Content warning: discussion of domestic violence, memories and experiences of violence.
The title for this post was a little tricky because this is not just one term, there are several and they’re all relevant. However, the domestic element of the violence is one of the things that has stayed with me this week and it’s one of the reasons I’m writing so I’m going to use domestic violence as short hand for all these terms: intimate partner violence, family violence, men’s violence towards women and children, violence towards women and children.
I’m writing about this topic now not because I am new to it, but because of some of my classes this week. As a student midwife, my training involves learning about how to support women who have experienced, or are experiencing domestic violence and/or sexual abuse. There is an intimacy about midwifery that makes this topic of how to care critical for us. Long after the lectures have finished, tutorial discussions had, thoughts continue to simmer in my mind.
There is at present a national conversation taking place about domestic violence. In large part this is thanks to Rosie Batty, whose personal bravery and commitment to changing the status quo on this issue is well known. Destroy the Joint (Facebook link) is also working to bring awareness to this issue, by counting dead women. Their approach isn’t perfect: they count all women killed through violence, but there have been exceptions to this. So violence in general, not just domestic violence – although unsurprisingly it features as one of the main contributors to the deaths of 59 Australian women so far this year (also a Facebook link).
This post isn’t so much about facts and statistics, but my experience of those both this week and across my life. I think that it’s important to contextualise statistics – they’re not just numbers, they have real people, real lives and stories behind them. Sometimes that gets forgotten. I am someone who as a child witnessed domestic violence by my father towards my mother. This has had a lingering effect on me, for a start I remember very little of my childhood as my childhood self just blocked the memories and dissociated. As a teenager, my mother answered my questions about that time in her life honestly. She shared with me the copies of hospital reports she had kept that had said that she feared for her life. She told me that in the end she left not for herself, but for my brother and I. At the time she followed a Catholic faith and was told by her priest that she had made her bed and must lie in it.
I keep thinking about my mother in her early 20s dealing with this horror. I am almost in my mid-30s and can’t imagine dealing with it! She had (we have) a very supportive extended family who supported her but up until she left my father had isolated her significantly. It was hard to get out. She has occasionally mentioned that she needed to steal money from him when he was drunk to buy necessities – like medicine for us children. I remember that all the blinds were always down in the house – there was no sunlight that ever came in. This was true even after she left and I remember my father constantly talking about people who were nosey and who interfered. He was referring to people who helped my mother get away.
These are some of the snippets that circled my mind all day following our lectures/discussions in class. I was thinking and wondering how it was possible that in 2015, some 20-30 years after this had happened to my mother, we were still looking at prevalence statistics that were the same. That 1 in 3 women had experienced physical violence, 1 in 5 had experienced sexual violence and that this was most likely at the hands of a current or former partner. Most of the perpetrators of violence toward women are male¹.
It’s also generally held that these numbers are conservative, that they represent only what has been reported and that there are many and varied reasons why violence of this kind is not reported. Or witnessed. And so never comes to light. In decades the conversation has barely shifted. The only positive thing to say is that the conversation is being had more out loud and more forcefully than before. In Victoria, there is a Royal Commission into Family Violence currently taking place. It should be a national project, I’m angry that it isn’t. We are failing so many people with this – not just the women being hurt and killed, or children traumatised, but the toxic masculinity that fuels male violence in our society.
And then my mind wandered further. Because discussion of emotional abuse occurred and this too has been recognised as a form of domestic violence. And although I’ve never lived in a partnered situation where I experienced domestic violence directed to myself by a current or former partner, I have had a partner, who I didn’t live with, who did emotionally abuse me for some two years of our four year relationship. And coming to terms with that being the reality really only happened this week – although the experience happened some years ago now. It was only when the fact of it was staring me in the face that I truly realised that’s what had taken place. I always dismissed it because nothing so terrible ever really came of it – as though the emotional anguish wasn’t harm in and of itself. Remembering, I cringed inwardly and felt all of the shame from back then all over again – and I remember feeling so ashamed that I’d gotten hurt. I felt like I should have known better. I should have done more. That’s crap of course, this person shouldn’t have been abusive. End of story. Even now I feel anger and fear towards them. They are still connected to one of my social communities and every so often I see them socially. I hate it and battle the fear and anger every single time.
From the lecture one of the things that had been discussed was the fact that leaving a violent relationship was one of the escalating factors that can lead to life-threatening situations, or even death. Domestic violence is reported as one of the leading causes of death and disability for women in Australia. It’s chilling to think that the biggest threat to my life is from someone I love or once loved as a partner. This realisation stays with me and still haunts me. And I still fear it even though I’ve never lived with anyone who was domestically violent toward me, none of my partners have ever been abusive toward me with that one exception above. The difference there is that I never lived with this person, and that was never part of the plan, so I was never isolated and cut off and never at risk of greater harm than what my emotional self suffered. And yet, my heart still caught in my throat when I wondered how many other women had thought similar things.
So this is just me, and just my experiences. And as I was immersed in all these complicated feelings new and old, another truth occurred to me. I remembered sitting in my lecture theatre and in my tutorial classroom, surrounded by at least 20 – 30 other women. And I was reminded of the prevalence statistics all over again and was horrified to consider that in the room, other than myself, other classmates are likely to have experienced or were perhaps experiencing domestic violence. And I wouldn’t know.
So it wasn’t just about the hypothetical women I’d be caring about in my professional capacity as a midwife, but a really strong reminder that at any time when I’m out in the world, this is surrounding me. This is happening and it’s largely invisible. And, as a society, Australia remains resigned to it. There seems to be so little action on a national level seeking to change the culture that allows domestic violence to thrive and visit such horror upon so many people.
One final acknowledgement. I’m speaking from my own experience here, and while I generally identify as a genderqueer person, there was something about this week and these experiences that really resonated with me in a way where I felt distinctly female. A woman. A genderqueer woman, but still a woman. And this blog post and things I’ve linked to are very cisgendered in their approach. I know that violence towards transgendered and genderqueer people is also a huge issue – and one that doesn’t have great statistics or funded research organisations looking into it at all. There should be these things happening, and the experiences of non-gender-binary people should be included in discussions about this issue and in strategies to address it.
Also, As an Anglo-white person, this is also a very white-centric view, where the rates of domestic violence experienced by Australian Indigenous women, for example have a much higher prevalence and are linked to effects of colonisation and intergenerational oppression. In short, racism compounds the effect exponentially. And this is just one consideration, women from a Cultural and Linguistically Diverse background who are immigrants or refugee women (link no longer available so removed) also have different rates and experiences with domestic violence (and other violence particularly in the context of refugees), and similarly we don’t really prioritise that, especially not in culturally safe ways.
My point is, this post has it’s focus and it’s limited. There are also other really important aspects of this issue that need more attention and need to be discussed and it’s imperative that we seek to address all aspects of domestic violence, not just the cisgendered white face of it. There’s no one strategy that will encompass everything and everyone. Responses must be tailored, must be respectful, and must be culturally safe in order to be effective and make a sustainable difference.
When I qualify as a midwife, I will do my best to make a difference in this area. I’m not sure how that will work, or what will be involved but I can promise to do my best. I can be informed, I can be respectful, I can be kind and I can care about this issue and the effects it has on women, children, men and society at large.
- These statistics come from resources published by the Australian National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS).