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Faces of domestic violence could be ours

November 28 2020

Their faces only extraordinary in how ordinary they are. They are our faces. They are the faces of any woman you know. They are familiar.

These faces represent just 10 of the 2.2 million women in Australia who have experienced violence and abuse at the hands of someone who should have loved them.

Walking through the gallery and looking into the eyes of the women in these photographs, reminds me of any single day as a doctor working with those who have experienced trauma. They just look so familiar; your neighbour, your best friend, your sister … and yet their lives and their experiences still take my breath away.

For me personally, there is nothing out of the ordinary to see faces like these telling their story. The story of a love they once believed in, which slowly made room for degradation, humiliation, restriction, isolation, to the more overt and well-recognised slaps, punches, kicks and strangulation.

There is nothing extraordinary for faces like these to hide incalculable pain and to have never told anyone about it.

There is nothing extraordinary when those faces are completely overwhelmed with gratitude for simple things such as recognising that they have been hurt or hearing three magic words … “I believe you”.

There is nothing extraordinary for faces like these to truly believe that their experiences of years of torture do not matter, that they do not count.

In many ways they are right, those experiences do not really count. They do not count towards an assertive police response. They do not count towards an effective or meaningful legal response. They do not even count towards a compassionate and trauma-informed health response.

The overwhelming majority of cases of assaults within a home are hidden secrets. Kept under lock and key by a society built on the belief that violence in the home is not just inevitable and unchangeable but also not our responsibility.

But it is our responsibility. We ask women “why do they stay”? But the fact is, we do not allow them to leave. We have reduced the number of safe houses available to them. We ask them to stay away from men that will not stay away from them. We think we are protecting women when we hand them a piece of paper that reminds her abuser of the laws they already knew the first time they broke them.

We do not let women leave without expecting them to leave their children with someone most reasonable people would not want to leave their children with…. for at least half of the time in shared access arrangements. Yet we consider it good parenting when we don’t allow our children to watch violence on TV. We consider it good parenting when we assess the safety of the families of our kid’s friends before they have a “sleepover”. Plus, when we say no to a playdate at a home where there is violence or substance use. Except we make an exception when the abuser is that child’s father. Why?

We don’t make childcare accessible or affordable for single mothers, and female-dominated professions remain paid significantly less than male-dominated ones. Then we tell those women they cannot afford to keep their children.

In every way, we throw obstacles in front of women trying to leave violence, but we shake our heads in sorrow when they are killed ….”why didn’t she leave”? As a society we never accept that the blame also lies with us. We live in a world where we are trained to say “it’s not our fault”.

In Australia, there is no designated place survivors of domestic and family abuse can access easily and freely, to receive the specific specialised treatment they require to manage the symptoms of complex trauma caused by this abuse.

More than half of the $22 billion spent on domestic violence is borne by the survivors themselves. Society pays the remainder with lost productivity, disability, physical and mental health care costs, social and financial costs of increased crime, drug use and homelessness. We pay in the costs of children’s services, police and health involvement of which domestic violence is a huge proportion.

It WOULD be extraordinary if we as a society recognised and believed women who have experienced trauma, and that since we do not protect her and we do not make her abuser responsible for his actions, that we at least take responsibility for helping her recover.

We must provide the most appropriate specialist trauma informed psychological and psychiatric care, believe her and not blame her for what has happened and allow her to recover and heal.

As one survivor said “On the outside you may not see it…. but on the inside I have many broken pieces of glass that can still cut”. It would be extraordinary if we could see the glass and help mend the wounds.

It is time for us to expect our government fund the establishment of the Women’s Trauma Recovery Centre. It is the right thing to do. For further information regarding the Women’s Trauma Recovery Centre go to womenstraumacentre.wordpress.com

It is time for us to be extraordinary.

Dr Karen Williams is Specialist Mental Health and Trauma Advisor for the Illawarra Women’s Health Centre.

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