Helping survivors of domestic violence to break the cycle and thrive.
When Jessica* was 18 years old she met a man who swept her off her feet. He was charming and the two became inseparable.
Twelve months into their relationship, Shane* started to show signs of jealousy. He began to accuse Jessica of things she hadn’t done and tried to belittle her at every opportunity. He slowly stopped her from seeing her friends, and didn’t like her doing things with her family.
He became obsessive.
“At the time, although I hated the way he was acting, I thought it must mean he really loved me and was just trying to protect me,” Jessica recalls.
“I used to hope and believe things would get better and sometimes things seemed to be normal.”
As the years went on, the couple married and began to create a family. But Shane slowly gained control of every aspect of Jessica’s life; bank accounts, spending, friends. He would check her phone, computer history, work payslips. The birth of their first child filled Jessica’s heart with love, but it wasn’t enough to stop Shane’s behaviour.
Jessica lost the close connections she had with family and friends in an attempt to keep him happy, but the obsessive behaviour and insecurities escalated. Then it became physical.
“The first thing I remember him throwing at me was an old glass ashtray, which I managed to dodge. Other times I was not so lucky.”
Over the course of 17 years, and despite the four children they shared, Jessica was strangled, spat on, sexually abused, threatened with knives and hospitalised on several occasions as a result of Shane’s violence.
“I felt like a shell of a woman, I was scared, weak, and didn’t know if or how I could ever get out,” she says. “Eventually my dad arranged for me to meet with the domestic violence unit at my local police station, and that was when I realised there was support out there and the kids and I didn’t have to live in these conditions anymore.”
Domestic violence on the rise
More than a quarter of all Australian women have experienced violence or emotional abuse by a current or former partner. Despite continuous public awareness campaigns and horrific stories appearing in the media every other day, no gains have been made in tackling the issue of domestic violence in recent years.
According to data from the recently published Personal Safety Survey (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2016), the proportion of women experiencing sexual violence is on the rise – with the violence more than likely occurring at the hands of their partner.
“A lot of people make assumptions about domestic violence that it only happens to certain socioeconomic groups,” says Kelly Lewer from the University of Wollongong’s Faculty of Social Sciences. “Domestic violence doesn’t discriminate. It happens to educated people, people who are well off.”
Kelly is researching the motivational, social and support needs of adult learners at a tertiary level who have lived through domestic violence. Her research came about following a chance meeting with a stranger during her first year of postgraduate study at UOW.
“In my first lecture, I sat down next to a woman and as we were talking about courses and why we were doing them, she opened up to me and told me she had left a controlling and violent relationship and this was her new goal and her new adventure,” she recalls.
“Through my master’s degree, which was focused on nursing, that conversation stuck in the back of my mind. After reviewing the literature, I realised it’s an area that really isn’t well documented.”
As part of her PhD, Kelly is following the lives of nine women who have experienced domestic violence and are on their way to rebuilding their lives.
“A lot of women who have lived through domestic violence can have similar symptoms to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as a result of ongoing trauma. That’s what makes this a unique group of students, there’s a whole lot of challenges that they’re facing while they’re at university,” she says.
I felt like a shell of a woman, I was scared, weak, and didn’t know if or how I could ever get out..
I felt like a shell of a woman, I was scared, weak, and didn’t know if or how I could ever get out..Jessica, domestic violence survivor
Clinical psychologist registrar Carol Keane, who is also an academic in the Faculty of Social Sciences, has worked with a number of university students in her time as a counsellor embedded within Wollongong’s Violence Abuse and Neglect (VAN) Service.
Carol says that although many women come out of domestic violence and flourish, the university context presents a unique set of challenges. “In a uni context, when things like exam pressures come up, they are placed in heightened stress situations which can be triggering for some people,” she says.
“There’s also the power differentiation. The person may find it difficult to approach the teacher or lecturer because that’s not a learned behaviour. Depending on their trauma history, it may be that they don’t want to make a fuss, or don’t feel like they deserve to have the same input from the teacher as everyone else.
“The flip side is overachieving, trying to get everything right – in the past making mistakes likely led to serious negative repercussions, so there is that as an added pressure.”
Carol believes the most important thing for people to realise in these situations is how far they have come and how normal their stress is.
