority”, “power” and in many cases, “control”. Particular church leaders use the text of the Bible to support this hierarchical structure of society and family.

A central characteristic of the majority of domestic violence cases is the overriding power of the male in the relationship.

As noted, conservative Christian leaders appeal to the Bible to buttress this aspect of male power and control. One passage often cited is Ephesians 5:22-24.

It is worth a closer examination because of the degree of power and control that it confers on the male in any heterosexual domestic relationship. The passage comes from the First Century.

It addressed both husbands and wives in it, but the admonitions directed at women relate most directly to the issue of domestic violence:

22. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.


23. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour.


24. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.

The dynamics of male power and female submission are clearly entrenched in that Bible passage As I've written elsewhere:

  • Wives, like all other Christians, are to give unquestioning obedience and submission to the Lord. Thus, wives are to give unquestioning obedience and submission to their husband. Why? Because 'wives [are to] be subject to [their] husbands as [they] are to the Lord';
  • Christians believe that Christ has absolute power over the Church, for Christ is the head of the Church. So the husband is to have absolute power over his wife. Why? Because 'the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church'; and
  • The final exhortation clearly nails down the subjection of the woman to her husband. This is a strong framework within which unquestioned abuse can occur. The text is quite clear about who holds power and control. 'Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands'. 

These two words, "in everything", with the preceding biblical declarations, provide a roadmap for male power and control in marriage. If this passage from the Bible is taken literally (as some "Bible believers" do), the words are a blueprint for unfettered male power and control.

Recently, a clip was shown on ABC's Media Watch of an exchange between the Prime Minister and Ray Hadley. The latter was critical of an aspect of the Prime Minister’s politics and religion. The PM hit back at Hadley, saying that criticism of his politics was valid, but criticism of his religion was beyond the pale.

This was rather bizarre to hear, given that Scott Morrison’s first speech upon being elected to Parliament, was replete with religious claims and references, and the acknowledgement of religious mentors.

It was an address loaded with political theology.

On winning the 2019 Election, the Prime Minister claimed that it was a “miracle”. In using that religious term, one might assume he was quite consciously bringing his God into the political debate in Australia.

Since the Prime Minister belongs to the Pentecostal version of Christianity (which regards the Bible as infallible), he needs to be honest with the Australian public regarding his support or his disavowal of the domestic power relationships inculcated in Ephesians 5:22-24.

The practice of domestic violence against women is also a virus. Like the coronavirus, it is global in its destructive scope. The domestic violence virus can also lead to the death of women at the hands of their male abusers.

Acknowledging the structures that undergird violence against women is not something beyond the pale: not even for a Prime Minister.

The PM needs to square with the Australian people as to what the Government is doing to eliminate domestic violence. 

Leaders of “male headship” churches must publicly clarify whether their faith gets in the way of acknowledging the scourge of violence against women.

For them, the challenge is compounded. No female leaders can speak out from these churches because these churches are opposed to having female leaders. In "male headship" churches, only men are permitted to have ultimate power, whether in the local church (as parish priest) or in the wider diocese (as bishop or archbishop).

There are two viruses and thus, two challenges.

Dr Ray Barraclough is a member of the Management Committee of A Progressive Christian Voice (Australia) Inc.

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