Wendy Austin wants you to know that family violence is not about other people.
Manningham Uniting Church member Wendy has worked to combat family violence for more than 40 years, including being CEO and manager of Brenda House Domestic Violence service.
She is a founder, long-time board member and now consultant with peak advocacy and research body Domestic Violence Victoria (DV Vic) and was one of the key presenters at last month’s Justice and International Mission conference.
The essential message she has for those who think domestic violence hasn’t happened or isn’t happening to someone they know is that they are almost certainly wrong.
“Family violence impacts the people you shop with, the people on the bus, and the people you go to church with,” she said.
“I’ve done many talks in churches and I’ll say, ‘Look around the room, one-in-three relationships suffers from some form of imbalance’.
“The more we think we’re special, we’re not. We’re part of the community, we just happen to gather together to worship.”
Victoria recorded more than 78,000 incidence of family violence in 2016, an increase of 10 per cent on the previous year.
According to DV Vic even that figure is less than the real tally because many incidents are unreported.
What is known is that one woman a week dies as the result of intimate partner violence, making it the leading cause of preventable illness, disability and death for women aged 15 to 44.
While family violence is often presented in terms of injury or death, Wendy feels we need to expand our understanding to include all forms of control.
“My aim is to raise awareness of family violence as an imbalance of power and control in relationships,” she said.
“An imbalance is not just about physical or visible violence, or something that is at crisis point. It might appear ‘normal’ to the people it affects, but it is something we can all have a part in addressing.
“This requires us to think of it as something that happens to us.
“Think about the kids that come into your home when they come to play. Some of those mothers are being abused, some of those fathers are abusers. It’s a fact. It’s not something where you can think ‘oh maybe not’ – it is a fact.
“There will be people in our lives who will be living like that. Sometimes their family don’t know, the community around them don’t know, but it doesn’t mean they are not there.”
According to DV Vic, family violence is rarely a one-off incident. More typically it is the result of progressively worse behaviour.
“Family violence often starts with an intimate partner’s apparent love transforming into controlling and intimidating behaviour,” DVVic says on its website.
“Over time, the woman is often increasingly isolated from friends and family by her partner. Physical violence may not occur until the relationship is well established, or it may not occur at all.
The abusive, violent and controlling behaviours create an environment of fear and constant anxiety in a place where women and children should feel safe and secure.”
Wendy said there was often an “early noticing” stage where people might be able to intervene.
It could be that a woman has little control over the household finances and this is evidenced by her worrying about overspending on groceries or gifts.
Wendy said it was important to start the conversation without making the woman feel you were challenging her decisions.
“You can ask, ‘Is this an arrangement you have agreed to? I do things a little bit differently to that’. Take it more into that sort of space,” she said.
“The key is to always leave the person in control because that’s not what they are used to.
“Allow them to be in control and say ‘no’ if they don’t want your help. You have to know when to push and when not to.
“You can offer a cuppa or offer a chance to just have a chat and if they say ‘no’ then it’s no. But you’ve offered.”
Wendy feels it is vital to understand people often come to view a power imbalance as normal, so they don’t realise it is an abusive relationship.
“It is important to remember that nobody’s reality is the same – what you experience is your normality,” she said.
“It is affected by their personal view of their self-worth, both from the view of those experiencing violence and those perpetrating violence.”
From working in a women’s shelter, Wendy has learnt the importance of respecting a person’s reality and not trying to “fix” their situation.
“People come in and out of family violence; we think they are ready to leave but they’re not and might go back to a situation you don’t believe is right,” Wendy said.
“But I used to say to my case managers, ‘She needs to be the one to make that choice’.
“If you’ve done nothing but plant that seed that she actually matters, that she is worth being respected and safe, then maybe that’s all you need to do at that point in time.
“Maybe next time something happens she might make different choices depending on whether she is in a different place and whether she values herself or not.”
