Violence against women remains an all-too-common blight on Australian communities.
Family violence, the leading preventable contributor to death, disability and ill-health among women aged 15 to 44, is the most prevalent form of violence.
While almost 60 per cent of assaults against a woman resulting in hospitalisation are committed by a partner, more than 300,000 women experience violence from someone else each year.
Violence is a plague that does not discriminate, affecting women of every background and age.
Read more: ‘I am no longer a victim’
But women experiencing marginalisation or disadvantage in the community are often affected by violence in different ways, ways exacerbated by their circumstances.
This year, the theme for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women is ‘Leave No One Behind’, shining a light on marginalised women across the world.
Margaret Augerinos, chief executive officer of the Centre for Non-Violence, said the experience of some women, such as those from culturally diverse backgrounds, with a disability, or who were Aboriginal, was “very different” to that of other women suffering violence.
Aboriginal women in Victoria, for example, are twice as likely to suffer violence than other women and 32 times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of family violence. As the Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention Legal Service Victoria notes, violence against Aboriginal women does not occur in a vacuum; it is amplified by poverty and racism.
A 2016 study found women and girls with disabilities are also twice as likely as their counterparts without disabilities to experience violence during their lives, and one-third suffer intimate partner violence, compared to one-quarter of women overall.
Ms Augerinos said the number of marginalised women seeking help for violence was growing each year, but it did not reflect the number of women who would be experiencing abuse.
At women’s refuge Annie North, chief executive officer Julie Oberin said many women were marginalised or disadvantaged in some way.
These women often had less supports to draw on, Ms Oberin said, and faced discrimination or disadvantage when accessing services.
Bendigo Community Health Services counselling manager Janaya Wiggins and psychologist Anne Harland agreed women from a refugee background who experienced violence could face additional hardships.
Cultural differences can mean that sometimes women do not know they can speak out about the violence they face.
Ms Wiggins said she had seen for some women that was normalised in their home country, but illegal in Australia. In some countries, Mrs Harland said, families also took on a more patriarchal structure.
Women with disabilities might also be targeted by perpetrators of violence because of their disability.
Advocacy organisation Women With Disabilities Victoria says violent men often single out women they perceive as less powerful, such as those with a physical disability or restricted ability to communicate.
Many women with disabilities, the organisation says, experience social isolation both as a risk factor for and consequence of violence, which can be aggravated for those who are living in rural areas, culturally isolated, or older.
Being marginalised or disadvantaged in some way can not only compound violence for some women, but can also make it more difficult for them to access support and achieve justice.
Ms Augerinos said women from a refugee or migrant background might not seek help because they were not familiar with the laws, or they might fear the consequences of reporting violence if they were in the country on a spousal visa.
Unfamiliarity with Australian culture, law and services is a factor Ms Wiggins and Mrs Harland have seen among clients from a refugee background.
“I think navigating the service system is always hard, and knowing where to go for help is always difficult,” Ms Wiggins said.
Mrs Harland added that for many of these women, they were also away from other family members and support people, increasing isolation.
The justice system also presents extra challenges for some women.
Loddon Campaspe Community Legal Centre lawyer Nicole Smith said the temporary closure of Kyneton Court placed pressure on Castlemaine and put the burden of distance on women wanting to file applications for intervention orders.
“For these clients the barriers are even more pronounced, particularly in relation to the court facilities which are not accessible for clients with physical disabilities,” Ms Smith said.
Access to interpreters presents a significant difficulty for women from culturally diverse backgrounds.
Ms Smith said interpreters, when available, were often only booked for half a day when court might go for a full day, and often they were not trained to an appropriate level for court interpreting.
Ms Augerinos said issues of access to services might present difficulties for some women with disabilities who were reliant upon carers to get places.
Ms Oberin said many services were also not geared for women with disabilities.
“Disability can be more than needing a wheelchair, and disability can be invisible,” she said.
“If women think the service won’t cater for them then they may stay in unsafe situations for longer or until there is further crisis.”
Aboriginal women can often feel uncomfortable accessing mainstream support services because they are not culturall safe, and historical treatment of Aboriginal people means some lack confidence in the police and judicial system.
But for all women, Ms Augerinos said, the answer to stopping violence lay in achieving gender equality.
“The more equal we are, the more respect we have between men and women,” Ms Augerinos said.
What can community do to help eliminate violence against women?
The community is called upon to play its part in eliminating violence against all women.
Ms Augerinos notes that, given its prevalence, there is a good chance everyone knows someone experiencing violence.
“I think the important thing is to be aware of what violence is and how subtle coercive violence can be,” she said.
Violence is just not physical or sexual: it includes emotional abuse, as well as threats and coercion.
Ms Augerinos advises that people who believe someone they know is experiencing violence ask open-ended questions to facilitate conversation.
