November 25 is White Ribbon Day – International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
As Anna opens the door, slips off her heels and walks through her spotless waterfront mansion, all she can hear is silence. With every step, anxiety grows until she is confronted by her husband. Pressing a large kitchen knife against the throat of their 16-year-old son. Now she is hysterical.
He releases the boy, shoves him out of the way, chases and pins her to the ground with his 83-kilogram frame. She struggles beneath him as he bellows. He hits her hard and continuously with a closed fist to the chest then her face. She blacks out.
To the outside world Anna is a confident, wealthy and successful career woman but behind closed doors her life is anything but perfect. Anna first came to the Womens’ Health and Information Service two years ago. She has been given guidance and support but sadly she hasn’t left her husband yet.
Bernadette Hoy, coordinator for the Womens’ Health and Information Services in the Sutherland Shire, explained that, on average a woman will leave seven times before she walks out the door for the very last time. Bernadette said violence had become so much part of Anna’s life that “she couldn’t see how bad it was … she just didn’t see that, that was just beyond normal”.
In June, the definition of domestic violence under Australia’s family laws was broadened to include emotional manipulation, withholding money, stalking, repeated derogatory taunts and preventing someone from having contact with family and friends.
Bernadette makes the point that domestic violence tends to be more psychological than physical. She described a scenario where a calculating husband followed his wife to the counselling centre, “The bottom line is power and control … he knew by following her here, he had her completely cornered and petrified … he was certainly letting her know who’s boss.” She confessed that by the time he left, she felt as scared as his wife.
In NSW, police recorded 26,673 domestic violence assaults last year, this is an increase of almost 600 cases from the previous year. A 2012 police commission report states that domestic violence is the most common form of violence and is growing at a far greater rate than any other violent crime.
The harsh reality is that one-in-three Australian women will experience some form of domestic abuse throughout their lifetime.
During the five or so years Bernadette has been managing the centre she will never forget what one cheeky and strong-willed 80-year-old volunteer, Shirley, said: “Darling, we are all just one husband away from homelessness.” This was true in her generation. In the early 1950s, Shirley took her four children, left her abusive husband and never looked back.
Over the past four weeks, the womens’ centre has seen 1041 women and helped with 1172 different issues. Bernadette is the only paid staff member at the centre. The government once paid for a domestic violence worker on a trial basis but decided to discontinue funding. The centre now raises just enough money through raffles and book sales to pay for a domestic violence worker one day a week. This is not enough if you consider a 2009 economic report which found domestic violence was costing the Australian economy $13.6 billion*.
Bernadette is a wife and mother to two teenagers. Her 13-year-old enjoys answering the phone and helping out around the centre. The last time she volunteered, she came face-to-face with a drug addict. The young woman was loud and erratic which was something her 13-year-old had never seen before. Bernadette simply explained: “Sometimes that’s what life looks like.” – Jade Weeks
Note: names of victims have been changed.
* A report compiled by KPMG for The National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children.
Photo from Amy Diana’s photostream.