The following post states a situation that no one should be in and have to endure and although, in this instance, it is in Australia, could it not be anywhere. No one should be subjected to any form of abuse, but if they are, the so called ‘respected authorities’ should be there to help and save them from this continued abuse.
On my first day of kindergarten in the early 1970s I stood outside the little wooden school building with my satchel over my back and a desperate desire to get into the classroom where there were books, and maths puzzles, and an orange story chair. Outside, a boy with red hair clung, sobbing, to a pillar, while his mother tried to peel him off. Puzzled, I watched him. Why would anyone be frightened of school? What could be more frightening than home?
Home was the dark shadow of my father, the thud of his punches, or him throwing my mother across the room. Home was my teenage sisters, shouting out their defence against him, or sobbing in their room. Home was my brother, not yet out of infants school, clinging to my mother’s leg, trying to protect her while my father peeled him off, flicking him across the kitchen with a single kick. And home was the desperate desire to be the one to make him laugh, to have his attention turned to me, to be his favourite, his one.
Like many violent men, he was a charmer, my father.
My mother stayed with my father for 22 years. For 20 of those years he repeatedly hit, kicked, pushed and pummelled her. Two of my bright and capable sisters didn’t see out high school. Desperate to escape, they left home as soon as they were legally able.
Why did she stay? As a teenager, I spat at her weakness: I would never allow a man to treat me like this. I would never. Why did she stay?
And each time, she gave this answer: there was nowhere to go.
Before the 1975 Family Law Act, divorce could be granted for adultery but not for violence. Before the Supporting Mothers Benefit of 1973, women with young children could not be guaranteed of a means to live once they left their husbands. And before Elsie – the first women’s shelter – was established in 1974, women like my mother had nowhere to go.
In recent months, the beleaguered Abbott government has made many disastrous decisions. Among them, the decision to cut funding to women’s shelters. Withtwo women a week being killed by male partners and ex-partners, I can’t believe I have to spell it out, but it seems I do: women need somewhere safe to go when they leave.
In a period of decreasing homicides generally, the number of women killed by male partners or ex-partners has increased. In the last six weeks alone, 13 women have been killed by their male partners. Last week Q&A hosted a discussion on male violence against women, making the mistake of overloading the panel with male speakers. The conversation about male violence, though, is not just about who speaks. It’s about who should listen.
But it’s also about asking the right questions. The question my teenage self repeatedly posed to my mother – why did you stay? – was the wrong question, to the wrong person. I never, once, asked my father why he was violent or if he wanted to change. No one did.
When British novelist Jill Dawson wrote a piece in the Guardian about her own experience of her partner’s violence, she said that it was the other people’s response that allowed her to see the violence for what it was. Peer pressure, she said, in particular condemnation by other men, as well legal repercussions, has been shown to create a change in the perpetrator’s behaviour. Rosie Batty echoed this on Q&A, speaking about the importance of “men holding other men accountable.”
According to No To Violence, the male family violence prevention association, recent studies have shown that male behaviour change programs (MBCP) are highly effective. In these programs, it’s clear who does the listening.
My father was a policeman. When my mother went to the police, she was told they could do nothing. When she went to family friends, she was told to keep quiet. When she went to the church, she was told to stay in her marriage.
In that first year of my escape into the world of school, my mother escaped into the world of work. As an enrolled nurse she found that perhaps she wasn’t as useless as she had come to believe; she found a community of women who laughed loudly, who listened and did not say “stay”. And she often treated other women, who came to Casualty with broken bones, or bloodied jaws, or battered backs. The world changed: by the mid-70s divorce rates were up. The conversation had changed, women felt able to leave. At the end of my first year of school, we pulled down the Christmas tree and loaded up a moving van. I spent three weeks sobbing for my father: he of the power and the charm and the wit.
As as an 80s’ teenager, I held tight to the line from L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between:
The past is another country, they do things differently there.
It was incomprehensible to me then that the country of the past meant that my mother had no place to go, no one to listen, no means of support. Five children, 22 years. That’s a lot of bruises. I was certain that for girls and women of my generation it would be different.
But that dark country of the past now feels not so far away. That country where women had nowhere to go is here, now. I can feel it creeping up again; can hear the voices telling us to hush up, to settle down, to get back in our boxes. But we won’t. We won’t stop talking. We can’t go back.’