Hear me out – Women’s experiences of seeking help for domestic violence in the ACT

B2B Editor13 June 2016

Hear me out – Women’s experiences of seeking help for domestic violence in the ACT

Somehow, in our thinking and talking about domestic violence, we’ve created a stereotype that only fits a certain kind of circumstance. We seem to revert to a mental checklist of what domestic violence looks like and what it doesn’t; of who “qualifies” as a victim and who doesn’t fit with our expectations. We’ve lost sight of the fact that no two situations are the same and all experiences are different. Women literally die each week in this country through murderous acts of domestic violence. And while we know a great deal about why and how domestic violence happens, it goes on.

As family lawyers who work with women who have experienced domestic violence, our role extends beyond the court room and beyond a particular client. It is our responsibility to continue this conversation, wherever we are, to raise awareness of this far reaching and catastrophic problem. All of us in our different roles, must understand what domestic violence means and what it does – it may impact the woman at the desk next to yours; the child in class with your children; the friend you never see much anymore.

The Women’s Centre for Health Matters (WCHM) published a report on 6 April 2016, providing insight into women’s experiences in seeking help for domestic violence (DV) in the ACT. The research conducted by Angela Carnovale has reiterated just how much work is still required to prevent DV and improve safety for women and children in both the ACT and by analogy, across Australia.

The terrible statistics provided on page 9 of the report confirm the urgent need to do more to prevent and respond to domestic violence:

* In Australia, a woman dies at the hands of a current or former partner almost every week;

* 1 in 3 has experienced physical violence since the age of 15;

* 1 in 5 has experienced sexual violence;

* 1 in 4 has experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner;

* Women in Australia are 3 times more likely than men to experience violence from a partner;

* Economic abuse is widespread but often not recognised as DV, including by those who are experiencing it.

Through the stories of 17 women who shared their experiences of seeking assistance in the ACT, it is clear that a spectrum of violence requires a spectrum of responses, and these responses must ensure that victims feel protected, not punished.

While many of the women who participated in the study spoke very highly of the support they received, there were others who spoke with despair and bewilderment of the failures. These included the bureaucratic burdens imposed upon them, especially when urgent housing and financial support was needed. It is particularly disturbing that women continue to report that there remained a pervasive and persistent view that domestic violence was only taken “seriously” if physical violence had occurred.

There are a number of people in the community who are calling for specialist family violence courts to deal with all issues relating to the protection of victims and their children. Sadly but realistically, the cost burden of implementing that system, with all the good will in the world, is likely to see the idea languish. So where does that leave us? Strengthening the quality and frequency of training to those within the courts and providing frank feedback about how the courts (and key personnel) deal with those who have experienced domestic violence, is essential. In the ACT, asking the key Court personnel and police to read this Report would be a good start.

In fact, every person interested in what we can do in the ACT, to prevent domestic violence and improve safety for women and children should read this report. From the stories shared, it is clear that there is still much work to be done. This must remain a priority as statistics are going the wrong way. The Domestic Violence Crisis Service (DVCS) received 21,361 calls for help in 2015, up from 16,270 the year before.

The numbers are there and won’t change until we do more. Last year in our community, two women were murdered by their former partners and one woman was allegedly murdered by her then partner. In the ACT, we have a real opportunity to shape and model best practice responses to domestic violence. What is stopping us from leading the way?

Di Simpson

Di Simpson is a partner and family lawyer of the firm.
18 Kendall Lane, New Acton
phone :(02) 6212 7600
E:[email protected]