“Family violence is an area where – bizarrely – government organisations don’t necessarily seek the counsel of those who understand what is happening at the coalface – those who know what it is for a woman to be in an abusive relationship, for a woman to worry about the safety of her children, to be fearful of her partner, to be trapped. As this conversation grows,
we will see more women find their voices.” – 2015 Australian of the Year, Rosie Batty
This year marks more than a century since the first official International Women’s Day was held in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. From its early beginnings as a socialist worker’s movement, the United Nations Day on 8 March now highlights the issue of gender equality throughout the world.
While it is easy to look at gender inequality in the developing world with a sense of concern, it is more disquieting to realise that in developed, progressive countries such as ours the greatest threat to a woman’s life between the ages of 15 to 45 is domestic violence.
In February 2014, the horrific murder of 11-year-old Luke Batty at the hands of his father brought the issue of domestic abuse to the consciousness of all Australians. Luke’s mother, Rosie, has bravely become the face of this insidious violence.
The 2015 Australian of the Year, Ms Batty has described family violence as “an entrenched epidemic that we’ve lived with since time began”.
In March last year, Crosslight reported on a number of initiatives developed to tackle the growing concern of domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence.
In spite of increased media interest in domestic violence, in the first two months of this year the number of women killed by their partner is double what it was for the same time last year. At the time of writing the national toll is 14 women killed by their partner in 2015 – two a week.
As governments promise support services at the same time as cutting funds, it is easy to become cynical about the collective will to tackle this deadly problem. We can only hope that as more women speak out, as Rosie Batty has, perhaps we will start to listen.
The feeling of helplessness is a common theme that emerges when discussing the issue of domestic violence. While we can lobby governments and service providers to provide more support, what can we do as ordinary citizens to address this problem?
We spoke with two women about their experience of domestic violence. The names of those involved have been changed to protect their privacy.
Jane met Dominic when he was a patient at the hospital where she worked as a nurse. When he was discharged, they agreed to keep in touch. As Jane explains, the control started almost immediately.
“He would call me five minutes after my shift ended and if I wasn’t there to take the call he would get really angry with me. He would show up unannounced to see me. He knew about my first boyfriend from the day we met and would often tease me about trying to stay in contact with him.
“I got pregnant at 19 and he decided we would get married. He showed up at my door one day. When he came into my room he saw things I had kept from my first boyfriend and went crazy. That was the first time he hit me – approximately four months after we met.
“The beatings escalated and never abated. He would hit me even when I was pregnant or breast feeding. I was hit, punched, kicked, spat on. He beat me with whips and telephone cords. Stabbed me with forks. I still have a missing tooth that was knocked out during one argument. He raped me in the ‘conventional’ way and in other ways.”
Jane said there were periods that were better than others, but she lived with the constant uncertainty of what would happen next. Dominic rarely worked and Jane had to support their growing family. But the abuse made it hard to keep a job.
“When I was black and blue and bruised I would call in sick – bosses soon got tired of that and I would lose my job. Then I’d look for another without being able to use the last as
a reference and on it goes.”
Dominic became increasingly paranoid and thought Jane’s family was conspiring against him. He would listen in to phone calls and interpret what was being said to suit his agenda. Speaking with Jane today, it is hard to believe that this funny, independent, confident woman ever lived through such a nightmare.
“I think that despite being degraded all the time, I developed quite a strong personality and that got me through,” Jane said. “I also think that because I never, ever thought
it was my fault – that helped me.”
After more than two decades of abuse, Jane knew she had to get away. By this time the couple were in serious financial trouble, so Jane suggested they divorce and she would
take on responsibility for all the debt. Amazingly, Dominic agreed. Jane literally bought her freedom.
Unlike Jane, Carol was older when she met her husband. With a successful career and buying her own home, Carol knew that one day she wanted to have children
and, in her 30s, was worried time was running out.
“Hindsight is cruel,” Carol says. “Looking back I can see so clearly that I should never have married David. Almost from the moment we met he tried to control me, but when you’re falling in love, you see things so differently.
“David was very serious about everything. We discussed marriage quite early in the relationship and he suggested we stop going out so much to save money. At the time,
I thought he was being very responsible.”
Six months after they met, Carol and David were married. Although he was not overtly controlling at first, Carol said she can now identify the warning signs.
“Because we rarely socialised, I wasn’t seeing my friends as much. And when we did catch up, he would often criticise them afterwards. Over time it was easier not to see them.
“It was the same with my family, if my mum or sisters rang in the evenings he would sigh and make it clear to me they were interrupting. My family were living interstate and it got so they would only ring me during the day when I was at work, so we stopped having those long chatty conversations most families have.”
David and Carol tried to start a family for more than a year. When Carol didn’t fall pregnant, David suggested she leave her job, as perhaps the stress was not helping.
“Again, I can see now how stupid I was. I loved my job but at the time thought he was being really supportive. He wanted kids as much as me, so I didn’t feel I could argue
with him. And he was prepared to take on the responsibility of all the household bills.”
Carol said it is this feeling of being ‘stupid’ that stopped her from asking for help for so long when things became really bad in the relationship. Like many women in her situation, she felt she had contributed by making the wrong decisions.
“Friends and family could see what was happening, but if they criticised him or questioned our marriage, I felt that I had to defend him. I was his wife, and that’s what wives do.”
Perceptions of abusive relationships also contributed to Carol’s state of mind. To the outside observer David and Carol were the perfect couple – a nice house in an affluent suburb, a beach house and regular holidays. Even Carol admits that when she thought of abused women, she just didn’t fit the ‘stereotype’.
“You almost become complicit in your own abuse. The shame makes you hide what is really happening from everyone – and from yourself.”
It was after their first child was born that David’s control over Carol became more overt. He often stated that for a marriage to work one person had to be the boss; it made sense that the boss was the person who paid the bills.
Carol is the first person to admit that she is not very skilled domestically. So when David criticised her cooking or housekeeping skills, she felt he was justified.
“The deal was he earned the money and I kept the house. He was always reminding me that I was failing to keep my part of the deal.
“The thing is that this didn’t just happen overnight. It was a bit like the frog in hot water – if you put it in cold water and boil it, it will stay and boil to death, but if you throw a frog into already boiling water it will jump straight out.
“The pre-David me would never have put up with the tantrums, the wall punching, the isolation or the financial dependence. But after 10 years of chipping away at me – and our children – I was completely dominated by this man.”
Carol said her heart would sink when she heard David’s car pull up at the end of the day. She would look around the house and wonder what would make him angry.
“It could be anything from the washing not put away to the kids not bathed. I still remember that sick feeling I would have as he ‘inspected’ the house.”
The marriage ended after Carol was diagnosed with cancer. Her mother came to look after the children while Carol underwent treatment. Carol describes her mum as the frog that jumped into the boiling water.
“Mum knew something was wrong but she had no idea how bad things were. Things came to a head when my seven-year-old broke a vase and was petrified, rushing to clean up the mess and hide it before her father got home. Mum realised then the stress we were living under and that was the beginning of the end.”
Both Jane and Carol wanted to share their stories in the hope that it will help others who are either living through family violence or know someone who is. They both agree with the sentiments of Rosie Batty – women need to find their voice.
“Tell someone immediately,” Jane says. “Get out – the first time he (or she) even threatens to hurt you. Remember that this person does not love you or they would not treat you like this. You are worth a lot more than making this person feel in charge. Don’t feed their hunger for power.”
Carol agrees that talking honestly is one of the most powerful thing women can do.
“I was isolated by him, but even more isolated by shame. Women are great at pretending everything’s fine,” Carol said. “It’s incredible once you start talking how empowering it is, not just for you but for others who realise they’re not alone.”
Both women say the decision to end the relationship was just the beginning of a long struggle and both made financial sacrifices to get away.
“Deciding to leave is the easy part really, there’s still a long way to go before you can really say you’re free,” Carol said. “That’s when women need the support of others; family, friends and community services to help them through.”
Jane wants to encourage anyone who suspects a loved one or neighbour is being abused to speak up, but to do so sensitively.
“Teachers knew something was amiss and never said a word,” Jane said. “Bosses and colleagues knew something was up and never said a word. Neighbours would have heard the arguing and could have called the cops. I may have responded to the police if they knocked on the door. I would have been open to some kind of help if I was a million per cent sure I could get away.
“People have told me they wanted to help, but didn’t know what to do or if getting involved could have worsened the situation.
“We need to educate ‘outsiders’ so that they don’t alienate the person being abused or make it worse, but can offer some proper support.”
Carol agrees that education is the key.
“It’s too easy to say to someone ‘just leave’. If you are going to offer advice, make sure it’s practical as well as supportive. If you have a friend or family member in this situation, find out what services are available before you start ‘telling’ them what to do.
“Remember they have spent many years being told what to do, what they need from a friend is support and empowerment. They need to see there is a way out.”