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Home, Where the Hurt is
By: Kathleen Noonan
You can’t find them with an internet search, in the phone book or by following signs. From the outside, they are blandly, defiantly boring.
The whole point is to disappear. This is the secret world of what are called women’s refuges, but they are more often than not filled with children too. They turn up, with mum, holding maybe one grabbed favourite toy, and often no toothbrush, no school uniforms.
Refuge staff say it takes children months to realise they are in a place where they can make a noise and no one will explode.
Protecting women and children can be tricky business. Last month, a woman was abducted at gunpoint from a domestic violence shelter in Darwin, after a man blasted his way in. He is then believed to have killed himself. The Darwin Magistrates Court heard that, days before the attack, the man threatened the woman by putting a gun in her mouth. Often violent partners vow to stop at nothing to “get” their girlfriend or wife back. It is about control. Some even employ private detectives.
Knowing this, Queensland’s refuge network works in great secrecy, with speed and urgency. They know when women ring after years of abuse it has taken a mountain of courage to pick up the phone.
The more you learn about domestic violence, the more you shake your head in disbelief.
DV Connect, with RSPCA, set up a pets-in-crisis program because many women and children won’t leave because they fear for their pets.
And here’s the kicker. A domestic violence expert in Queensland says it is easier to raise money from the public for caring for pets from abusive homes, than women and children.
Suburban shelters are little lights in the awful dark underbelly of Australian society.
Federal MP Malcolm Turnbull, speaking at a fundraising function for homeless women in Brisbane last week, said domestic violence was one of the unspeakable things in society, the things that make most people feel uncomfortable. Yet, that is exactly why we have to confront it.
DV Connect in Queensland works out of an embarrassingly tiny office in the Brisbane CBD. Yet, the women’s helpline alone speaks with 1000 women each month from all over Queensland and the Torres Strait.
Refuge workers are a pretty unshockable mob, yet the growth in intergenerational violence stuns them. They see elderly women who have been abused by their husband, sons, then grandsons or granddaughters. They see a teenager who cries when, for his birthday in the shelter, they produce a cake. Someone asks why. “I’ve never had a birthday cake before.” His stepdad wouldn’t allow it.
It is not easy to contemplate leaving when your partner controls all the money, phone, bank accounts, every social connection and has seized the children’s passports and birth certificates. Through my involvement in Second Chance, a committee that raises money for homeless women and children, I was permitted to interview women who had fled abusive homes:
Amanda married her first boyfriend, who used violence, intimidation and vicious put-downs to dominate her for the next decade. “He didn’t like me having friends. I haven’t had friends since uni.” I inanely ask if the violence stopped when she was pregnant. “He hit, raped and sodomised me right through all my pregnancies.” Hearing that was like all the oxygen had been sucked from the room. Her nine-year-old son became suicidal. Imagine that.
US soldier poet Brian Turner told me he named his Iraq poem The Hurt Locker, from which came the 2008 film, because in combat the sustained violence, fear and pressure means you are “living in a real bad place emotionally, full of pain and hurt”. Listening to these stories, it is obvious, for many women, home is The Other Hurt Locker. Women are killed by a current or former partner at the rate of nearly one a week in this country. Domestic violence occurs in a quarter to a third of all intimate relationships, heterosexual as well as same-sex, women and, in some cases, men.
I’ll tell you something about the women. Given a way out, they grabbed it with both hands. Some stay at refuges for months while workers tap them into legal assistance, medical help, counselling, Centrelink, new schools. This holistic support is the key. These women know how insidious violence is, how it seeps something toxic through generations.
“I know my dad was bashed by his mum,” says Julie, who fled an abusive partner. “But that’s no excuse. Someone’s got to say, `This is bullshit. Enough’.” Pointing to her sons, a couple of gorgeous blond blurs of fun running around her backyard, she says: “I’m raising them as little gentlemen.”
The names of all women have been changed to protect them.
Swing into Spring, Victoria Park Golf Club, Friday, will raise money for homeless women and children. See secondchanceprogramme.com.au. Access 24-hour help at DV Connect. See dvconnect.org or phone women’s helpline 1800 811 811 or men’s helpline 1800 600 636.