While on a personal level it might be confronting to offer help, particularly if that help is rebuffed, Wendy believes community organisations, such as churches, have a significant role to play in reducing the level of family violence.
“It’s the preventative stuff where I think the community has a role that can be very valuable because they can do it together,” she said.
“The role sits in any of the places where communities gather. The sporting ground, churches, the pub – anything that brings people together, the opportunity is there.
“The notion of building respect and promoting it is the best way of dealing with it. It’s challenging what have become norms.”
While family violence permeates all socio-economic levels of society, rural and regional communities are particularly impacted.
An Australian Institute of Family Studies research paper, Domestic and family violence in regional, rural and remote communities, found that isolation, lack of service providers, and entrenched patriarchal values contributed to the comparative prevalence of family violence in rural communities.
The paper, released in 2015, found that women often stayed in abusive relationships because of a lack of viable alternatives, such as somewhere to stay or find employment.
Wendy agrees the issues contributing to family violence are often amplified in rural communities.
“To leave a relationship, you are giving up a lot, especially for women on farms,” she said.
“They are giving up their home, their workplace, the only safety they have, and they can’t leave with much equity until the legal process has taken place, so it’s not a simple thing to do. Also, emergency accommodation regionally and rurally is very sparse.”
However, Wendy says, the cloistered characteristics of small communities are not entirely negative.
“I was discussing this recently with a nurse from a Bush Nursing centre. She said one of the things that makes it tricky to discuss family violence in a small community is that everybody knows everybody,” Wendy said.
“But this is also one of the things that can in fact reduce family violence because people do look out for each other.”
This ties in with Wendy’s ideas on “early noticing” and helping to build up the confidence in people to start conversations with those they think might need help.
“A number of interesting programs have been developed,” she said.
“One involves a group of hairdressers that have been trained to recognise family violence. People often talk openly to their hairdressers, so it is educating them to know where to go.
“They aren’t expected to solve it, but to say ‘No wonder you’re upset, it doesn’t sound good, here’s a number you can ring’.
“I think this can work for a number of organisations and groups.
“If you know what the next step is you can offer to go with them, you can offer to find the phone number – there’s a whole range of little things we can do.”
Domestic violence and the workplace
As society comes to terms with the prevalence of domestic violence, Australian employers are beginning to take steps to support their employees who may be affected.
In 2011, the University of New South Wales reported 30 per cent of employees had experienced domestic violence.
This impacted on their work in a variety of ways, with nearly half saying they had taken days off due to partners hiding their keys or refusing to care for children.
Others reported receiving abusive phone calls and emails, or their abuser showing up at work.
Access Economics predicts the cost of lost productivity in Australia associated with family violence at will be $609 million by 2022.
This year, the Federal Government proposed changes to the Fair Work Act to include provisions for employees experiencing family violence.
Dr Mark Zirnsak, senior social justice advocate for the Vic/Tas Synod, said the mooted changes were inadequate.
In a submission to parliament, Mark noted the Bill provided five days of unpaid leave annually at the discretion of an employer, but he argued that this allowed too much scope for trying to minimise the time taken off work.
Concern was also raised at the narrow definition of family violence recognised by the Bill.
A person is entitled to family violence leave only if they themselves are the victim of the violence.
Mark said this contrasted with similar legislation in countries such as New Zealand and the Philippines, which allowed 10 days of paid family violence leave. These countries also considered employees eligible for such leave if they were caring for, or supporting, family members who may be experiencing violence.
Mark cited the example of steps taken by the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania to help employees experiencing family violence.
For help and support
If you, or someone you know is in immediate danger call: 000
For help or advice call:
1800 Respect: 1800 737 732 (Australia-wide)
Safe Steps Family Violence Response Center: 1800 015 188 or 03 9322 3555 (Vic)
Domestic Violence Helpline: 1800 800 098 (Vic)
Family Violence Response Referral line: 1800 633 937 (Tas)
Family Violence Counselling and Support Service: 1800 608 122 (Tas)