“We focus on building capacity to tolerate the distress and also putting the university stress into context, help them understand they are coping or dealing with it like everyone else. By normalising the type of stress they are dealing with, it separates the legacy of the trauma from stress that is normal and valid.”
Alongside her supervisor, Michelle Eady from UOW’s School of Education, Kelly Lewer is part of a multidisciplinary team, called Project ADVOCATE, which has been awarded funding to tackle some of the issues that have arisen through her PhD.
“We found that most of the women who are attending university had challenges in seeking support. Those who did seek support found the support inadequate and at times inappropriate in regards to privacy and understanding of the issue of domestic violence,” she says. “Our aim is to improve staff knowledge and awareness about domestic violence through an online training package.”
Project ADVOCATE will create an online professional development opportunity for university academic staff to enable better understanding of and support for students who have experienced domestic violence. Data will be collected to inform the creation and evaluation of the online resource.
Upon completion of the professional development, university staff will be provided with a certificate, digital badge, and an ‘ADVOCATE’ sticker for their office door to indicate their participation.
Domestic violence doesn’t discriminate. It happens to educated people, people who are well off.
Domestic violence doesn’t discriminate. It happens to educated people, people who are well off.Kelly Lewer
Support for White Ribbon Australia
Masters by Research student Kenton Bell, from the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, says the motivation to fight against domestic violence varies from person to person.
Throughout 2016, Kenton and research partner Claire E. Seaman conducted an independent evaluation of White Ribbon Australia’s Ambassador Program, with a view to uncovering the experiences of White Ribbon Ambassadors, what drove them to join the campaign, and how to use this to improve advocacy efforts in Australia and abroad.
“We found a range of reasons why men choose to become involved with White Ribbon, from personal experiences with abuse, to wanting to make sure their own children do not have to experience the same abuse. Other men have a stronger desire to make a difference in their community and often feel a moral obligation to get involved,” says Kenton, who is a scholar in UOW’s Global Challenges Program.
Kenton, who is also part of the Project ADVOCATE team, says his own unique experience – similar to Kelly’s – shaped his desire to make a difference in the lives of people who have been affected by domestic violence.
“I vividly remember sitting next to a young girl at a discussion on healthy relationships at my university back in the States [US]. We were listening to a panel of experts discuss domestic violence, and this young girl put her hand up and asked, ‘but what if you deserve it, what if you make him mad?” Kenton says.
“The experts gave her helpful advice, but the discussion moved on. She left quickly after and no one followed her, myself included. It was at that point I decided I needed to make a difference, or at least try.”
Kenton went on to spend two years volunteering at both a domestic violence shelter and a free legal aid agency that assisted victims to get protective orders in North Carolina. He says the exposure he gained in volunteering shaped the course of his academic career.
“It was really eye-opening and life changing at the same time.”
Kenton intends to return to the US for his PhD, which will continue his research into ways to prevent violence against women by engaging men as allies.
This young girl put her hand up and asked ‘but what if you deserve it, what if you make him mad?'
This young girl put her hand up and asked ‘but what if you deserve it, what if you make him mad?'Kenton Bell
Carol Keane, the psychologist registrar, says the unique experiences of someone who has come out of an abusive relationship can affect them when they least expect it, which makes it all the more important for university teaching staff to understand the signs and signals students may present. She explains anything can be a trigger for someone who has experienced a psychologically damaging or violent relationship.
“Loud noise, someone’s smell, a person sitting in close proximity – even if the person is safe those simple things can be a trigger.” Carol believes it’s crucial to not view people who have been through domestic violence as victims.
“They are strong, they have survived and they are moving forward, despite the legacy they carry with them,” she says. “Coming to university is rebuilding that sense of self which is a huge step forward.” As a survivor of domestic violence, Jessica’s message to other women living in fear is simple.
“You can break the cycle, you don’t have to live like that. There is a positive, happy life after separation and there is support out there,” she says. “Since seeking help, my life is so much better. It has taken a while, but I feel like I’m me again.”
*Names have been changed.
If you have or are experiencing domestic and family violence, there is help available:
- Domestic Violence Line: 1800 656 463
- Lifeline (24 hour crisis line): 131 114
- Relationships Australia: 1300 364 277
Anyone in immediate danger should call Triple Zero (000).