She said it was also important people called out violent, abusive or misogynistic behaviour; doing so would also signal to women experiencing violence that they had support, further helping open doors to conversation.
Ms Oberin suggests people support specialist organisations like Annie North and the Centre for Non-Violence.
She said supporting potential victims of violence was also vital, as was noticing when a women was trying to talk about their concerns.
It was critical to never to blame the victim, Ms Oberin said, never excuse the perpetrator, and never justify the perpetrator’s behaviour.
“It is everyone’s responsibility to prevent violence against women and we all have a role in challenging stereotypes and myths, challenging violence-supporting beliefs, and challenging sexist behaviour and put-downs,” she said.
Family violence survivor Mia* shares her story
What does family violence mean to you? The reason I ask this question is because it means different things to everyone, but to me it means being physically hurt, emotionally put down and isolated from my family and friends by someone I loved and trusted.
The emotional abuse lasted for years, it affected the core of my being. All my self-worth, confidence and self-belief was taken away from me, day after day it dissolved. He chipped away at my sense of self and independence over time, until I felt that I was no longer worthy of love by anyone. The physical injuries healed, but the torment continued. He wouldn’t let me be a good mother to my children and his abuse towards me hurt them too. Now I wonder, how did the violence and abuse affect my three children… What did they feel and experience... They were all just babies. Some days I still see the impact now in their faces.
I was a fun-loving independent woman who just wanted to find love, settle down and have a family. I never asked to be treated like this and my family wasn’t like that. I never asked for someone who I loved, the father of my children, to put his hands on me, to leave me with long-lasting physical and emotional injuries and pain.
Many people, including friends and family asked me “Why didn’t you leave?”, after I did leave. I had tried to leave many times, why would I want to stay with someone who abuses me? I stayed to keep myself safe and to keep my family together. I didn’t know if anyone would believe me. I couldn’t believe that he could treat me like this, so how could anyone else?
People never saw him as an abuser, that’s because he behaved like everyone else in public view. People thought he was a top bloke and he was treated as a valued member of our community. This just made me feel further victimised and isolated and all I wanted people to do was listen and see what he was doing to me.
So many people didn’t understand what I was going through, they would ask… “What did you say or do to him to set him off? Perhaps he just had a little too much to drink.” So many excuses, so many reasons about why he was abusive and so much judgement of me. No one deserves to be abused, it’s not OK to do that to anyone, ever.
Many people, including friends and family asked me “Why didn’t you leave?”, after I did leave. I had tried to leave many times, why would I want to stay with someone who abuses me? I stayed to keep myself safe and to keep my family together. I didn’t know if anyone would believe me.Mia
One night we had a massive fight, well that’s what people said, it’s just a fight or an argument. But it was abuse, I was emotionally abused and physically assaulted, it had happened again. Even though I didn’t know where to go or what to do, I had to leave, I needed to get my children out of there, before he killed us all.
It was late at night, I was terrified. I had a baby in my arms, a toddler in bed and a four-year-old screaming at my feet. I was desperate for help, but couldn’t call, and I had no access to my phone or my purse, nothing.
I quickly grabbed my three children and left running out the door, with nothing except my car keys. I didn’t even know where to go. I went straight to the hospital, I was in so much pain and my children were hurting too, but I was thinking what now, what happens now?
My mind was going a million miles an hour and then it was dead silence, I couldn’t hear any noise, and everything was still. I have no idea how I arrived at the hospital and to this day I have no memory of driving there. I had to use my words, words that no one had heard before and words I had never said. I had to tell someone and it was a complete stranger that I told. How did the words come out? I’m not even sure what I said, but they could see the fear in my face.
The next I remember, there were police officers standing in front of me and they were asking questions. I’ll never forget the simple words that meant such a lot, one officer said … “You’re safe now”.
I relied on everyone around me, complete strangers to help support me through what was one of the hardest and most dangerous times of my life. It was a time that I found out that leaving him was even more dangerous than I expected…Yes, more dangerous than staying with him and thinking I could keep myself and my children safe.
Did you know that the most dangerous time for a woman and children is after they leave? That person who you loved and trusted has now lost all their control over you and they will do whatever it takes to get it back. Even saying they will kill you, rather than think about you being with someone else. I still fear that he will follow through with his threats… But luckily that hasn’t happened to me. I am no longer a victim of family violence, I am a survivor.
*Name has been changed to protect her identity
Where to seek help
In Bendigo and central Victoria, support is available from the Centre for Non-Violence, which can be reached on 5430 3000 or free call within the Bendigo area on 1800 884 292.
Bendigo and District Aboriginal Co-operative provides support to Aboriginal women experiencing family violence; the organisation’s phone number is 5442 4947.
Culturally sensitive and generalist counselling, with interpreters as needed, is available from Bendigo Community Health Services on 5430 0500.
Men looking to end their violent or abusive behaviour can call the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491.
In an emergency, call triple zero.