By Jessica Sutton.
This article is dedicated to Hannah Clarke, and her children Aaliyah, Laianah, and Trey, killed by a man on 19th February 2020.
Content warning: This article contains graphic details which readers may find disturbing.
“What happens to my babies if he kills me?“
These were the words of Australian woman Hannah Clarke, a week ago. This week, she and her three children, Aaliyah, Laianah, and Trey were covered in petrol and burnt alive. The alleged culprit? Estranged husband and father, New Zealander Rowan Baxter. Also dead. By his own hand. Only after he watched his children burn to death in the back of the car. Only after he tried to prevent bystanders from pouring water on Ms Clarke’s body to stop her burning.
Aaliyah, Laianah, and Trey died in the car.
Hannah Clarke died in hospital overnight with burns to 97% of her body.
Driven Too Far
The male detective leading the investigation set the tone by his indication that the Australian public was interested in “taking sides”. He noted that Hannah Clarke and Baxter were separated and in the process of determining custody arrangements for their three young children. “Is this an issue of a woman suffering significant domestic violence and her and her children perishing at the hands of the husband, or is this an instance of a husband being driven too far by issues that he’s suffered by certain circumstances into committing acts of this form?” the detective asked.
Driven too far. It is horrifically familiar rhetoric. A lazy way to shift the blame from male murderers onto female victims, because of an unfounded idea of “provocation”. At the base of this statement is the idea that men have the right to control the behaviour of their partners. Perpetrators of domestic violence are sheltered by societal views that men have a right to control and demand sex from their partner, a right to “discipline” their family, and that if a woman does not submit to this, his mental or physical violence is justified to “fix” the conflict.
By all accounts, Ms Clarke was trying to escape a dangerous man. Baxter was nevertheless offered shared custody of the children before his actions led to a Domestic Violence Protection order, and reduced access when he breached it. Yet, a detective asks, whose side are you on?
And there’s a nasty voice in most of us that reassures us that she must have done something to explain what happened to her. Because in blaming women for male violence, we feel safer. That way, women just need to be more careful – choose their partners more carefully, behave more modestly, stop picking fights. We don’t have to face the frightening truth that as a woman or a child, there is no way to independently ensure your safety. Because the decision of a violent man can take everything away from you.
Men have self-control and responsibility over their actions like everyone else in society. No amount of supposed “provocation” can excuse violence. Intimate partner homicide should be treated with the same seriousness as any other violent murder.
Thankfully, the Queensland Police Commissioner has since asked the Detective Inspector concerned to step down. But the views that he espoused are still present in the police force investigating the murders, in the media grasping at every salacious detail, and in the society morbidly enjoying the graphic story.
How the Media Sees Domestic Violence
As a society, we continue to diminish domestic violence unless it manifests itself in a sufficiently shocking way to appeal to our morbid curiosity. Domestic violence is pervasive. In New Zealand alone, almost 20 women were killed in this context in 2019. In Australia, the number of women killed was near 50. The murders of Hannah Clarke and her children have been widely publicised, one can assume, because it isn’t what some characterise as “typical” domestic violence. The prominence of Baxter as a former sports player, and the grisly manner of the deaths have been emphasised. No one wants to hear about the women beaten to death by their partners in their own home in New Zealand last year. But a dramatic car fire, that is media gold. No one wants to hear about the 1,006 femicides that happened in Mexico in 2019. But two weeks ago, when Ingrid Escamilla was stabbed, disembowelled and skinned by her partner, the graphic photos of her mutilated body were leaked to the press to enormous profit.
And this portrayal adds to the pervasive and damaging idea that this kind of incident is rare, and only carried out by a notional “monster”. Not our family members, friends, neighbours. Not our “good guys”. The thing is – many believed Baxter to be a “good guy”. A devoted father, a loving partner. And he jumped into his estranged wife’s car, poured petrol on her and their children, and set them alight. These two things are not mutually exclusive. Domestic abusers can maintain a perfect image, while horrific abuse is hidden to the outside world. The murders of Ms Clarke and her children are not isolated atrocities, they are symptomatic of a society founded on male violence and entitlement. Our society.
Hannah Clarke obtained a Domestic Violence Order to try and protect herself and her children from Baxter, after Baxter allegedly abducted their daughter Laianah. The system did not protect them. We have heard from Ms Clarke’s family about the relationship she was in, and the abuse she was subjected to every day. We have also heard how Ms Clarke herself, did not want to admit that what she was experiencing was domestic violence, because Baxter had not physically assaulted her. Instead, according to her family, Baxter forced her to have sex with him, used the children as bargaining chips, monitored her Facebook accounts, controlled her clothing and her finances, made threats of suicide or physical harm, and isolated her from family and friends.
Domestic violence is far more than physical abuse. It is mental abuse, it is verbal degradation, it is sexual violence and coercion. And it never stops there. It’s just a domestic, people say. Couples fight. It’s not serious. But domestic violence is a cycle which escalates, and escalates, until women and children die. Yes, I say women and children. Because, again, domestic violence is gendered. 82% of those killed by an intimate partner are women. Children are the next most likely targets.
And still people ask, why doesn’t she just leave. Hannah Clarke is a tragic reminder of what can happen when women leave. At least 50% of intimate partner homicides occur at the point of separation. This is the moment when a violent man moves from wanting to retain control, to wanting to punish his victims. This kind of offender wants the fullest vengeance over his partner and children – to the point that he judges them unworthy of life for not according with his wishes.
Not One More
I didn’t know Hannah and her children. But I don’t need to in order to mourn them. Each woman or child who dies at the hands of a violent man is a potent source of grief for me, and should be for all of us. Not only because of the horror of the loss: the life, the potential, the opportunities that are callously taken. But also because it is preventable. Male violence is neither inevitable nor excusable. We need to educate our young men about safe and effective conflict resolution, to prevent them lashing out in anger and entitlement. We need a family violence system that actually protects victims. We need domestic violence to be treated with the impartiality and seriousness it deserves. We need the cyclical and escalatory nature of domestic violence to be understood by authorities, so that a “domestic incident” isn’t allowed to escalate into a femicide or filicide (killing of a child).
And we have a long way to go. 21% of those surveyed by the National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety in 2018, believed a woman can provoke a man to commit violence “when he didn’t mean to”. We are living in a society of callous victim blaming, repeated endlessly. It’s the same callousness that hits me whenever I say Grace Millane’s name, and people shrug it off. Like she is last year’s news. Well, a little part of me will be sad forever, each time I get another birthday, and Grace doesn’t. It’s the same pang I feel when I think of how Amber-Rose Rush and Bianca Devins should be turning 18 this year. The same when, from now on, I think of Hannah and her children, and the lives that were stolen from them.
Do you think 17 years minimum sentence is anything equivalent to what Grace’s murderer stole from her? From her family? Do you think Baxter killing himself and thereby avoiding accountability is anything close to justice for Hannah and her children? Do you think Ingrid Escamilla’s family will ever be able to find peace, knowing the pain and terror she endured at the hands of someone who was meant to love her?
Do you still think that male violence is an exaggeration?
The only part of Hannah Clarke’s body that wasn’t burnt beyond recognition was the soles of her feet. Her family want to found a movement called “Small Steps For Hannah”, to help women suffering domestic violence. All I can say is, support it.
We need all the hope we can get.
I am a survivor, not a victim. I am in control of my life and there is nothing I can’t achieve.
– Hannah Clarke’s final Instagram post. 
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