Sex discrimination commissioner Anna Cody fears coercive control laws could backfire

Laws intended to protect victims of domestic violence have sometimes had the opposite effect.

Laws intended to protect victims of domestic violence have sometimes had the opposite effect. Photo: Getty

Australia’s new sex discrimination commissioner sees the potential for a tragic irony in oercive control laws, which she says could be abused to further the predicament of women they are intended to protect.

Coercive control – where someone repeatedly hurts, scares or isolates another person to control them – has become one of the many tricky issues in conversations about intimate partner, domestic and family violence.

After advocacy from some mainstream women’s anti-violence groups, several states have introduced laws criminalising the practice.

But Indigenous women’s groups and advocates have expressed concerns about the ways in which coercive control laws could be used against First Nations women, either deliberately or inadvertently.

Anna Cody, who took up the role of Sex Discrimination Commissioner in August, has reservations about the ways in which coercive control legislation has been enacted in some jurisdictions without sufficient education.

“Without changing people’s attitudes, both around sex and around race, then I think the way it will get policed can be really dangerous,” she told AAP.

‘The system really didn’t cope’

“I worked strongly in domestic and family violence around apprehended violence orders and saw how they were used by violent men as another means to be violent to their intimate partners or family members.

“The system really didn’t cope with that – it finds it very hard and police find it hard to distinguish who is the perpetrator and who is the victim.”

Dr Cody is worried that criminalising coercive control won’t work well within the law.

“I think that coercive control is particularly susceptible to being abused, and where we know that Indigenous communities are so heavily over-policed, I fear that Indigenous communities will really be the first to bear the brunt of that,” she said.

Dr Cody has previously worked as an academic and as a lawyer specialising in discrimination, with a background in grassroots community work and international human rights.

She intends to remain mindful of intersectionality: the ways in which different aspects of a person’s identity – gender, race, sexuality, disability – can expose them to overlapping forms of discrimination.

“I’m keen to have a holistic understanding of women and girls and LGBTQ+ communities, so really thinking about culturally diverse, First Nations women and girls, as well as women and girls with disability,” she said.

Dr Cody is also keen to build on the work done by other human rights commissioners, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar, who has worked extensively with First Nations women around the country for the Wiyi U Yani Thangani (Women’s Voices in Bunuba language) project.

‘Community-led approaches’

“It is really important that the events that I participate in include First Nations women’s voices to give prominence to the indicators that are really concerning for First Nations women, around health, education, employment and violence,” she said.

“I’m really keen to hear about some of the community-led approaches that June has very much focused on, and particularly ways of addressing domestic and family violence that communities know what will work for them.”

Commissioner Anna Cody will will put a focus on abuse and ‘sexualised racism’. Photo: AAP

Federal parliament in 2022 amended the Sex Discrimination Act to require employers to actively prevent workplace sex harassment and discrimination, rather than respond after it occurs.

“I’m excited about that and then there’s another process that we’re driving to hear from people who have experienced sexual harassment,” Dr Cody said.

“I’m keen to hear about some of those intersections. Sometimes people call it sexualised racism – often it is really hard to pull those apart, the experiences often go together.

“So trying to think about creating resources that would help employers understand that experience better and respond better.”

And while Dr Cody already has plenty on her agenda, she’s keen to hear from communities about what their priorities are.

“Whether that be around domestic and family violence, or another area is low income for women and girls,” she said.

“I’m excited to bring some of my community experience, as well as having worked in universities and thinking about discrimination law and how human rights law works – or doesn’t work – for women in all our diversity.”

-with AAP

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