Sitting beside a pool in Bali this month, a friend joined me, distressed by what he had just witnessed.
As he left his villa, a couple began an argument and, without warning, the man lifted his hand and brutally smashed the woman he was with across the face and nose.
My friend’s response was to feel sickened yet unwilling to intervene in someone else’s “domestic”. It is a common response and, until recently, it was the response of most people, including the police.
These days, we know better, that domestic violence is a vicious crime with long-term consequences for everyone involved. It is not okay and it is our business because both physical and mental domestic abuse is deplorable.
Yet, each week, one Australian woman dies at the hands of her partner or a former partner.
Rachael Taylor’s first-person account of her own experience with domestic violence, in this month’s issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly, is a powerful reminder that it can happen to anyone. On meeting Rachael in a New York photographic studio on a freezing Sunday morning, I was struck by her poise and self-confidence.
It seemed incongruous that someone with Rachael’s background and assertiveness could ever have found herself the victim of anything, let alone the violence of a partner. Yet this is her central message – if it can happen to her, it can happen to anyone and it is happening to someone you know and probably love.
Rachael’s story is part of her determination to campaign to stop violence against women, with White Ribbon. This tireless organisation works to change the attitudes of men. The fact is there are few measures we have in society to reduce the incidence of this type of violence. We can’t just introduce a law.
What we have to do is change the attitude of men and we need quality men, leaders in the community, to do it. One of those men is the 2014 Australian of the Year, Adam Goodes, who experienced violence in his home when he was growing up. Adam is a White Ribbon Ambassador and an exceptional role model, but we need more like him.
We need to not only stop the violence, but when it is happening, we as a community need to recognise it and then take action.
As I prepared for a TV slot on the topic this month, the camera assistant quietly told me he thought what I was discussing was “very important”.
Something in his demeanour suggested something was wrong. When I pressed him, he revealed his sister had been a victim of violence in the home for 20 years and, to his knowledge, she still was. Like so many women, she felt trapped, especially as she lived in the country.
You might ask how any woman could stay with a man who has abused her for 20 years. Well, Rachael gives a chilling insight into this very problem. “The physical fear wants to drive you away – far, far away from your abuser. You want to avoid the pain and survive. But the psychological fear leaves you unable to move, stranded in self-blame, denial and perceived isolation,” she writes.
“This stranded feeling is very acute. If you have ever wondered why a woman in a violent relationship didn’t ‘just leave’, this stranded feeling is very important to understand. It feels like all the friends you invited up the coast for your summer holidays vanished inexplicably while you were doing the washing up.”
In many ways, Rachael was lucky because the violence she experienced became public and, through that, she received help, but so many women are primarily ashamed. So the victims feel trapped and alone, but then they also feel ashamed. These are powerful inhibitors and, as a community, difficult for us to fight.
So, I urge anyone who reads this to look more closely at the women around you because odds are one of them is a victim of physical or emotional abuse. And if you see abuse, know that this is not “just a domestic”.
If you do see the signs, don’t do nothing – please find out more. There are ways to help, even if it means making it known among your mates that this sort of behaviour is not only unacceptable, it’s criminal.
Visit whiteribbon.org.au to donate or volunteer.
Helen McCabe is the Editor-In-Chief of The Australian Women’s Weekly.
This is an edited version of her Editor’s Letter in the March 2014 issue, on sale now. For more on this story, visit aww.com.au.
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